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What Personalized Learning Can Do – According to a Tenth Grader

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Silver Anderson is a tenth grade student who is composing music as part of her school day, thanks to the flexibility of a personalized learning environment.

“Working at my own pace helps me achieve my goals because I have total control of the material and the time available to me,” said Anderson. “If I’m struggling with a class, I can focus specifically on that class for a day and go through the other classes at a faster pace. I also can adjust my pace and go a little faster to make time for work I want to complete – such as some of my composition homework.”

Anderson is a student at Jaguar Academy, which allows eighth through tenth grade students at Northern Cass School District 97 in Hunter, North Dakota, to work at their own pace, supported by their teachers, technology and an individualized learning plan. When Anderson became interested in composing music for her English class – something that told the story of the balcony scene in Romeo & Juliet – she approached her band teacher, Sarah Reichel, for help.

“I’m the fifth through twelfth grade band teacher, which makes coordinating time with students a little difficult,” admitted Reichel. “But the nice thing about the Jaguar Academy is that she had this flexibility of time.”

Reichel and Anderson worked together to arrange for Anderson to get half a credit each semester through an independent study, where she works on her compositions as well as studies one of Reichel’s college textbooks on music theory. Reichel has seen what Anderson has learned influencing her understanding of music as a flute player, and Anderson credits her teacher with inspiring her to keep going.

“She was the one who really pushed my music writing to levels I never thought I’d get to,” said Anderson. “I absolutely love writing music like this – it’s a way for me to express my emotions and experiences through sound, and it’s pretty much magical for me. It’s important for me to have time during school for this because I’m learning things about music theory that I could never teach myself, and it’s a super fun break between my online classes and other classwork. A couple of my main future career ideas are to compose for a living or be a music teacher, so this class is setting a foundation for music I otherwise couldn’t get.”

For Reichel, deeper learning is what happens when students have the opportunity at a young age to connect what they’re learning with what they love.

“It’s given her this sense of autonomy and freedom, where she can pick and choose where she wants to put her effort,” said Reichel. “In terms of music writing, it’s opened up this pathway that maybe she didn’t think was possible. We’re still using a textbook, a curriculum, but she’s taking those ideas and applying it to her own stuff. I’m giving her the tools and being a resource for her, but she’s applying those things; she’s choosing what direction she wants to go.”

As part of her independent study, Anderson recently completed a piece she composed around one of her favorite books, Illuminae. Reichel encouraged Anderson to compose something that identified each character in the book and watched as the piece evolved into three movements as Anderson worked through it.

“It’s been a huge undertaking,” said Reichel. “This whole process, she has realized and learned a lot about what musicians at the high school level are really capable of doing, to find that balance in her writing. She’s being more mindful as a performer herself about maybe needing to scale back.”

Anderson and Reichel hope to see the school band perform one of Anderson’s pieces in the future, but in the meantime Anderson is excited to try something new.

“I want to learn about unique and intriguing ways to utilize music to tell a story. I’m really inspired by emotion,” said Anderson. “I base a lot of my compositions on emotions I’ve felt pretty strongly before. One of my goals with music itself is to help the listener feel a fragment of what I feel. I hope that my story can help people realize what personalized learning can do.”

While a junior at Lindsay Unified School District in Lindsay, California, Ikonkar Kaur Khalsa was able to take advantage of the flexibility offered by her school’s competency-based learning model to pursue her passions while also staying on top of her studies.