November 27, 2020

Prioritizing Investigation and Choice in Student Learning

While I am definitely a learner in personalized learning, my revelation this week has been that we should “lean away” from unit design and lesson plan design that involves one master planner and “lean into” design that feels less structured, packaged, or “perfect” in its appearance. I am beginning to truly believe that if we intentionally only show our students the “bones” of our unit plans, rubrics, and lessons, we can more effectively invite students into the work with us in the classroom. I first began exploring this in my last blog, “The Deliberate Messes We Should Make More Often,” and today I find myself reflecting on ways this philosophy for personalized learning has guided my most recent instruction.

Previous Unit Planning: The last unit design I formally created contained essential questions, skills, and standards all within formal headings, with mostly one piece of literature at its core, and several supplemental pieces also offered. Standards were listed, set activities were planned, and the assessment offered some degree of student-choice.

My Most Recent Unit Plan with Personalized Learning (Voice and Co-Creation): This unit map is a mind map with the essential question appearing in large text in the middle. From the essential question, blue and red arrows lead to themes. Blue arrows lead to themes that I am positive students will encounter, and red arrows lead to blank areas where students can write-in their own theme suggestions. This allows students to choose from predetermined themes or create their own themes for study. Standards are listed in the mind map to support the students’ pathways of investigation and to show the process that will lead to our final assessment. Last, students see an array of activities that will take place during the unit that are listed in the mind map, including: book clubs, column-reading, Ted Talk viewing, and, eventually, column writing.

By sharing a unit plan through the mind mapping process, it marks a change in the delivery of instruction. In this unit plan, students were not shown the thinking; they were invited into the thinking. They could: select from an array of themes that interested them each week, explore student-selected texts and whole class reading excerpts, and investigate their thoughts further through reading columns and viewing videos. In addition, the arrows, clouds, and extensions on the mind map represent investigation and activity, while previous unit outlines I have made seem to be rooted most often in singular pathways. Last, students were given ownership in the class by designing one rubric for the unit that focused on the evidence gathered from at least 3 sources per week.

Class Texts Before Personalized Learning: When I last taught a whole class novel a year ago, I offered set questions for each chapter and students mostly explored one text with occasional columns offered near the end of the unit. In this past unit, whole class seminars were utilized more often than small group discussions.

Class Texts With Personalized Learning (Social Construction): In my most recent unit, the whole class text is compared with student-selected texts. Students meet in book clubs, consider themes that correspond with the core class text and discuss themes that are also explored only by their book club author. I appreciate the multiple opportunities for these thematic conversations. Now, students can discuss loneliness, friendship, coping mechanisms, acceptance, positive thinking etc. all within one unit, and these conversations can take place for different student groups at different times. This diversity of thought allows for frequent, rich conversation, and invites students to consider themes that are most relevant to their own lives.

Writing Assignments Before Personalized Learning: I have always tried to offer choice for writing prompts and topics within units. In years past, I have written prompts in which students could choose from a list, or I have written a prompt in an intentional manner that allowed for student choice.

Writing Assignments With Personalized Learning (Co-Creation and Self Discovery): With the premise of offering less, so that we, as a class, can do more learning together, the students and I recently made an outline together in class, after a model of column writing was given. This process felt more organic than making the outline for the students. In addition, students in this unit can choose from a prompt already written, create their own prompt with starting points offered, or completely select their own topic, based on the themes that appear in the mind map. Last, in this unit, students will engage in a few, practice writing studios, and then choose the one writing piece that they would like to work with in producing a final copy.

This final copy will be the student’s column that includes the student’s personal anecdote, the student’s personalized message regarding a topic relating to mental health, and the student’s personal selection of writing techniques, meant to improve the student’s voice within argument writing.

My journey into personalized learning has taught me to make purposeful adjustments in the classroom as more elements of student choice are given to the class. My hope is to continue to learn how aspects of student choice and investigation can be implemented into the classroom and to look for other visuals, outside of the mind mapping process, that invite students into the learning. For now, I find myself enjoying the journey that personalized learning has to offer.

Shawna Parkinson

Shawna is an English/Language Arts Teacher at Mason High School. Her posts often appear on Allison Zmuda's LearningPersonalized.com. Articles are cross-posted with Shawna's permission. Twitter: @ParksinonLearns

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