How to Make Learning Personal In Your Classroom
I recently came across a comment on LinkedIn, a tirade really, about personalized learning. I thought to myself, "personalized learning? Of all things!" What could possibly be wrong with that? Personalized learning is what I have done, or thought I was doing, with my students for a decade, learning about their interests, their personal challenges in and outside of school, learning about their strengths and building off of those, planning deep and meaningful projects that reflect every inch of their individuality.
I spent some time trying to discern this mystifying LinkedIn comment, but was unsuccessful. I found what I expected to find; a variety of definitions, all with the same basic idea, that personalized learning is instruction designed around the unique needs of every individual learner. I also discovered that several terms appear to be used interchangeably including individualized learning and differentiated learning. Differentiated learning is not the same as my perceived definition of personalized learning at the time, by the way. I'll get to that in another post.
I moved on. I chalked it up as a comment from an individual that was either completely misled somewhere along the line or that we just fundamentally disagreed about the value of personalized learning. Then I came across an article written by Alfie Kohn. Not a recent one! It was written in 2015. This article finally uncovered the logic behind the comment. Personal learning is what I do. Personalized learning has taken on new meaning while I've been sitting here in the dark.
Four Reasons to Worry About Personalized Learning by Alfie Kohn
Personalized learning, according to Alfie Kohn, is the customization of learning FOR students by rather than BY the students themselves. Personal Learning, Inc. is software (for-profit) that analyzes student test scores to then produce a "personalized" set of basic-skills drills with the intention of improving test scores. This my friend, is NOT what I do. I now fully understand the sentiment behind the LinkedIn diatribe, and with this new frame of reference, completely agreed with it.
What I do is PERSONAL learning. What then is personal learning and how can you do it with your own students?
What is Personal Learning?
Personal learning is the facilitation of deep, meaningful, and authentic learning experiences designed around the unique interests, backgrounds, skill levels, goals, strengths, weaknesses, personalities, and so on of EACH student. The teacher/facilitator builds a relationship with every learner and enhances learning by creating an environment that reflects and celebrates the unique attributes of each child.
"Everyone is genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid." Albert Einstein is commonly given credit for saying this, but I've read he didn't actually say it. Regardless of who said it, there is truth in it. Obviously a fish climbing or being able to grasp the concept of its own intelligence is hyperbole. But there are parallels to children, and the point remains - not all children are the same and shouldn't be treated as such, especially when it comes to their education. To cast an umbrella over all of your students, to expect all 5 year olds to be able to read at the same time, for example, is nonsense.
Every student walks into your classroom each day with a unique set of challenges, levels of energy, reading or writing abilities, amount of sleep they had the night before, personal traumas, learning styles, etc., than their peer sitting next to them.
Those differences matter. They matter when it comes to learning. You may get irritated when one of your 15-year-old students falls asleep during your lecture on transcription and translation, but they are kids, and what inspires one may not inspire another. It's not a personal attack on you, but it is personal for them. They may not have an interest in the topic. They may be hands-on learners. They may simply be exhausted from football practice the night before, then to work from there to help support their family, and home to finish up school assignments.
There is a lot to take into consideration here when you're talking about deep learning experiences. This student might do what she's told, get the grades, get into a good college, but did she learn anything? Was it meaningful? Is she leaving school with a passion for learning? Not likely. Making learning personal leads to real, deep, authentic learning that will carry with them through college and their careers. This is what I want for my own children and my students.
So how do you make learning personal for 30 students? The same way you would make learning personal for 1 student, such as a homeschool scenario. By building relationships with your students and moving to a student-directed, teacher-facilitated model.
How Do I Make Learning Personal?
1) Build Meaningful Relationships With Your Students:
The photo below is me working with a student on her student-directed, interest-driven project. Every element of her project was designed with her interests, goals, strengths, weaknesses, etc. in mind. She is dissecting several marine organisms. Her interests and career goals at the time revolved around marine biology.
