My Personalized Learning Journey

by Lisa Spencer

Lisa Spencer

Lisa Spencer

Embarking on the journey of research on personalized learning for my dissertation has inspired my own reflection into my personal learning, desires to teach and why personalized learning is so important. When I began my research, it was personal and hit close to home. Shortly into the process, my thoughts turned into a more macro view of education, in which I examined policies, structures, and procedures. Now that I’m nearing the end, I have returned to a more micro level view that reflects the need for a transformation in education.

When I was in second grade, my parents were presented with the choice of having me skip second grade. They turned down the offer, and I never knew about it until I got older. What I always knew; however, is that I was bored. I didn’t know how to verbalize this, even as a teenager, because I didn’t want to offend anyone. My teachers were friendly and doing the best with the tools they had. I never felt challenged. In fact, it wasn’t until pursuing my doctorate degree that I felt intellectually stimulated. In teacher education classes, these questions were always asked: Why did you want to become a teacher? What teachers inspired you? I hated answering these questions, as I was afraid that I would come across as a jerk. Ultimately, I thought I could do it better. I thought I could make learning fun. I thought I could engage kids and reach the learner that was bored. I thought I could teach kids that learning is something they’d want to experience for a lifetime.

I still had this idealism (still do) when I entered the teaching field. Quickly, I began to understand all that teachers were up against. In my first class of junior English students, I had reading levels that ranged from kindergarten to twelfth grade. I had my kids forty minutes a day and had no idea how to differentiate instruction to fit those needs. Not only is that a large gap, but there’s a curriculum to follow, IEPs to integrate, and state tests to prepare for.

Here are some of the thoughts I had prior to becoming a teacher:

  • A student doesn’t reach 9th grade English if they can’t read at the 9th grade level.
  • A student who had disabilities would be provided with the materials they needed and might not follow the same curriculum.

Here’s the reality:

  • In some states, students are passed on to the next grade level, regardless of passing standards, let alone reading levels.
  • Students didn’t come with the materials they needed and are expected to meet the same standards.

Curriculum is essential to bridging the gap between standards and instruction. Many novice teachers are overwhelmed with integrating as much of the curriculum as they can. Add to this stress an attempt to engage and reach learners with such a wide discrepancy in abilities. I had about two to three texts to choose from each quarter as part of my curriculum. These texts were all selected because the reading level and content were appropriate for 9th grade. How do you teach Romeo and Juliet to students who can’t read the text?

At one point, I had a student who read at a kindergarten level and felt like my hands were tied. I felt like I couldn’t decelerate class slow enough for him to maintain without disadvantaging the rest of my students. I felt like I didn’t have the resources I needed for him. And I felt like I had no idea how to teach a kid to read who didn’t already know how.

Another quick realization I made in this first year was the correlation with low reading abilities and inappropriate behavior. The kids who struggled with reading acted out or completely shut down. They either drew attention to themselves and their behavior because they didn’t want the focus on them when it came to academics, or they were completely disengaged and uninterested.

It was no wonder why so many teachers quit the profession within the first five years. We are up against a lot. Much of which often feels like is out of our control. I refuse; however, to let this be an excuse for me to leave the profession. Instead, it’s my reason why I stay. It’s the reason why after a year of teaching I enrolled in an educational doctoral program. It’s the reason why I want to go into leadership and be a change maker in education.

I graduated high school nearly fifteen years ago, and while not doing well academically was not an option for me, it is an option for many others who don’t have the same skill sets or support structures. The environment is still the same as it was fifteen years ago. In fact, it’s much the same that it was over 100 years ago. It’s time to reconsider our current structures and look at how to most effectively meet the needs of our diverse student population.

About the Author:

Lisa Spencer (@EDLisaSpencer) has been a teacher for the past five years. She has taught freshmen English, journalism, human geography, economics, and adult and student ESL classes. She has a bachelor’s in rhetoric and professional communication from Iowa State and a master’s in education from College of St. Mary. She is currently pursuing a second master’s in education and a doctorate in educational leadership at Creighton University. Her dissertation is focused on how to integrate personalized learning in public schools. She hopes it will serve as a road map for schools that look to personalize the learning process in the future.

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