Personalized Learning Works Best When People Really Believe in Kids

Five years ago, Principal LeViis Haney arrived at Lovett Elementary in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood and found a school stuck in outdated, rote-learning practices. Teachers went page-by-page through textbooks. Assessment was always the textbook’s unit quiz. Creativity and individuation were not encouraged. As Haney remembers it, “it was all about compliance here: be on time, be quiet, sit in your seat, quiet in the hallways.” The result? Test scores were in the basement, as were the most fundamental metrics of a school’s health. “Student engagement was very low,” Haney says. Bored students created discipline problems. Though that’s no surprise, the sheer number of incidents came as a shock to Haney. Teacher attendance and morale were also low. “This was just a job for people,” he recalls. Haney’s efforts to transform Lovett led him to partner with LEAP Innovations, a nonprofit that supports schools committed to adopting personalized learning. Though Haney is a fan of tech-based learning, Lovett’s transformation took more than new technology to accomplish. Partnering with LEAP demanded lots of dialogue, design and dry runs. The process allowed Haney and his staff to rebuild instruction from the ground up. As Haney puts it, “little by little, I was sold on the benefits of thinking about instruction differently.”

It Isn't Just a Job Anymore

These days, working at Lovett isn’t just a job for the faculty. Just ask Steve McWade, who has a poster on his classroom door that tells his fifth-grade students all the ways they can connect with him after school if they need help: phone or text, email, Instagram or Edmodo, a social platform developed especially for classroom use. He even gives tips on how to leave a voice message: tell me who you are, be direct. Nor are students simply learning from the textbook. Among other innovations designed to allow students more personalized instruction, Lovett has created Flex Friday, a two-hour block of time in which students explore their own interests. On a Flex Friday in April, McWade’s students claimed spots in his room to pursue radically different projects: experimenting with different ways to melt ice cubes, storyboarding a stop-animation movie and creating a Pokemon club. “We want it to have some kind of academic push, like an exit ticket, but we’re more flexible about it. Here they get to be kids,” he says. Personalized learning hasn’t just changed the look and feel of Lovett; it has also made a difference in hard numbers. Between 2014 and 2015, the number of disciplinary incidents dropped from 100 to a mere five. Between 2015 and 2016, the growth Lovett students are making on the NWEA test exploded, leaping from the fifth percentile nationally to the 98th percentile. (Absolute performance has also risen, but not as sharply.) Lovett has also seen strong improvements in student and staff attendance. Since launching personalized learning, says Haney, “every single metric in the school is going in the right direction.”

It Takes More Than Tech to Transform a School

The first step in changing Lovett had nothing to do with technology, and was common to most school transformations: getting all the teachers on board with a shared vision and higher expectations of their students. Achieving this took Haney his first three years. “It was a bigger challenge than I realized in shifting the adult culture,” Haney says. And it required him to change his own mindset. Going in, he says, “I felt that with the right coaching and the right motivation I could shift the change with all of my teachers. That just wasn’t the case. Not everyone was interested in being visionary in their thinking.” He worked hard to build the right team. “I had to recruit the people who really believed in kids, who had a growth mindset—who believed if they worked hard enough, kids would benefit.” Haney walked into Lovett committed to modernizing its Stone Age-technology. “We didn’t even have copiers here,” he remembers. By year three of Haney’s principalship, Lovett was deep into blended learning and had a laptop for every student. But he says connecting with LEAP got him thinking beyond technology to crafting learning conditions that could meet each student’s needs. LEAP’s professional development with Haney and his staff allowed the school to create a unique vision for student learning. While Lovett has learned from other Chicago schools in the LEAP network, it is forging its own path.

New Use of Time and Space Enhances Learning

The changes start with the schedule. There is a regular rhythm in place: morning meeting for classroom community-building strategies, such as peace circles, then a block of time for each student’s “playlist,” or personalized agenda of learning activities. These involve time on educational software, reading and completing projects. Playlists are co-created between students and teachers at weekly conferences. “The whole process is guided by students setting their own goals in consultation with teachers,” Haney says. The new schedule ensures teachers have time to work with groups of students focused on the same academic skills regardless of grade level. Teachers set goals every two weeks and create rotations that maximize time for one-on-one tutoring. Students break out in groups based on what they are learning and who they will be learning with. Instructors may be the teacher, an aide or a tutor. Groups never grow larger than five students. Students also have time for independent learning, and they can choose whether to stay in the classroom or move out into the hallway. Inside the classroom, traditional desks have been swapped out for collaborative tables, which take up less room and free space to create more private study areas. “All classrooms have nooks and comfortable seating areas for kids,” says Haney. Lovett’s unusually long, wide hallways have been transformed into learning spaces. “We have chairs, tables, little bleacher seating areas. We have whiteboards outside on the walls,” Haney says. The large hallways leave plenty of room for classes to walk by without disturbing students at work. Plus, “they’re so focused on what they’re doing, they don’t really get distracted,” he notes. “They feel they are in charge of their own learning.”

Flex Friday Puts Students in Charge

Flex Friday time takes personalization to an even deeper level. Students not only submit ideas for short courses, but they are welcome to teach, too. McWade has helped students build their teacher chops. “You have to teach them to teach,” he notes. For example, he insists that student drawing instructors do more than model and have students imitate their examples. “We make them research teaching from learn-to-draw websites” and teach their peers specific techniques, he says. Voice, choice and agency are keys to Lovett’s vision of personalized learning. “We want our kids to love it at Lovett as a result of engaging, personalized instruction,” says Haney. “If our kids leave us and they want to go to high school, they want to go to college, they are eager for continued learning, we’ve done our job.”
Photo courtesy of Lovett Elementary.
Maureen Kelleher
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Partner at Ed Post. She is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to ...

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