In the past our students have completed personal learning plans in Powerpoint format. The photos below illustrate a few of the slides. The students then hang onto this personal learning plan and revisit it with their teachers often. Below is a snapshot of an old personal learning plan created by Jennings Community School. I have my own version of a PLP that is included in my PBL bundle mentioned above.
You are likely wondering when in the world you're going to have time for all of this in addition to teaching content. A personal learning plan meeting with each kid, multiple times per session? Yikes. This is a valid concern. You will do this with student-directed learning. Hear me out!
2) Organize Learning Experiences That Are Personal In Nature:
Make learning personal by organizing and facilitating learning activities that give students voice and choice; student-directed learning in other words. Student-directed project-based-learning is a wonderful tool for making learning personal. There are many points in the PBL process where students have choice. Students can design their own projects based on their interests. If you don't have the flexibility to allow students to choose their own topics, students can still design the rest of their projects.
For example, if you need to cover the topic of photosynthesis, students can still choose how they will gather information, how they will demonstrate learning, and what authentic audience they will share it with. One student may want to work on tech literacy, so may choose to demonstrate learning by creating an animation. Another student might prefer to work with their hands, so chooses to demonstrate learning by creating a moving model.
All of my project-based learning resources in my TpT store are designed to give students choice while still providing structure. My project-based learning bundle and instruction manual is a great way to start student-directed project-based learning. This bundle also includes my personal learning plan. You could also try out my PBL Tool Kit if you have specific topics you would like to create projects around.
You are the facilitator of student-directed learning activities, not the director. You are guiding, offering feedback, providing community connections, etc. This gives you the freedom to work the room, talk with students independently, have PLP meetings, and even have that organic, casual dialogue with individuals or small groups of students. By cutting down on lecture and lesson planning, you free up time to build relationships with students and create learning plans that best suit the interests, needs, and goals of each child.
Alfie Kohn said "If the child is off-task...maybe the child isn't the problem...,maybe it's the task." Transitioning from a didactic pedagogy to student-led personal learning wouldn't be an easy transition. Change is hard. But with the right tools, support, and determination, you can do it, and it will be worth the time and energy. You will start to see some of those "behavioral issues" disappear that likely stem from boredom and confusion. You will have students that have lost their love of learning somewhere along the way find that passion again.
Thanks for stopping by. If you ever decide to make learning personal in your classroom through student-directed learning, I'd love to hear from you. How did it go? What have been some challenges? What has gone well?
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on project-based learning and experiential education.
A few weeks ago I received a private message from a follower on Instagram asking me where she could find my project-based learning resource, "Plan a Trip Around the World". I knew that she homeschooled her preschooler. This particular TpT resource, like all of my resources, is geared toward high schoolers. My follower was confused, understandably, because the cover photo of this product is a picture of my toddler daughter observing a massive globe, not a teenager. I messaged her back to tell her that the product as is wouldn't be a good resource for a preschooler, but could be modified to work for younger audiences by simply changing the language and level of guidance. I would make it my personal mission to adapt it to work for a 5-year-old. And I did. I knew it could be done because it's project-based learning, and PBL works for everyone!
Every learner is their own person. I have found project-based learning to not only be the most effective way to accommodate for the unique qualities of every child, age and skill level included, but to celebrate those unique qualities.
(scroll to the bottom to check out my preschoolers trip around the world.)
Who Can Benefit From Project-Based Learning?
The beauty of project-based learning is that it's not designed for or exclusive to any particular learner. I often get comments about my resources and how wonderful they would be for the "gifted and talented". I don't doubt that, but they are certainly not limited to "gifted and talented" students.
Project-based learning ALSO works for learners that are behind because of personal setbacks along the road. It works well for learners in large classrooms and small, in traditional and alternative learning environments, for those learning from home, and for those outschooling, unschooling, and worldschooling! Project-based learning works for the young, the old, the artistic, the scientific, English language learners, the introverts, the extroverts, the kinesthetic, the visual, the dreamers and idealists, the concrete thinkers, the abstract thinkers, those that have experienced trauma, and so on and so on. This is true when the projects are student-directed; when learners have choice.
