The Rearview and the Road Ahead: Telling the Story of My Inquiry

Moving from Personalized Projects to Personalized Learning Experiences

This was the central theme of my year’s work as part of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education’s Learning Lab. A full academic year of exploring, experimenting, failing, and revising models for “moving from personalized projects to personalized learning experiences”. This was my thesis. And it’s funny, I don’t even love the wording. I think it’s kind of clunky. However, the resulting work and my pedagogical growth have been phenomenal.

Learning Lab has worked as both a coach and a forum for innovating learning structures. I’ve enjoyed every minute of the conversations, learnings, and gains made throughout the experience. When taking risks it helps to have echo chambers cheering on your efforts as well as constructive feedback loops designed to push your practice. I’ve been evolving my pedagogy significantly over the past few years, but never has it been bolstered as effectively. These elements of Learning Lab in particular had a significant impact:

  • Periodic blog posts pushing me to reflect, consider, and plan
  • Carol Tomlinson’s workshop on personalization & differentiation
  • Consultations with our Learning Lab facilitators
  • Site visits and the entailed insight via observation & discussion
  • Cast party overnights for some face-to-face collaboration

For a brief overview of my Learning Lab experience this year check out the reflective video posted below. This blog post is designed to provide more context and resources, while digging deeper into where I’ve been this year and where I’d like to go with personalized learning.

A Year in Retrospect

Personalized learning can be many things. The thesis of my Learning Lab experience this year is defined in a graphic I created called “Three Levels of Practicable Structures for Personalized Learning“. The visual is designed to capture the experience of students in my class (and on my middle level team) as they’ve engaged in multiple types of personalized learning. Here’s some context:

Student Voice & Choice:

Over the last few years I’ve moved closer and closer to what I feel is a student-centered approach to education. The amount of teacher-led instruction has gone down significantly in conjunction with a huge decrease (now almost non-existence) in curriculum that is designed solely by the teacher. Allison Zmuda has used the metaphor of a soundboard of teacher-to-student design that captures this concept:

In short, students are the ones doing the planning for my class and the ones doing the talking in it. There’s no “stand and deliver” from the teacher. No lectures. No calling on students to answer questions. None of the boring stuff. It’s awesome, and it’s not going to change. In general this represents the “Student Voice & Choice” section of my visual. The learning is project-based. Students can be creative. The learning outcomes are flexible. The engagement is high. The Center for Collaborative Education captured this idea in a quick video about my class last spring:

Personal Interest Projects:

On a systems level, Shelburne Community School has been undertaking some seriously positive – and seriously challenging – changes regarding PLPs this year. We fully embraced the increasingly popular and engaging project-based PLP model with what we’ve called PIPs (Personal Interest Projects). These PIPs have created wide-open, completely student-driven learning experiences. It’s been fantastic. As a leadership team member I’m proud to have been a part of this progressive step at SCS.

With ownership comes engagement in learning. You couldn’t find a better model of this than Personal Interest Projects. Students worked to set goals, create action steps, and reflect along their journey through a learning experience based on their own curiosities or passions. With “Fall Mini-PIPs” and “Big PIPs 2018“, students had two completely personalized projects to dig into this year.

The culminating event was a PIP Exhibition at Shelburne Community School in late May. This converted our school building into a gallery of student learning where the doors were open to the community. The evidence of engaging learning and the authentic audience at the PIP Exhibition provided a strong endorsement for this model of personalized learning. We intend to continue making PIPs a central experience for middle level students at SCS.

Totally Personalized Independent Fridays:

PIPs became foundational to my Learning Lab. They’re completely personalized and student-centered. They represent the very edge of Zmuda’s ‘student-generated’ soundboard. Through the year, however, I continued searching for a middle ground. I wanted something in between the personalized projects already happening in my classroom, and PIPs, which are totally student-driven, but not inherently connected to content-based, classroom learning.

It wasn’t until later in the year that I developed my “Three Levels…” visual. I didn’t originally intend to dissect the concept of personalized learning into tiers. But Learning Lab was, if nothing else, a constant and positive nudge toward innovation; perfect for pushing me to fill my perceived void between voice & choice in classroom projects and PIPs. Through exploration, discussion, and idea-sharing I realized that the perfect fit for this middle ground that I’d been looking for came in the form of Genius Hour.

