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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
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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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Karen North's picture

These idea are fabulous and what I try to do in my computer ancillary class. But, I only see these students 2-4 times a month. It is the classroom teachers that need to implement these on a daily bases. But, they can't get beyond survival and into implementation of these 21st century ideas. How do you increase the rate of change in low-income public schools? What support does Forest Lake provide for teachers to help do this?

monica Schnee's picture

I teach Kindergarten and first grade English language learners and I use technology all the time with them. I really believe that children need and must learn to use what is their form of literacy for the future. We do lots of reading and writing and we then use digital storytelling, wallwishers, wordles and all sorts of technology to enhance and extend what we've learned. We have been very successful at it and my Kindergartners and I have won the PBS Teachers Innovation Award this year for making a voicethread about polar bears. I am now in Austin, Texas at the PBS Annual Meeting to learn all the other wonderful tools that I can incorporate.

Geri Coats's picture

I see the potential with technology and choice, and these are some excellent examples of how this school has gone about using technology for differentiation. I teach 9th and 10th grade English/Language Arts and have aprox 115 student contacts a day. Currently I am doing an experiment where I gave students a list of 7 assignments they must get done, 2 of these assignments include a lot of choice (http://bit.ly/9cce90 and an essay where they choose the topic), but I am definitely struggling with managing the different assignments, speeds of students, etc. I have been looking for examples of high schools using technology to enhance differentiation since the number of contacts per day is a substantial hurdle to differentiation.

Looking for suggestions, and open to ideas :)

Amanda Youngblood's picture
Amanda Youngblood
English teacher in Florida experimenting with education

I'm thinking of breaking my course (American Literature) into modules (with "themed" literature) next year and requiring a certain number of modules (which students would choose). Within each module I would require them to demonstrate responses to certain questions, but with no specification of how they have to show they understand/know/have learned. They get lots of choice, and I'd like their responses to be collected into an online or digital portfolio of some kind. Of course, this is entirely theoretical and I have NO idea if or how it'll work... Could be a total train wreck. If you have ideas, let me know. :)

Pamela Francisco's picture
Pamela Francisco
Los Angeles Teacher; 1st gr. Gifted, many years exper. at all levels themat

Would you be willing to share more details about what you so with such young learners using technology...sites, programs, assignments, management?
Thank you, Pamela Francisco teacherpfrancisco@yahoo.com

Grace Rubenstein's picture
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia

Thanks for these great comments and questions, everyone. Pamela, you can find some lesson plans and rubrics on our Resources and Downloads page. Geri, we've had requests from a number of readers like you wanting more info on differentiated instruction at the high school level. We hear ya! We will definitely be on the lookout for good high school models that we can share with you soon.

For the other questions, I'm hoping the good folks at Forest Lake will have some tips to share with you on this page soon. They're in the thick of end-of-year testing and activities now (I'm sure you know how it goes). Stay tuned...


Andy McKee's picture

I'm a high school graphic arts teacher and run all of my classes through a lab of iMacs. I'm a big proponent of technology in the classroom, and the ability to use online text and lessons to employ differentiated learning, interactive structuralist lessons, and self directed learning. This summer I plan to develop Moodle sites for all of my classes.

However, after reading several articles on the research in "The Shallows" by Nicholas Carr, I'm worried about the depth of learning through use of the internet and all it's various media and distracting links. I'd love to read your response to his book.

Felicia's picture

I really enjoyed this article, these are some great ideas! I'm currently taking a graduate course and learning about different technology tools. I'm a K-4 Learning Support teacher (resource room) and I have not really been using technology with my students that much. Some of my students have computers at home, some do not (the ones that do use them to play games). I will find some education games so they can go on and play-but time is of the essence! Does anyone have any ideas on how to incorporate technology when working with students in basic reading skills? I would be interested to hear any ideas!

Heather's picture
Elementary Resource Teacher

I am one of the resource teachers at Forest Lake. I use my SMARTBoard daily to teach reading. I have games that I have organized according to the steps of the reading curriculum use, so that I pull them up to target specific encoding & decoding skills. e.g. short e, or closed syllable words that end in the digraph ck.
When I am working with individuals or a small group, I also assign students specific "may dos" & "must does" on the computer. In some cases, the list may require them to record a score on the educational online game they used to practice.
Forest Lake subscribes to Education City which has games to address standards-based reading skills that are super practice for phonemic awareness. I can monitor student progress through Education City when they do those activities.
I have found that long-term planning makes my whole year proceed much better. I spent last summer creating SMARTBoard lessons and developing my long range plans to include online resources. I put the web sites or games from Education City right into the plan, so when I'm planning during the school year everything is there already.
There's a document a colleague & I developed for a presentation called Smart Ways to Use the SMARTBoard here on Edutopia in the free resources and tools section that provides a breakdown of websites that are annotated by use. I constantly add & adjust the handout for my own use in planning throughout the school year.
Forest Lake's Links for Kids site is another great place to find student activities. http://www.fle.richland2.org/~sweston/websites.htm


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