How Does Project-Based Learning Accommodate All Learners?
When I say project-based learning "works for" all learners, what I mean is that project-based learning effectively promotes deeper learning of content, independent thinking, and the development of 21st-century skills for all. The result of project-based learning is passionate, lifelong learners. All children have access to the same learning opportunities. The difference is in how each student develops the skills and knowledge. Learning experiences, or projects in this case, are designed by each individual student to accommodate their unique needs and qualities.
This is how it works:
Project-based learning, when child-directed, allows learners to design projects around their interests, learning styles, skill levels, strengths, goals, and more. The elements of project-based learning include a driving question, research sub-categories or questions, the use of community experts, an innovative final product, and authentic presentations. Some project-based instructors also have their students create their own rubrics (see my student-generated rubric and criteria word bank).
Each of these elements presents a new opportunity for student choice. Each student can choose their experts, their research method, their final product, and who they will share it with. If one student prefers hands-on learning experiences, for example, they may gather information on their topic through interviews and shadowing experiences. Another student may really like to read, so may research their topic by perusing publications. One student may love to draw and may choose to demonstrate knowledge by illustrating a children's book. Another student may have set a goal of improving their writing, so may choose to demonstrate an understanding of the same concept by writing a research paper.
The elements of project-based learning make adapting and modifying curriculum to fit the needs of each unique learner seamless. As a bonus, the learning experiences are fun for the students because the students have a role in creating those experiences.
***I highly recommend going back through posts from my project-based learning series to learn more about PBL if you haven't already or are not that familiar with how it works.
How Do I Implement Authentic, Student-Directed PBL?
My advisory students do something similar to "passion projects" throughout the year - independent, student-directed, project-based learning. Each student determines their own project topic based on interests, they choose their own experts, decide their outcomes, and many even design their own assessments.
This type of project-based learning is useful and common in homeschool environments, project-based schools, advisory programs, alternative schools, elementary classrooms, and even large traditional learning environments where educators are given the support and flexibility to be creative with their teaching.
How Do I Implement PBL in a Subject-Specific Learning Environment?
I also teach subject-specific seminars, which are also project-based. That type of project-based learning would be facilitated by educators that teach subject units, such as a high school history or biology teacher. To accommodate all learners in this scenario, where you have specific topics and learning objectives in mind, you present the topic or driving question, and your students design their own projects around that theme. They would have choice in some or all of the other PBL elements - how to gather information, which experts to use, how they will demonstrate learning, and who they will share their final product with.
Some teachers will deliver "project-based learning" in a way that doesn't give students choice. The teacher chooses the experts and makes all of the arrangements. The teacher assigns a specific final product, such as a research paper, to ALL students. This is technically still project-based learning, but this approach does not accommodate the needs of diverse learners. It also puts a lot on you. Student-directed PBL takes all learners into consideration. Without student choice, project-based learning is just more teacher-centered pedagogy, which is fine if you're not interested in modifying curriculum to fit the needs of all students. I assume you are interested in that, however, if you're reading this post.
Trip Around the World Project by C.S. (5-year-old)
As I said earlier, I have a follower who was hoping one of my high school resources would work well for her preschooler - planning a trip around the world. By adjusting the expectations, modifying the level of guidance, and offering the 5-year-old choice (in this case my son), this mission was accomplished! Check it out:
The first strip of photos below shows my 5-year-old son doing a modified version of my "Plan a Trip Around the World" PBL project. The photo strip below that one is the same project, the one in my TpT store, completed by older students.
My child gained so much from this project. The project integrated content, helped my child develop essential skills appropriate for him at this time in his life, gave him voice and choice, and pumped him up because the project was designed around his unique needs and interests.
