Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Finding my Voice to Become a Learner Again

This is my story why I am so passionate about transforming teaching and learning.
Barbara Bray, co-founder, Personalize Learning, LLC

I was brought up in a house of artists in Maryland. My mother, a fine artist, raised me with the idea that I could draw whatever I wanted and especially to draw my own way including outside the lines. I was raised to be creative, to come up with new ideas and to ask lots of questions. I was able to read early and used to put on plays with my younger sisters. I laughed and giggled all the time.

With a full head of red curls, people wanted to touch and play with my hair. At first I didn't like it, then I dreamt my hair was my magical power. If anyone touched my hair, they got my magical power. I was really good at pretending and dreaming about amazing things. I even wrote poetry and plays before I was five.

Then I started school and everything changed. I am left-handed and they wanted me to write with my right hand. My parents fought the school so I was able to continue writing left-handed. My handwriting is not the best, but it is with the hand that I’m supposed to write with. My parents were my advocates, but they could only do so much for me.

My first day of school was exciting and scary. I had some of my friends in my class but most were new. When I walked in the class the teacher said to me "what beautiful red hair" and then touched my hair. I was so happy that my first teacher got my magical power on my first day of school.

She had everyone introduce themselves and then had us divide into groups by hair color. Really! I noticed I was the only redhead in the class. and the only one in my group. First day of school and I was put in a situation to be different. I should have been happy about that but I was too young and confused about something that seemed strange, weird, and mean to me. She asked each group to share. I didn't know what to do since I was alone. I started crying before the class. I changed that first day, and I didn't want to go back.

I pushed myself to be part of the class. I asked questions in school and was told to be quiet. I said I didn’t understand the tests and was told to just finish on time. It wasn’t long before I realized that I might have been a good learner once but needed to learn how to be a good student to make it in the system. I decided the best thing to do was to be quiet, do what I was told and stop asking questions.

My mom made my clothes and people laughed at how I dressed. I shut down more. I loved the dresses my mom made, but now with homemade clothes I didn't fit in at school. In second grade, the teacher told my parents that I wasn’t very smart and probably would have a tough time in school. She told them I would probably never go to college. I heard them talk about me and felt so stupid. 

Not one teacher in my K-12 experience ever asked me why 
I felt the way I did about school or why I was so quiet.

I secretly cried about school. I was embarrassed about being stupid and my defense was to be the shy one. Each new year school became more oppressive and a terrible weight on me. I was put in a special reading class because they said I had comprehension problems.  I loved to read -- just not what they gave me to read. I was to answer the multiple-choice questions about paragraphs from the book we were reading. There were several right answers, but I could only pick one. I was so confused, but then I got it that I needed to play the game of school. I chose one right answer even if I didn't believe it was right. I learned how to be a good student and graduated but never reached my full potential in K-12. It was when I moved to California and went to a community college that I first learned about me and how I learn best.

I had an English teacher that paid attention to me and my writing. He told me that I was an amazing writer and clever with words. No one had ever told me I was good at anything except my parents. He entered one of my poems in a national contest and it won first place. It was then that I realized that I had talents and a passion about something that I love to do. I love to write. I love to share ideas. This was the beginning of me being a learner again, and it changed my life. I wrote this quote in 2006:

I found out that I can learn what I want to learn and that I have a voice in how I learn. I realized that what happened to me in school happens all the time to learners of all ages. It happened to my son and so many other children I worked with. As a teacher and coach, I was limited in what I could do to encourage voice and choice. The system was set up to manage students so they were compliant and follow rules. It was all about the system first. I became a teacher for a reason—to make a difference for learners to find what they want and are passionate about - to love to learn-- to find their voice. I made it my life mission to not let education and the system be oppressive for another child or anyone who wants to learn.

Finding ways to make learning personal for every learner and give them a voice has been and will continue to be my mission and why I am so passionate about making personalized learning happen now. Unfortunately, my story is not unique. What happened to me still happens every day and to children that may not have advocates like I did. Children get it right away that they have to play the game to "do" school to get out of school.  I really thought I was smart when I started school then all those years in school I felt something was wrong with me. It wasn't me. It was the system. 

So now I fight to transform the system. I fight for every child and I write and speak. I have a voice so they will.


I live in Oakland, California with my husband, Tom. We have been married 45 years and have two beautiful children, Sara and Andrew. Sara lives in Truckee, CA with her husband Rob Zimmerman and their beautiful 7 year old daughter, Cali. I'm Baba to Cali and she is the light of my life. Andrew lives in Portland, Oregon. Both of my children were raised to have a voice and to be creative. They are both artists. Sara is a graphic artist, fine artist, web designer (, creates web comics, Unearthed Comics and rock climber. Andrew is a talented musician, actor, voice coach, teaches theater, and a beekeeper. I love that they do what they love. 

I am co-founder of Personalize Learning, LLC with Kathleen McClaskey who lives in New Hampshire. I was introduced to Kathleen over four years ago by a mutual friend, Julie Duffield. We have a virtual business where we collaborate and talk almost every day about why we do what we do. We felt it was important to tell our stories so that's what this post is. 

I was a teacher starting 1982, then consultant and entrepreneur since 1991. I assist large and small organizations to build online communities for teachers to connect and learning from each other. I   support teachers in changing teaching practice through action research, design-thinking, inquiry, and project-based learning and guide the design of coaching programs where teachers are facilitators, advisors, and "guides on the side." I facilitate visioning sessions, write strategic plans, recommend resources and determine what is authentic, valid, cost-effective, safe, user-friendly, and relevant for clients. 
I trademarked the phrase “Making Learning Personal” in 2000 because I always believed that learning needed to start with the learner and that every learner matters. I will continue to research how to personalize learning so all learners follow their passion so they discover their purpose. More about me...

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