Personalization: From Projects to Learning Experiences

I had a “yohaku moment” today. Simply put that means “white space“; contemplative time, which generates insight and creativity. Yohaku is a valuable part of finding success in anything you do, but we don’t necessarily value this process in western society. I only recently learned about the power of yohaku in a section from Diane Dreher’s The Tao of Personal Leadership. Here’s a not-well-copied clip from a pdf of chapter 5:

So I’ve been grappling with the driving question for my focus in the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education’s Learning Lab project. The question is how can we build from personalized projects to personalized learning experiences? Personalized projects (PIPs) are already happening on the Winton House. We launched them in September, the “Fall Mini-PIPs” were really great, and we’re excited to continue developing them. But to some extent PIPs feel separate from what students experience as learners in middle school. Throughout most of their day students receive teacher-designed and teacher-led curriculum. There aren’t many opportunities to explore or have inquiry or curiosity drive the experience. The freedom and creativity inherent in PIPs now leave something to be desired during regular class time. Students are asking new and profound questions. “What kinds of choices do we get in this unit?” “When do we get to learn about the stuff I’m interested in?”

We’ve created monsters. Amazing, empowered, curious monsters who crave personalized learning experiences; learning on their terms. I say let’s oblige them.

Back to my yohaku moment. I want to build on the momentum that PIPs have created. I also want to build on the level of voice and choice that students already have in my classroom. Yes, having student-planning committees to design and develop curriculum is working beautifully. Yes, giving students creative freedom and interpretation with our unit projects continues to spark engagement and enthusiasm. But is voice and choice within a structured unit the same thing as a personalized learning experience? I’m not sure. I think that Vermont is still working to determine just what is meant by “personalization”. Currently I’m thrilled to be host to a classroom full of students who are aware and willing to experiment and explore possibilities of what learning can be. So here it goes…

The idea:

Starting in my social studies class I want to get students constructing their own learning experience. I’m pulling, in part, from the Vermont History Day (as part of National History Day) model. Broadly speaking, this entails providing a general prompt and leaving it wide open to interpretation. This also provides students with a range of options for their response. Most importantly, this doesn’t nest the learning under particular themes or content topics. While it’s effective and powerful to have 8th graders using the historical avatar model to connect to WWII and the Holocaust, I also want to blow the doors off of teacher-selected content being the vehicle for developing skills and providing choice.

Here are some rough structural elements:

  • Launch in January, 2018
  • Provide students with prompt that challenges them to use historic or modern examples to showcase the central theme of the prompt. Some ideas include:
    • Conflict
    • Change for the Better
    • Solving Problems/Finding Solutions
    • Food as Culture
  • Provide structures. There are numerous frameworks that can help shape the research and objectives process for students. These might include:
  • Provide time. I’m thinking Fridays; all period, every week.
  • Provide resources. This is where technology, our library resources, and the inquiry/exploration process take over.
  • Determine outcomes. This will be a fun process. With students in the conversation, I’d like to develop how to create a gallery/showcase for a range of projects. These might include:
    • Videos/music/performances
    • Artifacts/replicas/models
    • Posters/tri-folds/maps
  • Invite an audience (TBD).

Name idea (because, you know, middle school teachers love to give things cheesy names):

  • Totally Personalized Independent Fridays (T.P.I.F.)

As great as this yohaku moment was, I’m certainly not charting unknown territory with this T.P.I.F. model. Over the four weeks between Thanksgiving and holiday break I have the opportunity to both pitch this idea to students, develop it, and find similar models to build from.

And I’m excited to do so. I’m already fantasizing about students cheering “T.G.I.T.P.I.F.!”

…that’s “thanks goodness it’s totally personalized independent Fridays!”

Too much? Yeah, that’s too much.

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