For student-directed project-based learning resources, check out my TpT store, 25% on all products today only. If you are a beginner, start with my PBL Bundle and Implementation Guide. For templates that guide through the student-directed project-based learning process on ANY topic, check out my Project-Based Learning Tool Kit.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on project-based learning and experiential education.
I almost failed out of my freshman year of college. I struggled to stay afloat academically, with grades that nearly put me on academic probation. I did well in high school, so why were the same efforts inadequate in college? I studied for my college exams, wrote the papers, prepared for debates. I did everything I thought I was supposed to do. Something was amiss, and I wasn't sure what that thing was.
One day I got a test back from my conservation bio teacher, one that I was certain I aced. This class WAS my major after all. I failed the test miserably. But why? I studied all night for this test. I went to talk with my professor about my score. She told me that I would never make it in the field of biology if I didn't change my approach. My answers to the questions on her test were not what she was looking for. She wanted me to be able to show her that I understood the material by applying the concepts to real-world situations. I needed the skills to be able to look deeper than theory alone, and apply theory to real conservation issues. It wasn't enough to memorize facts and regurgitate them on a test. I needed to know the content, as well as be able to problem solve in an unpredictable environment, to think critically and creatively, to be able to locate information when the answer wasn't right in front of me, and be able to adjust my thinking when thrown a bogie, because that is the reality of this career and life in general.
I developed some of the skills I needed as I went through college and was thus able to pull myself out of my college rut. I did this through trial and error, a lot of hard work, mentorships with professors, asking a lot of questions, reading books about my field outside of the required readings, and taking on independent studies and research experiences that were not required for my degree. I had to seek out these learning opportunities, they weren't handed to me, which is an important skill in itself. I resented my college professor for a long time for suggesting that I might not make it in the field of conservation. Now I thank her. She changed my path and my life in the best possible way.
My story is almost 20 years old, and it still applies. Today more than ever, in fact, in a rapidly evolving world where information is readily accessible, skills are as essential as content, arguably more. Twenty first century learners need a combination of content knowledge and skills. People often ask if my students, experiential learners, go off to succeed in college and their careers. The answer is a resounding yes, because our curriculum is heavily skills focused. They problem-solve their way through tough college assignments and exams. They are resourceful and observant. They know how to identify problems, brainstorm solutions, and find information. They know HOW to learn. They have developed the skills to persevere through the realities of college, their careers, and their lives in general.
The skills I am referring to are often called soft skills, the 4 C's, 21st-century skills, or at my school, transformational outcomes. These transformational outcomes are at the forefront of our mission, teaching philosophy, and even every activity. The good news is that there are a lot of learning activities that organically foster skill development. You can also make those "skills" part of your daily lexicon. Give these skills whatever term you desire, 21st-century skills, for example, and bring attention to them often, before every activity, in the goal-making process, throughout learning experiences, and at the reflection and assessment phase. Create learning activities AROUND the skills, and the content knowledge will naturally follow.
For more details on the benefits and value of 21st-century skill building, check out some past posts by clicking the "21st-Century Skills" category to your right.
How to Add 21st-Century Skills to Your Curriculum
Bring skill-building to light right from the start. Educators can and should make goals part of the process for any learning activity. My project-based learning resources, particularly my Tool Kit and PBL bundle, include goal writing in the project-development phase. Encourage students to create at least one goal per activity that is skills-based.
Ex: I will work on communication and collaboration skills by contacting at least one community expert for this project to shadow or interview.
2) Learning Experiences:
Growing in 21st-century skills is far less likely to occur as a result of lecture, worksheets, packets, and other teacher-centered learning activities. I talked with a parent the other day that defended worksheets with repetitive math problems. He said, “well it’s practice right?” My answer was that that depends on what it is he would like his son practicing? What he would be practicing is rote memorization, a strategy that might result in the "correct" answers, but not necessarily an understanding of the concepts. Rote memorization is unnecessary and ineffective if deep learning is dominant objective.
