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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Forest Lake Elementary School

Grades K-5 | Columbia, SC

Ten Tips for Personalized Learning via Technology

To challenge and support each child at his or her own level, the educators of Forest Lake Elementary deploy a powerful array of digital-technology tools. Discover what your school can learn.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
Fifth graders like Matthew write and produce an in-school news broadcast each morning.

At Forest Lake Elementary School, in Columbia, South Carolina, the student population grows more diverse by the day. Income levels, ethnicities, family structures, first languages, interests, and abilities now vary so much, that a traditional teaching approach, with a uniform lesson targeted to the average-level student, just doesn't cut it. (Sound familiar to you educators out there?)

To challenge and support each child at his or her own level, the Forest Lake teachers and staff are deploying a powerful array of widely available digital-technology tools. Each classroom is equipped with an interactive whiteboard and a Tech Zone of eight Internet-enabled computers. Plus, teachers have access to gadgets including digital cameras, Flip cameras, remote-response clickers, and PDAs.

More important than the gadgets themselves, of course, is how the teachers use them to create personalized lessons and a productive environment where each child is engaged. Here are Forest Lake teachers' top tips on how to do it.

1. Deliver Instruction through Multiple Forms of Media

You now have at your fingertips far more than just the old standbys of words and still pictures. Teachers at Forest Lake use computers and whiteboards to access oodles of instructional videos, audio clips, animations, and interactive games, some through software and some available online. Children also cement their knowledge by doing hands-on activities with these media. When learning about shapes, for instance, the youngest students sometimes scour the school with digital cameras, taking photos of shapes wherever they find them. (Download Forest Lake's ideas for using interactive whiteboards.)

2. Gather and Use Immediate Feedback on Students' Understanding

Why wait days or weeks to deliver and grade a quiz to find out which kids missed important concepts? Teachers here routinely use remote-response systems (clickers), colorful little gadgets that allow each child to enter her answer to a practice question so that the teacher can instantly see who got it right or wrong. Computer software programs, too, can give kids practice questions, quickly diagnose trouble spots, and allow teachers to customize subsequent lessons for each child's needs.

3. Give Students Options

All students shouldn't be required to show their learning the same way. And digital media open up a host of possibilities beyond the traditional essay, poster, report, or quiz. For instance, fourth-grade teacher Kevin Durden gives kids additional choices, such as creating a PowerPoint slide show or a comic strip (using Comic Life software) or filming a skit (using Flip video cameras). "This way," says Durden, "you don't see the students' disabilities. You see their abilities." (Download sample rubrics from Forest Lake.)

4. Automate Basic-skills Practice

Free up some hours for more creative, fun technology projects (and for yourself!) by using software to do much of the basic-skills practice and assessment that would otherwise take up a lot of time. Educational computer programs (Study Island and EducationCity are Forest Lake favorites) can identify specific weaknesses in a child's skills, such as understanding analogies or adding fractions. Teachers can review these outcomes daily, then assign lessons to each student according to her needs -- for the next time she logs on.

5. Practice Independent Work Skills

Differentiating instruction often means setting up kids to work alone or in groups. And that, we don't need to tell you, can lead to chaos. The solution for second-grade teacher Tamika Lowe is "practice, practice, practice." Early in the year, she makes her expectations clear, and she and her students repeatedly drill their procedures -- how to use the technology, what to do if you have a question, how to behave if Ms. Lowe isn't standing right there. (Download a sample lesson plan for grade 2 language arts.)

6. Create a Weekly "Must Do" and "May Do" List

Give a classroom of students an array of different, personalized tasks to do, and they'll inevitably finish them at different times. That's a tricky part of differentiation. Forest Lake teachers tackle this by assigning a weekly list of "must dos" and "may dos," so kids who finish first can always find something to do next.

7. Pretest Students' Knowledge Before Each Unit

Before starting each unit of study, grade-level teams at Forest Lake brainstorm a way to assess prior knowledge so they can tailor the lessons effectively to each child. It can be as simple as a question that the class answers with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down or as rigorous as a one-on-one conversation.