A Yohaku Moment and Building a Plane

It happened on a weekend morning. I was struck with sudden and profound inspiration after a period of incubation – a “yohaku” moment – on a frigid November Sunday. After a late-morning jog I was stretching, looking out over Lake Champlain, and had an idea to get students driving their own learning experience within the context of my social studies class.

Genius Hour.

I’d heard about it. Seen things about it happening in schools, both local and abroad. While standing there breathing the late Autumn air in deep contemplation, I started to conceive how it might work. My sweat turned to frost so I jogged back to my apartment, cleaned up, and immediately started drafting my thoughts. This became a constructive blog post, from which I developed TPIF (Totally Personalized Independent Fridays).

Through that holiday season I started to build. Using A.J. Juliani’s guide to the Genius Hour model, I organized some of the big-picture pieces of TPIF. Refining and gluing those pieces together was where the Student Planning Committee was crucial. As has been the norm over the last two years, the SPC members who meet with me on a weekly basis provided constructive ideas and insight. They took TPIF from being a concept to a reality. Not only that, but when we were finally ready to launch TPIF in January it was SPC members who presented the introductory slideshow to their peers.

Students leading the class and introducing the learning? Now that’s a great way to hook the audience.

As it mentions at the end of the introductory slideshow: this new Genius Hour concept tasked us – the students and teacher; the learning community – with real-time, trial-and-error experimentation with our curriculum. Healthy risk-taking. Learning by doing. We were building the plane while flying it.

The Rearview and the Road Ahead

To teach effectively is to constantly revise one’s practice. How can you not? With social, cultural, and behavioral norms ceaselessly shifting and evolving, how could a stagnant pedagogy possibly suit the needs of learners? Here’s a reflective 10,000-foot view of my Learning Lab components (the “Three Levels…”) this year:

  • PIPs rule! The only things that need changing are the systems-level supports. Keep students designing their own learning with a doors-blown-open “go big” approach.
  • Personalized projects including student voice & choice are awesome. There’s a reason that SPC members always design project-based learning experiences (rather than prescribing essays or tests as a product of learning). Keep them in place and keep students at the design table for what we do in class.
  • TPIF (our social studies Genius Hour model) needs work. 6th & 7th grade students liked the concept and, in some cases, were more successful with TPIF than with PIPs (a bit more structure meant an easier starting point). 8th grade dropped TPIF completely, feeling like it stepped on the toes of PIPs.

Zooming in, there are so many causes for celebration from this year of growth. Starting with classroom visits: it’s a crime how seldom educators observe other classrooms. Not just between school districts or towns, but within buildings or even within teams. At SCS I could cite a few of the coherent structures that unite our three middle level teams, but I’d be hard-pressed to articulate what practices make each team or classroom autonomously functional and unique. So it was a pleasure to be part of a network of cross-pollinating teachers looking to observe, share, and learn from each other.

Hosting Visits:

Through the months of November, December, and January we had a steady (almost weekly) stream of visiting teachers and students. Ranging from schools just down the road to international visitors from Denmark, my classroom at times felt, indeed, like a laboratory.

This was a good thing.

The students never second-guessed why they were being observed. In fact, they took on an empowered confidence as being ambassadors of successful, personalized learning. And they were excited to meet and chat with our slew of visitors. Students were observed digging into personalized projects, launching T.P.I.F., or engaging in Student Planning Committee meetings. This quick video from a visit in November captures part of the experience:

What Was Great:

It rings true so I’ll write it again: with ownership comes engagement in learning. Personalization is the bedrock of successful education. Who wants to simply be along for the ride as a student? And how could that possibly lead to deep learning? Being told what to do can, in some contexts, be easier but it certainly doesn’t produce personalized, engaging learning.

