By Kristin Re
A few years ago, Nina, a ninth grader told me that she couldn’t do her work because she was “stupid.” I was almost rendered speechless, except that I knew I needed to tell her it wasn’t so. That moment has remained one of the most heartbreaking I’ve experienced as an educator, and there have been many.
Nina wasn’t stupid, but somewhere along the way, she wasn’t given enough time to master a necessary skill before moving on to the next level. Over time, this caused her to fall behind. This happens far more than people realize because in most schools students are expected to learn the same content at the same pace and speed as the “average student.” As adults, we know that we don’t always learn new things at the same pace as our friends and colleagues, so why should we expect our kids to do this?
As a teacher, I believe that we need high quality standards and instruction; I also believe that, in order to be successful with all students, we must provide them with a much more individualized and tailored education experience. Personalized learning allows us to offer what students like Nina need in order to be successful. It requires us, as educators, to really get to know and understand where a particular student is starting from, how they learn, and what it will take for them to be successful learners moving forward.
When we personalize a student’s learning, we start where that student is and work with them until they can demonstrate proficiency or competency in that area before advancing to the next level. For students like Nina, this may mean giving her more time to learn a new concept. Another one of my students, Elliott, was having trouble identifying the main idea of a persuasive essay, so rather than moving on to supporting details, we devoted more time to mastering the concept of the main ideas. Students can’t successfully learn new skills until they’ve learned the foundation.
When I began working with Nina, she was reading and writing at a second grade level, seven grade levels behind. Through targeted, personalized assignments and one-on-one instruction, she grew in her abilities. As a senior, she is now reading and writing at a high school level, and has already earned multiple certifications, including one to be a Medical Administrative Assistant.
Because I was afforded the opportunity to personalize her learning, Nina was able to pursue several internships outside the classroom, in early childhood education, where she learned skills normally reserved for college students. It was this engagement with her community and other adults with specialized knowledge that helped Nina discover her ability and inclination to help others, which motivated her further.
A personalized education approach looks different for each student. In order to do this, I as a teacher have to get to know my students, find out what drives them, and use it to engage them in their learning. Like adults, kids have disparate strengths and passions. This takes time and patience; we cannot always race to the finish line. I can empower my students by enabling them to learn in ways that work for them —whether it’s in our classroom, at an internship, working with a member of the community, or taking a college class.
My students appreciate my support and the freedom I give them to learn as they need. I know that this drives them to work harder and to be successful. I dread to imagine what could have happened to Nina had she not gone through the personalized learning program, but am grateful to know that she no longer thinks of herself as “stupid” and is excited and motivated to continue her education in college next year.
Kristin Re teaches at the Met High School in Providence. She is a Teach Plus Rhode Island Teaching Policy Fellow.