Thursday, August 13, 2015

Personalizing Learning in a High School Math Class

Guest Post from Rik Rowe, High School Mathematics Teacher in Wilmington, Massachusetts

Introducing Rik

I facilitate learning as a High School Mathematics Teacher in Wilmington, Massachusetts. Our classes have Twitter streaming on the side of my blog where I keep in touch with our Learners using Twitter to maintain the learning outside of our time in the classroom. I’m passionate about being a connected educator. You can often find me sharpening my Culture of Learning in #COLchat, making Learning more of a focus than Grading while co-moderating #SBLchat (Standards-Based Learning), developing a more integrated Professional Learning Network (PLN) in Massachusetts while co-moderating #EdChatMA and leading a dedicated crew of Servant Leaders in #ChristianEducators. These weekly discussion-based chats keep me highly connected. My blog is Yearn2Learn at and my Twitter handle is @RoweRikW.

My Personal Learning Journey

As I’m preparing to start my 16th year as an educator, I'm realizing how important it is to make the learning personal for each and every one of our Learners. While reading “Make Learning Personal” from Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey, I’ve been tweeting using the hashtag of #MakeLearningPersonal. Reading their book and joining their #plearnchat conversations has opened my eyes to more highly value and respect each of our Learners. I’m also learning that referring to our “Students” as “Learners” is more respectful and appropriate. Reading “Make Learning Personal” is creating a needed SHIFT for me in education.

To start valuing our Learners in the #1st5Days, I ask our Learners to write a letter to me answering several questions about their learning, their background in mathematics and what interests them. Our Learners email me their lengthy letters and I email them to a specific @Evernote Notebook. This way, no matter where I am, I can access their letters and review their needs and interests. I regularly search that @Evernote Notebook for keywords based on our current learning. It might be nursing, engineering, architecture or aviation to tap into their strengths or challenges when facilitating our class discussion. In these letters, our Learners also shared their perceived gaps in learning based on their prior years of studying mathematics. We aim to strengthen their skills, close these gaps and build resilience through facilitation by our Learners.


As far as Summative Assessments (SAs), we offer our Learners the choice to respond to 4 out of 5, 8 out of 9, 10 out of 12 or whatever is appropriate. We have offered assessments in the form of a Tic-Tac-Toe. Several individuals in our Professional Learning Network (PLN) have been referring to these innovative assessments as #TTTDiff since they offer differentiation in the form of a Tic-Tac-Toe. We have requested our Learners to build their own Tic-Tac-Toe board with nine (9) mathematical concepts where the items in the rows and columns align to some specific order or have some meaning that is explained by the Learner. We find this offers Learners choice, encourages their creativity and deepens their thinking.

In addition to Tic-Tac-Toe innovations, we offer Learners a choice as to which open-response or short essay they’d choose to respond to and defend their response. This has empowered our Learners to demonstrate more individuality and has stimulated interesting discussions. In our Algebra 2 course this past year, I created our weekly spiral review packets of about 24-32 questions based on three (3) different perceived levels of understanding (needing more of a challenge, really struggling and needing simpler or most straight-forward questions and somewhere in the middle). Our Learners work on their review packets over a period of five (5) school days. When they’ve completed their packet, they hand them in to me so I might provide feedback and determine their most recent proficiency on the 3-4 standards assessed in these packets. These are all questions that we’ve previously studied together and I want to make sure they retain these fundamental skills. After reading “Make Learning Personal”, I’m thinking that our Learners could select from 4-6 options based on the ones they need to review the most. This could make the learning even more personalized.


Our Learners are encouraged to facilitate our learning through collaborative questioning, sharing and leadership. We start building a strong Culture of Learning (#COLchat) in the #1st5Days that enables us to respect each other, depend on each other, challenge each other and value each other’s contributions. We also aim to develop skills like prioritizing, scheduling, public speaking, coping, exhibiting confidence and working through vulnerabilities. In addition to our mathematical content, we strive to develop divergent, convergent and metacognitive thinking through our collaborative learning via questioning. Each class usually starts with a proposed agenda on the whiteboard. Our Learners are prompted as to whether this fits their needs or whether they’d like to adapt it to better align with their current state of understanding. Our Learners know our learning is centered around their questions and current proficiency levels on our standards. Their questions and struggles guide and direct our learning. Several days our Learners propose changes to make our learning more personal.

Adaptations based on reading “Make Learning Personal”  

I’m planning to ask our Learners to create a Personal Learner Profile (PLP) based on eight (8) or so provided items like engaging in classroom settings, willingness to facilitate classroom learning, ability to reach out when challenged, learning outside of school and resilience to work through challenges prior to asking for guidance. In addition to my eight (8) or so items, I plan to ask our Learners to add their own 2-3 items they’d like to identify that are either their strengths they’d like to deepen or areas of challenge they’d like to improve upon. I want to empower our Learners to take the driver’s seat even more than they have previously. I plan to spend more of class time with Learners engaged in developing higher levels of proficiency on their choice of our Standards. I’d also like to enable our Learners to collaborate with anyone, not just the Learners in their physical proximity.

Learner Choices

During the 14-15 school year, there were several Learners that were regularly outspoken about making our learning more personal. I’m now even more grateful that I heeded their requests. One Learner frequently requested our class to work collaboratively without any direct instruction from me. He said, “After receiving your feedback, we now know what we need to work on and can learn in our groups. Can we please?”

I’d always agree. After all, I’m learning that it’s all about that they are learning and how they are learning. Too often educators may lean toward providing direct instruction and not yielding to what our Learners really want or need. When I think of Professional Development (PD), direct instruction is rarely the best avenue for my learning. A second Learner would often greet me at the door, ask me about my day and then ask if our class could please work in their groups helping each other. He’d always assure me that they’d beckon me to assist when they needed me. He and his classmates were often so thankful when I’d say “Of course”. He assured me they would get all their work done. He always had such a big smile when conversing with me! His leadership skills have soared over our year together! Finally, there was a group of Learners that were enrolled in the same course with me, but in different sections. Therefore, they had class with me at different times.

I continue to be stunned but grateful when our Learners take responsibility or ownership for their learning and convey what they need or what they’d like to bypass. Reading “Make Learning Personal” has revealed to me that when the needs, interests and challenges of our Learners become the focus of our collaborative learning, engagement ignites.

I encourage you to join me by reading and applying the truths in “Make Learning Personal” to create a SHIFT in education that puts our Learners in the driver’s seat! Also, consider joining me as I’ve enrolled in the “5 W’s of Personalized Learning” online course this fall. It’s sure to be a great learning and sharing experience for all!