More Than Checking Boxes: Personalized Learning at Saluda Trail Middle School

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When Becky Funderburk thinks about her school’s move toward personalized learning, she recalls the questions they asked themselves three years ago when they began this journey.

“Why do we have these boxes we check in school?” Funderburk, an instructional coach with Saluda Trail STEAM Middle School in the Rock Hill School District in Rock Hill, South Carolina, asked. “What if students are ready, or not ready, to move on? How do we meet every student’s needs and STEAM-mindedness qualities, which include communication and perseverance? How can we support each other and prepare our teachers to make the shift to personalized learning?”

Funderburk and her peers began their work with a book study, exploring Caitlin Tucker’s work on blending learning and how they could use the district’s one-to-one technology intentionally as a tool to extend and support educators in the classroom. Teachers have been encouraged to use enrichment time each morning within the first few weeks of school to help familiarize their students, as well, with the mindset shift that’s required to truly personalize learning, helping them to develop student agency and take ownership of the process.

“We’re always reminding our teachers that this is a shift for them but it’s also a shift for students,” said Funderburk of their use of the enrichment time. “If students have been in traditional classrooms, they’re used to someone telling them what to do instead of giving them a choice. We do learning surveys and interest inventories, helping teachers learn what the students need and helping students discover what they like. For some teachers it feels like it takes too much time away from the content, but it pays off in the long run.”

Funderburk cites the school’s culture of failing forward, and celebrating every small step, as vital to their efforts to transform learning.

“Teachers know this is a work in progress,” Funderburk said. “We’re not asking them to make this huge shift overnight, but our students also can’t wait for us to get comfortable.”

At the bottom of a weekly newsletter from Saluda Trail’s principal, Elissa Cox, there are shout-outs for observations of blending learning, and teachers are recognized on the school’s social media, as well. When Funderburk visits classrooms, she makes sure teachers know she isn’t always coming in to observe or coach: she’s there to celebrate what they’re doing.

In the coming year, Funderburk hopes to work with leadership to identify and group teachers based on where they are in their implementation of personalized learning, developing goals and sharing transparent next steps so that each educator knows where they are and where they’re headed – the same sort of attention Saluda Trail Middle School is supporting their teachers in paying to students.

“Personalized learning isn’t a sapackage you can just open up and do,” said Funderburk. “This process is not box-checking. It’s about doing the best thing for our students. When a building comes to terms with the fact that we’re not doing what’s right for children and there’s a better way, your actions start to change.”