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What Jimi Hendrix and Leonardo da Vinci Can Teach Us About Personalized Learning

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The 6th graders I taught during my first student-teaching assignment got me hooked on the musical “Hamilton.” The hit Broadway show, if you somehow haven’t heard, uses rap, hip hop, jazz, and show tunes to tell the story of how the American Founding Father’s life shaped the course of our nation—but it also teaches a lesson about education.

As a young man in the Caribbean struggling to make ends meet, Hamilton taught himself fiscal policy, history, political theory, art, and culture. Not only did he read voraciously, he also put his reading into practice, counseling ship captains on trading and moving cargo, according to the biography by Ron Chernow on which the musical is based. His early learning provided the foundation for his many achievements, including creating the first national bank of the United States.

The list of self-taught experts goes far beyond the Founding Fathers. Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Frida Kahlo, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington were all at least partially self-taught in their areas of mastery.

As a new educator, I had instinctively labeled these celebrated minds as anomalies. After hearing so often about screen-addicted, apathetic kids, I was sure not many of my own students would ever demonstrate that amount of motivation and persistence.

Now, though, I think I may be proven wrong. By encouraging exploration and self-directed learning, perhaps we can coach students to become the next da Vinci, Kahlo, or Douglass. Technology may provide the answer.

Student Choice and Voice

Shelby County High School, a socioeconomically diverse school in Shelbyville, Ky., where I started working this year, is a champion of personalized learning and innovation. We are trying to let students’ passion and curiosity shape the course of their study, while continuing to meet high standards and cover a variety of skills and subjects. It’s the direction I wish all schools were moving in.

When I was growing up, my passion for reading and writing fit very naturally within a school context. I was lucky to have teachers who encouraged me to try and write for newspapers, gave me opportunities for public speaking and speechwriting, and handed me reading lists for classes well above my grade level.

But what if my passion had led toward cosmetology, construction, drawing cartoons, or snowboarding? Those passions do not fit so neatly within the framework of school. I hope to create the space for my students to pursue those interests.

In my classroom, personalized learning looks like 50 minutes of designated, in-person instruction time each day with different groups of students. I direct a mini-lesson about a broad language arts concept—perhaps a common mechanics error, how to construct a formal email, or how to infer within a text.

Then, students work either collaboratively or independently in our workshop, applying the mini-lesson to a new problem or weaving it into a larger work, such as an essay. They read books that they choose, and I work with our school librarian as much as I can to make everything available to them.

Why would I make every student read Charles Dickens, even if I love his books, when not all of them will take something away from him? I can teach the same thinking strategies, logic structures, and mechanics and usage skills across all sorts of literature. If a student does not find a physical book in our library, some bring Kindles from home. English-language learners can also access novels and short stories on their personal devices in their native languages.

Teachers in our school measure individual progress through surveys, conferencing, casual conversations, and online work. Even with 120 students or more per teacher, it can be done, especially by using shareable platforms that capture student work. Students may use Goodreads to track what they are reading, or they can reflect on a book they've read via platforms like Blogger and WordPress.

Learning Beyond School Walls

But unlike in a traditional classroom setting, the learning does not stop when our 50 minutes are up. Students have access to me during “flex,” or specific personalized-learning time. That’s when they work in groups or on their own on projects that connect with their interests and goals.

In a recent project, students practiced how to craft a message for different audiences. Their primary goal was to advertise what personalized learning looks like in the 8th grade. They used their talents and interests to guide their projects. Some filmed vlogs to advertise to new students what their day looks like. Others created posters, reflecting on what the program meant to them. Still others wrote mock speeches to the school board about why personalized learning should be happening in all middle schools.

Technology allowed students to find the resources they needed to pursue these projects in a way that excited them. For this research, we used the news-curation site Newsela, which lets students choose their own reading level, annotate using a “highlighter” and “notepad,” and assess their comprehension at the end.

Technology also gives students access to mentors in the community and online. They learn to collaborate and communicate with people outside the school building—bridging the gap between “school” and “real life.”

These experts are easier to connect students with than you might think. As a student-teacher, my creative-writing students and I Skyped with author Gail Carson Levine about effective peer editing. After studying the effects of colonization, many social studies students will be reaching out to the mayor of Shelbyville to advocate changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, based on the articles and primary sources they accessed through online research.

Moving beyond the teacher as the sole proprietor of knowledge and compiling a web of experts encourages students to see that they can become experts as well in whatever field they choose to study. With infinite information resources at their fingertips and celebrated authors just a Skype call away, my students have a distinct advantage over Hamilton and other successful self-taught experts. And yet they’re following in these historical figures’ footsteps.

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