There is a plethora of teaching methods and learning activities out there that emphasize content AND promote 21st-century skill building, an ideal combination of outcomes. You don't need to choose content or skill building. Take them both on by trying some of these tactics.
My TpT store is loaded with resources that promote 21st-century skill building through student-directed, experiential learning. These resources are designed to make sense in any learning environment - the classroom, at home, in your backyard, or traveling around the globe.
Work 21st-century skills into any assessment. Rubrics are great assessment tools that can include relevant skills as an assessment category such as public speaking, use of new tech, creativity, etc. My generic project-based learning rubric includes skills categories as well as content. My student-generated project-based rubric leaves room for self-directed learners to add their own assessment criteria. Students would consider their goals made in the design phase of the project as a category in their self-generated rubric.
Reflecting is an essential part of the experiential learning process. If students are making goals about 21st-century skills, those goals aren’t relevant unless they’re revisited and reflected upon. Include reflection opportunities in as many learning experiences as you can, experiential or not. All of my resources have a reflection piece.
There are many ways to build 21st-century skills. Life in itself is the best learning tool, which is clear from my personal story above. Because I wasn’t given the opportunities in high school to build these important transformational skills, I had to figure out how to so on my own. Give learners an advantage, a head start, by making 21st-century skill building the norm in your curriculum. Help students build the skills they need to succeed in their academic, career, and personal lives as they relate to the 21st-century. This is not the same world that it was 100, 50, or even 20 years ago. Give them the tools to adapt as the world continues to evolve.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on project-based learning and experiential education.
Misconceptions about Experiential Learning
I talk about experiential learning a lot in my life. It's in the name of my blog and my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot. I consider "experiential educator" to be my job title and path of focus. "Experiential learning" is strongly built into my daily lexicon and philosophy of education. I get a lot of inquiries about experiential learning and how it can be worked into curriculum, especially in a traditional learning environment. The good news is that it's a great learning tool for people of all learning environments, backgrounds, skill levels, and interests, and it's fairly easy to implement if you know the essential components. There isn't really any bad news other than there are some misunderstandings floating around about what it is and who can benefit from it.
The Instagram hashtag, #experientiallearning, is loaded with photos of company team- building retreats, groups hiking, traveling, or digging around in the dirt. One common misconception is that experiential learning has to happen outdoors. Experiential learning activities can be outdoors, but certainly don't have to be. Taking students outside on a sunny spring day for lecture and worksheets is not experiential learning. An indoor open inquiry activity would be more experiential than passive learning activities taken outdoors.
I worked at an experiential high school for almost 10 years. Although we had a travel program and provided daily authentic experiences for students, 90% of my time was spent in the building, in my classroom. Don't use the fact that you're confined to your classroom as an excuse for not providing experiential learning opportunities to your learners. If you're a homeschooler, you have no excuses! ;)
I very recently discovered that a common use of the term experiential learning is in association with corporate team building activities. Experiential learning in the world of education is not this. Any educator, from any learning environment can do experiential learning with students.
So let's iron out experiential learning, what it is exactly, and how your students can do experiential learning starting today, beyond the walls of a classroom AND within a classroom.
Components of Experiential Learning
1. Students are actively involved:
Students should be actively, not passively, learning throughout the activity at hand. Experiential learning IS NOT lecture. It is NOT prescribed worksheets or even prescribed activities such as a science lab that includes a recipe to follow. Just because the activity gets learners out of their chairs or even out of the building doesn't mean they are involved in the concepts.
Getting involved requires inquiry on the part of the student, that learners ask questions that challenge prior thinking or explain unexpected results, develop solutions to real-world issues, and embrace failure and enthusiastically go back to the drawing board. Learning activities should be authentic and largely, if not entirely, student-led.
2. Students have the freedom and support to make mistakes, and outright fail at times:
Part of learning through experience is gaining skills and knowledge throughout the entire process. Allowing students to feel they can fail, revise, and try again takes off some pressure and encourages learners to strive to improve. This is an important competency for lifelong learners. STEM, STEAM, and maker education, among others, are experiential learning activities that support this line of thinking. All of these activities can be implemented in any learning environment, inside and out, home or in a classroom, in a traditional setting and alternative setting.