Here is a smattering of examples of learning projects or products from my classroom this year under the framework of the “Three Levels of Personalized Learning”:

Personalized Projects (Voice & Choice):


  • Learn about the evolution of horses
  • Explain why Russia is so big
  • Create a mini Mars colony
  • Design a digital tour of Ireland
  • Build a model the Saturn V rocket
  • Learn about the history of the Olympic games
  • Make a movie about the Great Molasses Flood of 1919
  • Create a virtual trivia/tour of all 50 U.S. states

Personal Interest Projects (PIPs):

  • Writing a graphic novel
  • Making a marble maze out of cardboard
  • Learning to play the ukulele
  • Small engine repair with a lawnmower
  • Cook homemade mozzarella sticks
  • Learn and use sign language to recite a poem
  • Converting a Barbie car into a solar-powered, motarized vehicle
  • Designing a tiny house with 3D sketching software
  • Knitting a winter hat

What Needs Work:

Implementing all three levels of personalization creates a constellation of learning experiences for students. Even with great planning it can still feel like a juggling act. After this year of experimentation I feel like I have a handle on how to empower students as architects of their learning. However, I need to continue exploring how best to balance things.

Even after a successful year of healthy risk-taking, I still couldn’t answer the question: What’s the perfect balance of these types of personalized learning?

Or, for that matter, the question: How much personalized learning is too much?

Even nine months ago I would have scoffed at someone asking me the latter; I didn’t think there could be a limit to how much personalization can be in a classroom.

My opinion has changed. At least a little, anyway.

An example of students feeling overwhelmed with personalized learning: 8th graders and T.P.I.F. this year. Things started well enough, but by late January and into February my 8th grade students started to push back. They felt overwhelmed and dispassionate about T.P.I.F. In particular, they expressed that T.P.I.F. had paled in comparison to PIPs. They also felt preoccupied by an 8th-grade-only structure at Shelburne Community School called Arts & Citizenship (essentially a chance to work in the community or design service-learning or art-based projects every week). Through two negotiated-curriculum-style class discussions we decided to step back from T.P.I.F.

While I was disappointed that the Genius Hour model hadn’t worked for that 8th grade group, I was happy to oblige them. I couldn’t imagine forging ahead with a plan or project that students aren’t invested in. That would be a waste of our collective time together. I also wasn’t completely disillusioned: T.P.I.F. was going strong with 6th and 7th graders; both in the quality of work and enthusiasm for the learning model.

So that was it: a clear indication that these three levels of personalized learning can, indeed, butt heads. Something to learn from. Something to build from.

Looking Ahead:

Over the past few years I’ve developed a perspective on personalized learning. I’d seen it in action, I’d found success with it in class, and I was a firm believer in its crucial role in education. I’ve become an outspoken advocate of personalized learning.

Next year, I know that I’ll be launching with a much more evolved perception of personalization. It all centers on the reason that I developed the “Three Levels of Personalized Learning…” visual. My target audience is that of educators either new to, or looking to evolve their craft with, personalization. I want to use the successes I’ve found to spark ideas, encourage healthy risk-taking, and bolster the network of student-centered educators working to engage students in meaningful learning. The “why” at the core of this year’s exploration of personalization (Simon Sinek always tends to show up in my pedagogical or philosophical work) is as follows:

Personalized Learning Isn’t Just One Thing

It’s not just PLPs. It’s not just student voice & choice. It’s not just Genius Hour, passion projects, or PIPs. Personalized learning encompasses all of these, and probably more. For educators who are new to the idea, they should know that there isn’t just one way to make personalized learning happen. For those whose pedagogy already incorporates it, they should be encouraged to explore their own intersection points and boundaries of personalized learning.

Finally, in terms of looking ahead, I want to build on an idea from Carol Tomlinson’s workshop that I attended this past Fall started for me: where do personalization and differentiation come together? And, just as important, where are they disparate? Personalized learning and differentiated learning are both paramount for successful education. They’re also different things.

Here’s a brave truth that I’m willing to share – a conclusion I’ve reached this year: I personalize the heck out of my classroom, but I don’t differentiate enough or in an informed, effective way.

It sounds like the perfect focus for an action research project. Something that will allow me to learn, experiment, fail, revise, and improve. With a built-in support system to encourage my learning. With coaching, tracking, and reflecting on my progress. Something that personalizes my own professional development. Something like Learning Lab.

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