Personalized Learning for Students AND Teachers JOURNEYS

By Sonia Caus Gleason / March 14, 2014

During the darkest days of working on school turnaround, or coaching coaches who do this work, I quietly wondered whether improvement is possible. On the day where the principal orchestrates subs coming in to facilitate team meetings to look at data, and the coach calls in sick, and the literacy specialist is called out for an emergency, and only the resisters are attending the third grade meeting, and the fifth grade teacher starts crying during their team meeting because the stress of improvement is getting the best of her, and maybe someone finds a bullet lying in the lobby, with no information on how it got there…  On that unusual but very real kind of day, I wonder if there is anything at all that can get better.

On other days, the professional learning calendar falls into place, and most people are poised to learn leaving their egos at the door, and there are specific instruction suggestions at the ready that can help teachers make improvements the very next day. In the earlier stages of turnaround, those days offer hope, and yet they still seem fragile. They are not the norm.

Searching for what we believed lived beyond our imaginations, my colleague Nancy Gerzon and I went on a quest. We went looking for high-poverty, high achieving schools that had narrowed the achievement gap across all subgroups, and were personalizing learning for every student. Beyond clearing the AYP (adequate yearly progress) hurdles, these schools would be working systematically to help every student build on natural talents and interests, and overcome their weak spots. Studying four schools—one in Los Angeles, one in Dallas, one in Eastern Tennessee, and one in northern Vermont—we sought to learn what made this achievement possible. These achievements are chronicled in our book, Growing into Equity: Professional Learning and Personalization in High-Achieving Schools.

resource1320-209x300.gifIn these schools, we found what was possible when Title I schools worked doggedly over time, believing that every single child could experience success and pleasure in learning, and certain that the community of educators responsible for them could facilitate it. There were no shortcuts. One clear and consistent point: in schools that were personalizing learning for students, the teacher learning was also personalized. There was time for teachers to learn what they needed to about reaching particular students: their strengths, their interests, their weaknesses. Teachers had structures that helped them support one another so that no one was isolated in their sense of responsibility for learning. Instead, teachers did not just have to think about “their” students, but all teachers were expected to help, and help think about, unique learning needs. This professional learning was built into the school day. There was regular time to bring questions to a group of colleagues to help solve, time for short-cycle data review to track on improvements and plan next steps, and time for learning new content and strategies that could improve the teaching craft. Team-based professional learning, combined with some one-on-one supports and faculty wide learning experiences, created a culture of continuing adult learning that fueled continuous improvement of student learning.

Schools like these can feel like they are a far cry from the turnaround schools that are just starting out. This is why accounts from communities at different stages of transforming school practice and culture are critical. It is important to share signs of progress along the way; images of practice that give us mental models for what the future can hold and offer practical advice and encouragement. One of the Journeys Project schools, Carl Sandburg Middle School in Freeport, Illinois, is forging the path to personalized learning. Their story speaks to a district that is setting the stage for a sea change in schools, and a middle school whose short-cycle data reviews have started to inform instruction in serious and powerful ways. They reveal how they are becoming more sturdy and sure-footed on the path of reform.

 

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