Check out some of my PBL maker challenges for an experiential learning resource that welcomes mistakes, failure, and trial and error.
3. The experience is personalized:
An activity is experiential when it's meaningful to each individual student. The activity should meet the diverse need, backgrounds, interests, goals, and skill levels of each student.
Student-led project-based learning encompasses every element of experiential learning when implemented correctly, but it's also the easiest way to make learning personalized in my opinion. Check out past posts on project-based learning here if you missed them. If you want to incorporate experiential learning into your curriculum, especially if you are confined to a classroom, project-based learning is a great place to start. Check out some of my PBL resources here.
If you're just starting out, I recommend my PBL Bundle and Implementation guide. If you're ready to dive right into student-directed PBL, I would recommend my PBL Tool Kit.
4. Students see a connection between content and the real world:
Connecting an activity with real-world context helps students find meaning and purpose in what they're doing. The brain needs real-life connections to retain information. They need to see how what their learning applies to life. That doesn't mean students need to swim with sharks to learn about shark conservation, but they might get involved in the real-world issue of overexploitation and poaching of sharks by working with marine scientists to develop solutions. These are authentic experiences that not only help students learn about sharks as they relate to real-world issues, but they help learners develop the skills that are pertinent to life in the 21st-century.
Problem-based learning is a fantastic experiential learning activity that fosters real-world connections, critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving and more. It can also be done beyond the walls of the classroom, in the community, or right in the classroom. Check out some of my problem-based learning resources for more info.
5. Students can see purpose in the activity:
Students should know why they're doing what they're doing. If students see their final score or grade as the sole purpose of the activity then something is missing. With purpose comes intrinsic motivation to learn. This element of experiential learning ties in well with the others. Personalization and involvement as already mentioned, along with student-directed learning and reflection mentioned below, organically engender purpose and meaning.
6. The experience is student-directed:
Students should have control and investment in their learning. Any experiential learning activity should be student-driven or at a minimum, student-centered. Student-directed learning gives students choice in topic, process, and outcome. Check out my student-directed learning series for more info.
All of the resources in my TpT store are student-directed. Most of them are project-based, but there are also inquiry-based learning activities, maker projects, problem-based learning, and loads of freebies.
John Dewey said, "We do not learn from experience...we learn from reflecting on experience." Without reflection, everything said up to this point is moot. Students need ample opportunity to look back at their successes and failures, which there will be a lot of in experiential learning. They should analyze their work, not just the final outcome, but the entire learning process. It encourages acceptance of constructive feedback and continuous self-improvement throughout life.
Bonus: Use the community as a resource:
Community outreach is a huge plus when it comes to experiential learning. It might mean bringing students out of the classroom to utilize a community resource, or inviting community experts into your classroom. You could bring community members in as speakers, helpers, or teachers. Utilizing community experts in an important part of project-based learning, making the experience authentic, but I think it enhances ANY learning experience and shouldn't be limited to PBL.
Experiential Learning in the Classroom and Beyond
Now take a hands-on activity that you like to do with your students. Do the above elements fit in with the experience? If they don't it's not exactly experiential learning, and you may not be getting the outcome or understanding of the content that you're hoping for.
Go through the checklist with a favorite activity to see if it's experiential. If it's not, consider modifying the lesson to make it experiential. The outcome is learners that have a lifelong passion for learning and actually understand and absorb the content.
I hope a solid takeaway from this post is that experiential learning is not exclusive to outdoor education programs. I'm a huge advocate for outdoor learning experiences. Getting out and getting involved in the local community, removing oneself from the conveniences of urban living and experiencing the natural world, traveling to places outside of one's comfort zone, are all powerful learning experiences. But if you are teaching in an environment that deems those experiences unlikely or even impossible (I know there are many of you), you can and should still grant experiential learning opportunities to your learners.
