Personalizing Learning to Make it Relevant, Challenging and Appropriate in an Urban Setting

Topics: Education Policy, ESSA

Guest post by Alexis Chambers

Learn three ways Alexis Chambers “fell” into personalized learning and made learning relevant, challenging and appropriate for students in an urban setting. When I started teaching, I felt in over my head, as I think many new teachers do. I reacted the best I could, worked hard and, without knowing it, personalized learning for my students in a way that made learning relevant to them.

For the past two years I taught ninth grade Modern World History in Cincinnati, Ohio. My entire school qualified for free and reduced lunch, we had a large population of immigrant students and just about 97% of my students were Black. My students were intelligent, charismatic and full of personality. Being their teacher for the past two years has been one of the most important experiences in my life, and I am forever grateful for all they taught me. We weren’t without our challenges, though. Despite the beauty in my students, some of them faced really harsh realities.

I knew I needed to take the time to get to know my students and their needs, I knew that I wanted them to succeed. I also knew simply teaching from the book and handing out a worksheet wasn’t going to cut it. So instead I used technology and videos, had socratic seminars to debate topics and used stations activities to increase student interaction. I didn’t know that the strategies I had employed to foster engagement in my classroom were techniques that align with personalized learning. But now, through my fellowship at KnowledgeWorks, I’m learning that they were. And quite frankly, I think many teachers already personalize learning without realizing it.

Here are three ways I “fell” into personalized learning and made learning relevant, challenging and appropriate for my students in an urban setting.

Culturally-relevant lessons

My students didn’t look like the people we studied in our world history class and, for the most part, they didn’t come from the places we studied. The material, as outlined by the required district pacing guide, wasn’t culturally relevant to them. They would constantly ask me “When are we going to learn some Black history?” My students were telling me exactly what they needed to stay in engaged in their learning; they needed to learn about their own culture and history.

When we studied World War II, I made sure to explicitly add in a study of Black history. We learned about the Double V Campaign and the ways in which Black soldiers fought for our country abroad and for their freedoms back home. We still followed the pacing guide, because it was required, but students learned through the lens of their own identities.

In another history class, students studied gentrification in downtown Cincinnati, a neighborhood in which many students were born and raised. Students then compared the displacement of long-time residents in downtown Cincinnati to the displacement of native peoples in North America. The projects were amazing, and the insight the students had about the causes and effects of the displacements were so profound. It reminded me of just how brilliant my students can be when they’re really engaged in what they’re learning.

Multiple ways to demonstrate mastery

For a lot of my students, it didn’t feel fair that the only way to show mastery of a standard was to pass one test at the end of the unit. As someone who experienced testing anxiety as a student, I knew I needed to offer other options for my students. Luckily, I love projects and think they fit so well with history content.

Moving to a student-centered approach of demonstrating mastery through projects got my students moving in the classroom and engaged with their  learning. I would pose a question, the “essential question,” to the class, give some guidance and then ask my students to create either an essay, video, gallery or other creative production to show mastery. This increased rigor in the classroom and kept my kids engaged. It wasn’t always easy, and it took a lot of work on the front end, but the kids and I enjoyed our content more this way. We did projects in almost every unit, and in most units, the final project also served as the summative assessment.

Providing students an opportunity to demonstrate what they learned in multiple ways created a more well-rounded, personalized learning experience.

Supportive classroom culture for students and families

My own learning experience was very different from my students. I needed to find ways to bridge that cultural divide and create a classroom culture that was supportive of my students. If I had tried to apply the same teaching tactics that I experienced as a student while teaching myself, things would have been disastrous. Our environments just weren’t the same.

For example, when I was in high school, the rule was no food in class – not even chewing gum. If I didn’t allow food in my classroom as a teacher, many of my students wouldn’t be able to focus. Many of my students came to school to eat. This was where they had a guaranteed breakfast and lunch.

Another adjustment I had to make was related to the way that I communicated with parents. Many of my parents weren’t able to come to parent teacher conferences; the time didn’t coordinate with their work schedules. Conferences were typically from 3 to 6 pm, prime hours for people to be at work. A lot of parents didn’t show up, but not because they didn’t want to but because they couldn’t. I knew that I needed to update my parents about their child’s progress, so we started texting back and forth. I would text them to either set up another date and time, or I would do the conference over text. I had to step out of my own comfort zone, but in the end, it was all for the benefit of my students.

Creating an equitable learning environment with personalized learning

It’s funny to me now because in many ways these three things sound like good teaching tactics, and in a sense, they are. Assessing the needs of your students and ensuring that they have access to great learning, no matter what, is good teaching. Creating an environment that celebrates student identity everyday is good teaching. Finding creative ways to incorporate families into the classroom culture is good teaching.

I’m proud that I was able to personalize learning for my students and make learning exciting. But that was to some extent a happy accident. How many students don’t get to have the same experiences? How many teachers don’t develop teaching tactics like I did? What about all of the things that, had I known better, I could have done better? I would love to see some sort of platform through which teachers are learning from each other and from their students about how to personalize learning even more.

My questions for other teachers: How have you “fallen” into personalized learning? What strategies have you used to engage your students in a personalized way?