Making Students’ Work Relevant Through Personalized Learning

12/12/2017 10:15 am ET

By Brian Bordieri

My education experience before college might feel common to many students: I saw it as a waste of my precious time. I went to a great high school with an awesome community, great teachers, and a rigorous traditional curriculum that interested me, slightly. I learned best with my grandfather out on the farm, discussing machinery, the environment, and the Second World War in which he fought.

I became a teacher because I didn’t enjoy fixed learning and I wanted to change the experience for my students. I wanted them to have relationships with their learning, I wanted them to feel as though their time was worth more than learning recycled facts that had little to do with their actual future, and I wanted them to feel like their voices were worth something more than a possible commodity for the future. Today, I am privileged to educate in an environment where the focus is teaching to the individual student.  The guiding mission of my school is “One student at a time.” Each student has a learning plan that we develop collaboratively and the result is a student-centered learning experience.

My students’ work is relevant, rigorous, and authentic, and what makes it all work is the fact that I have a cohort of 16 kids and I keep them for all four years of high school.  The relationships that this approach fosters have allowed many students who may have dropped out or struggled otherwise in traditional environments to become successful. When a student comes to me and says that they don’t like to read, I have the liberty to alter their curriculum with them to find a text that excites them. Students read at a higher level when they have a connection to high-interest material. Here is the evidence that we are on the right path in my students’ own words:

The best experience is just being accepted, I transferred from a public school with no individuality where I was struggling socially and academically. To have an advisory, a family that cares about you and your interests was truly the greatest feeling one could have at school.

Before I transferred I had just stayed back a grade and was seriously considering dropping out. The Met changed everything, from my attitude to my interests. At previous school I never would have rediscovered my passion for animals, or had an opportunity to work with them and educate others. It’s safe to say that The Met turned my life around, I will always be grateful.

Designing my own projects definitely made my learning better because it was my own. Having a schoolwork assigned is different than actually coming up with a project and process on your own and doing it because you want to. When I wanted to do a blood drive I made sure I knew everything there was to know about the process. I went above and beyond in every project because it was mine; it was something that made me feel independent.

So how can we bridge the gap between small school culture and the traditional large school model? I believe that large schools need to be broken up into smaller groups of learners so that teachers have a chance to know their students.  You cannot personalize a learning plan if you do not know who you are teaching.  Teaching teams should never be so large that the whole team cannot come to one physical table and discuss how to solve the problems facing the student or the school.  And curriculum needs to change from a model focused on covering what is on the test to one that has flexibility for students to find meaning in their learning so that they will retain the essential skills.  

Most of all, teachers need PD and resources.  Personalized learning is like the improv exercise ‘Yes, and…’ where the student drives the inquiry and you are not allowed to say ‘no’, you have to go with it, find the learning goal, and trust the process.  It can be scary to let the student drive, but they will arrive at their chosen destination. After all, isn’t that why are we doing this work?

Brian Bordieri is a 9th-12th grade advisor at the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center in Providence, RI. He is a Teach Plus Rhode Island Teaching Policy Fellow.

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