Start with any student-directed learning activity. All of my resources are child-led and are designed in a way that makes implementation seamless. Personalization, authentic/real-world connections, purpose, student choice, and reflections are all a part of each experience.
Good luck to you as you launch into the new school year!
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on project-based learning and experiential education.
Hey all! I will be holding a storewide "back to school" sale at my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot, on August 6th and 7th. Everything in my store will be 20% off. Take advantage of this sale to get a deal on my student-directed learning resources (project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, maker education, freebies and more). Snag my tool kits and project-based learning bundle to start the year off right! All of my products are student-directed, which makes them low-prep by nature. There is a lot to be said for student-directed learning. If you're not sure what that entails, click on the "student-directed learning" category to your right and peruse through some of my posts.
I recently added a few items to my store that are worth checking out, especially science teachers! I've spent the past year developing generic, student-directed resources that can be used in any learning environment, but have focused more of my energy lately on student-centered life science curriculum.
Note: Most of my product are geared toward high school students.
Enjoy the rest of the summer and I hope for an inspiring, exciting, and productive learning year ahead.
If you follow my blog you know my philosophy by now. Every topic I discuss here from student-directed learning to learning through travel leads back to one goal - that all of my students have a passion for learning. My dream as an educator is that all learners LOVE to learn. Janie Scheffer is on that mission with her own students, to ignite a passion for reading and writing specifically. She does this with conferring. Check it out.
Janie is a former classroom teacher and current freelance writer in Minnesota. She has taught in various classrooms K-12. Her love for all things reading and writing encouraged her to pursue a master’s degree in literacy. When she is not reading or writing, you can find her sipping coffee, enjoying the outdoors with her husband, or taking her sweet puppy Mabel Jo for a walk.
Conferring Creates Conversation, Collaboration, and Camaraderie
Would you like to better connect with your students as unique readers and writers? Do you feel the demand of state standards and numerical data collection pressing down on your shoulders? Do you wonder how to manage it while still fostering a love for reading and writing within your classroom?
You’re not alone. I’ve been there. The summer of 2017 I was grappling with my literacy instruction in my first grade classroom. For three years previous, I had continuously refined my practices and felt as though I had a pretty good grip on my guided reading groups and writer’s workshop. Collectively, mini lessons fueled by learning targets, independent practice at each student’s level, and literacy materials that supported the needs of my students proved to be overall effective. In many ways, my literacy instruction was shaping into what I had imagined – targeted literacy instruction for each student, driven by data collection.
Yet, I knew something was missing. Sure, as a class we enjoyed stories together and wrote stories together. We discussed authors that we liked and tried writing like them. But I had to face the harsh reality that most of my energy and focus revolved around helping my students meet the following: 80 words correct per minute benchmark, achieve sufficient comprehension levels, write across the pages in narrative, opinion, and informational formats, and so forth. Data meetings provided beneficial focus and analyzation of each of my readers and writers, propelling me forward in meeting the needs of my students even more. The scale, though, had tipped. My classroom instruction was out of balance. The demands of literacy benchmarks overpowered what I wanted to be the true heartbeat of my literacy classroom: a genuine love for reading and writing.
Thankfully, during the summer of 2017 I was approaching my final semester of graduate school and was needing to hone in on a final action research project and paper. My predicament with my literacy instruction provided the answer for my wondering of what to research and pursue. I quickly came across the work of Patrick Allen and Lucy Calkins, experts on literacy conferring. Their books opened up a whole new perspective for me and literally shaped my action research and current literacy instruction:
Patrick Allen – Conferring with Readers
Lucy Calkins – Conferring with Writers
The practice of conferring, I believed, would bring back the JOY of reading and writing in my classroom, through human connection. At the basis of conferring, a teacher sits with one student at a time during reader’s and writer’s workshop to engage in a student led conversation about the student’s reading or writing.
