The other highlight of my week was having the opportunity to sit down with Andrew Easton, the host of the Westside Personalized Podcast, and talk about the work I do with Learner Profiles and co-teaching in a Personalized Learning classroom. The topic of personalization vs. individualization came up and that's something I really haven't thought deeply about for a few years - not since Shannon Maki and I did a full staff development around this chart a few years ago. At the time, the term personalized learning was new to our staff and we needed to provided some PD around the use of the words, personalization, differentiation and individualization.
Special education teachers are masters of individualization and differentiation but where does personalization fit into the equation? Mike Mohammad, my co-teacher, and I re-evaluate where our classroom is headed often to make sure we aren't slipping into legacy practices...which are comfortable. I heard a speaker last summer ask the question, "how many of you are masters at a practice you don't really believe in?" The speaker was referring to inclusive practices so not exactly this context of personalized learning but I think the question is still relevant. We provide a lot of choice in assessment options that challenge learners to connect learning to interests, talents and aspirations. We put students at a starting point with content and let them decide what direction they want to go and make them responsible for identifying their needs (to which we respond). We make reflection a valued part of our class and set aside time for students to reflect on their learning.
So, where do my skills as a special education teacher fit into all of this?
Recently, our students began their passion project, which will end up being the "final exam" grade for the term. They can pick anything, it doesn't even have to relate to physics because we are looking at the process they take, not so much what their topic is. One day a week is going to be devoted to this project. There are three learners in the class who fall into the category of, "alternate curriculum." I'll be honest, a lot gets individualized for them. When the class is reflecting, this group is also reflecting but is provided sentence stems and word banks. They have also chosen the option to voice record their reflections (actually, any learner in the class could do this but they don't). Back to the passion project...My three learners who, several years ago, would have been in self-contained classrooms all day, embraced this passion project. They had no problems coming up with something they wanted to learn more about. As a teacher, I totally lucked out when two of the three picked making cookies from scratch (they mostly just have experience with frozen cookie dough and I say lucked out because the number of IEP/transition goals/objectives I'm going to be able to hit is astounding) and the third picked learning more about the baritone and woodwind instruments. I bounced between the three of them and guided their thinking to help them determine what the learning goals are going to be and what the end product was going to look like so they could start planning a map to get there. The learner who identified the music project had his mind blown when I shared with him an app on the iPad that will help him analyze decibels and then started a conversation about sound waves. In general, I feel pretty good about how learner driven everything was to this point.
This last week, the class had to do research on their topic using databases. This is where I stepped in and did a lot of individualization. To be frank, it doesn't matter if I have a way create an audio option for any articles found, they aren't going to be appropriately leveled for these learners. For these learners to be independent with their work the reading levels need to be at the elementary level. Otherwise, an adult is reading out loud, paraphrasing and honestly just telling them what they need to know. There's too much on the shoulders of the teacher and leaves the learner with very little responsibility. To combat this, I use resources like Newsela and ReadWorks.org to find articles and then assign them to students. The student logs in and often can even listen to the article. I provide some guided inquiry questions and they responded. Again, I do the searches and learners read what I find for them. Sounds a lot like a legacy classroom. The reality is, it would take an unreasonable amount of time to have the learners do the searches. This activity was completed on a day I was out of the classroom and I was thrilled to see that they did it independently. Huge win. Based on the emails I received from the learners, they were clearly engaged and started to ask new questions that can be weaved into their project.
I'm truly excited to see where these projects take these learners. They are actively designing what they want to learn about and I'm on the side making sure the route is accessible.
Stepping back and really thinking about personalized learning again, I think that my role as a special education teacher is to make sure the path the student wants to take is accessible. My role is not to tell them what they need to learn but making sure what they want to learn is available to them. We still have an obligation to make sure learning is accessible to ALL learners through UDL principles. That might mean spending time differentiating and individualizing but making sure our starting point is driven by the learner.