8. Be Flexible When Plans Go Awry

Computers don't always perform the way you wish or expect, especially if the teacher in command is new to digital technology. So as you embark on this journey, expect the unexpected. When obstacles arise, you can model good problem-solving behavior by asking students to help you devise alternative approaches. "I say to students, 'You know what? If something doesn't work, it's OK,'" Lowe explains. "Every experience is a learning experience."

9. Let Students Drive

If you've got the tech tools, put them in kids' hands. In Lowe's class, students use Flip cameras to film each other doing oral book reports, then critique both the presentation and the videography. Other Forest Lake teachers routinely give kids turns at leading lessons on the whiteboard, either by hand or with remote tablets called AirLiners. These opportunities allow students to work at their own pace, capitalize on their skills, and discover ways to work around their challenges.

10. Share the Work of Creating Differentiated Lessons

To ease the burden of planning lessons for students at diverse levels, Forest Lake teachers often divide up this task. When they plan each unit of study, different members of each grade-level team design the activities for higher-skilled kids, lower-skilled kids, etc.


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Comments (30)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Francess Tiger's picture

This is to Monica Schnee; congratulations and your work sounds great. On a personal note, please reply if you have Schnee relatives from Philadelphia, PA, which is my family, & would like to connect.
Francess Tiger

Britt Gow's picture
Britt Gow
Maths and Science teacher from Victoria, Australia

Thanks for your great and timely advice - I will be using these tips when I start to implement an iPod program at our school next semester. I have written about how I hope to achieve differentiated instruction at my Technoscience blog. I think it is also important to give students the opportunity to take responsibility for their own learning.

Daniela Fernandes's picture

I believe that,dividing all the information we have here in tips was an absolutely fantastic idea.And the most fantastic of all:each student is treated according to his/her differencies,and just remembering,this is done using technology,which is modern,updated,totally understood by the young.I will certainly try and use these tips with my English students.

garate's picture

with this new tools education can become much more flexible, and open; students can be in charge of their learning process, and they feel more active. The teacher has many ways to put through his lesson, or even let the students be the teacher, everything becomes more fun.

Bethânia Martins Mariano's picture

Personalizing learning and teaching is sometimes complicated. Big groups, lots of lessons to prepare.. Hope technology really helps us on this journey!
Great article.

Angela Gonçalves's picture

I think it's really important to attend to students' personal needs and interests, but it's something very difficult to do. However, as the article shows, technology can help us in that way. Of course, as teachers we have to look into many possibities to be able to offer our students something that will interest them. It's the new challenge we're facing now, especially because some students still think about using the internet only to have fun, and if the homework activity is fun, maybe it's not really important. Unfortunately, I face this problem with a few students. But I do not give up. I believe technology is our good friend.

Marilia Garcia's picture

I agree with Bethania, sometimes it's really difficult to personalize learning and teaching, due the points mentioned. But techology is undeniable, fundamental to our classes. We could try some alternatives in order to make everybody participate, like asking them to do exercises from a web site at home, or take them to the lab, write compositions and post it at Edmodo, for example.

Karen North's picture

Online learning sites like Learning.com and Renzulli make it easy. The problem I find is getting teachers fluent in using these tools. Also, giving students choices is easy by setting up blog sites like edublogs.org. I started last year (www.build-a-brain.com) and before I knew it had lots of links. The tools are there, the problem is teachers making the choice to use them and campus based support to help teachers make the shift to 21st century learning. If decision makers want to see a change, they need to give equitable resources to technology integration and not allocate the majority of their funding to accountability testing and intervention. As we know prevention is cheaper than the cure. This is like buying a car and never changing the oil or using the car for dream travel. It is time for a law that says 20% of all technology funding must go to the campus level support of that technology.

Eloisa's picture

Another activity we can do with our students is to write a story with the hole class: each week, one student writes a paragraph, the next week another student continues the story and it goes until the last student has written. we can do that in Edmodo or via email. The students just loved it. But as read in item 8: don't trust computers, always send yourself whatever you send students and always have a plan B in case you cannot use technology.

Stelamaris's picture

Being familiar with webtools will not only help us create personalized lessons but also be able to offer our students different possibilities of using the tools in their learning process; so each student have the option to choose their favourite tools to work with. According to a fourth-grade teacher Kevin Durden, doing this,we'll be able to see the students'abilities and not their disabilities.

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