Patrick Allen states: “Sitting next to a child while you confer guarantees that those few minutes will begin and end with the child.” This resonated with me immediately. I wanted my interactions regarding literacy with my students to revolve around them, NOT how they measured up against certain benchmarks.
I was over the moon to find out how systematic conferring is. Raise your hand if you’re a type A personality like me? Most teachers are, let’s be honest! Systematic, in that the teacher plans these short student led conversations weekly, and so conferring becomes a routine for the teacher and the students. Even more, because this is a systematic practice, conferring becomes a powerful tool within a classroom community.
Lucy Calkins argues: “Conferring can give us the force that makes our minilessons and curriculum development and assessment and everything else more powerful. It gives us an endless resource of teacher wisdom, an endless source of accountability, a system of checks and balances. And, it gives us laughter and human connection – the understanding of our children that gives spirit to our teaching.” BINGO. Human connection and spirit to my teaching was lacking as I solely chased numerical data. I knew I had to give this conferring a fair shake.
As the new school year approached, I excitedly planned for my conferring action research in my first grade classroom. The following was my initial focus for implementation:
Human connection paved the way for authentic learning and growing. Through conversation, collaboration, and camaraderie, I was able to connect more meaningfully with my students than ever before.
It didn’t take long before a simple “What are you reading/writing today?” sparked the 5-10 minute conference. As the teacher, I was careful to ensure that the student’s voice commanded each conversation. And, I’ll be honest, this was easier with some students than others. But what I found was patience and allowing ‘think time’ communicated to the student that I’m not pushing, this is not a high-stress situation, and I’m here whenever the student is ready. For a few of my students, it took until December for them to embrace conferring, especially leading the conversation.
With my more reluctant learners, the collaboration aspect of conferring was key. Again, driven by casual conversation, conferring should be a low-risk situation for all students. Therefore, when I talked about conferring with my students, I presented myself as the ‘coach’ coming alongside them. Often, I’d say things like “We are a team when we confer!” just so that the idea that I’m an evaluator within the conference diminished.
And finally, camaraderie was established. By spring of 2018, there was a level of trust and rapport with each of my students that I had never achieved before. With camaraderie, our 5-10 minute conversations evolved into deeper learning. Students were choosing to share with me incredible nuggets of information that got at the heart of why they were the readers/writers and even humans that they were. While getting a clear understanding of who they were as readers and writers, I also got glimpses into their hearts as humans. Priceless.
Which brings me to my last point… data collection. It took me a while to determine my data collection methods during conferring. And truthfully, I was overwhelmed to think about another collection of data. But all those incredible nuggets of information practically wrote themselves down, as important as they were, I found that data collection was easy – yes EASY! – because it didn’t revolve around numerical data or word lists or timed tests. In fact, I came up with a simple electronic record on my iPad that allowed me to quickly type up the data at the closing of each reading/writing conference. See below for a snapshot of it:
The overarching theme of my conferring data was the reading and writing behaviors of my students. In other words, I now had a living document of what my students DO as readers and writers. Knowing their habits, their strengths and areas for improvement, and their processing/thinking while reading and writing was so beneficial. In reviewing my data collection, I was able to provide one TP (teaching point) for individualized instruction for each conference. Often, the TP would align with the reading/writing learning target of that day or week, but not always. And that is the true advantage of conferring; there is flexibility and opportunity for you as the teacher to determine what’s important for the student you are sitting alongside on that particular day.
I’m going to leave you with words from Patrick Allen that I can confirm are true:
“Coming to know conferring has been a journey, but when you spend time and intention on an instructional practice, the benefits are well worth the effort.”
If you’re feeling stuck, weighed down, and ready for the LOVE of reading and writing to ignite within your classroom, I’d say start with conferring. Don’t just dabble, commit. It will prove to be worthy of your time and your students' time. It is NOT 'just another thing to do' on our never ending ‘To Do’ lists as teachers. YOU CAN DO IT. Happy conferring!
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.