Personalizing learning; the search for the best medicine

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend who’d been prescribed Warfarin by his doctor. Now as we all know, this is commonly used as rat poison, so we had quite a conversation about the use of “poisons” as effective treatments for what ails us.
This got me thinking about my class this year. By far it’s been the most challenging year of my career. A large, boisterous group of 30 with multiple, complex needs, this group presented many problems for me to solve. Not the least of which was how to ensure they were all learning. This was the topic of my PLC group all year, and each month I shared my struggles and anxiety with my colleagues who did their best to support me. A lot of sleep was lost on my part.
At a certain point in the year, I was disconsolate over one group of students who weren’t getting anything completed. For this group, I was finally able to identify the issue as student responsibility, or lack of it. Fully one third of students were not handing in their assignments or getting their work done. It was regularly lost, incomplete, forgotten or otherwise misplaced. I began to worry that anything was being learned on a consistent basis, and that I was properly tracking the learning that was happening. How could I report to parents, and assess their learning, if I couldn’t even gather evidence?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve got a large group of very responsible, capable, hard working, independent students who were rolling their eyes back in their heads as I tried to move the stragglers ahead. All they wanted was a chance to learn, and they were being held back by this large mass of inert objects. “Just give us the work!” they were silently screaming.
So, I did. For the majority of the second term they were working on self-paced, self-designed projects to demonstrate their learning. I met with them once per day to assess, discuss and direct their activities, then just gathered resources if needed. They’ve been very successful, and even wrote and performed a play as a bonus project for our local Arts festival.
So, back to the warfarin metaphor and the other group of reluctant learners. What has worked with them has been a poison I never thought I’d resort to; the SRA for Language Arts and self-paced, levelled worksheets for Math. For those too young to remember, the SRA is a box of reading comprehension cards with short stories and questions color coded for difficulty, which students work through at their own pace. I remember doing SRA in 1976 with Mr. Unger in grade 6 during my own schooling, and I loved it. For a kid like me who loved a challenge and was competitive, I raced ahead and worked like crazy to be first. In my estimation, this program is a pretty good tool for improving comprehension with a group like this. I collect their sheets and mark them, and if there are corrections that’s their next step. I can then track progress, detect stragglers, intervene if needed, and get a sense of where everyone is. I’ve got a similar program for math, allowing a similar degree of control over what they’re doing and where they’re at. For the first time all year, I’m feeling like they’re learning consistently and their responsibility is improving.
The “poison” has become the cure. For the first time all year, I know where each student is, what their strengths and weaknesses are, I’ve started to differentiate and personalize, and really feel they’re doing their best learning all year. For those who aren’t, we have the lunchtime LAMA club where they get caught up and do corrections.
Do I have some guilt? Sure. I’d never recommend piles of worksheets as the solution to all problems, but as a solution to what I was seeing this year, it has been the best tool.
And I’ve learned a lesson too. When solving a classroom problem, don’t throw out options just because they’re not in vogue or counter to current philosophy. If it helps solve the problem, give it a try. After all, sometimes the best poison cures us.


About Ron Sherman

I am the principal of Salmo Elementary/Secondary School, a small rural K-12 school in the Kootenay Lake School District. Happy to be part of the Grand Conversation, moving learning forward and joining with great people every day. Runner, triathlete, skier, blogger, loving husband and father of 2 great boys
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