George Lucas Educational Foundation

Schools That Work | Practice

Nashville Big Picture High School

Grades 9-12 | Nashville, TN

Personalized Learning: Enabling Student Voice and Choice Through Projects

Adapt these six tips to bring personalized learning projects into your classroom and build student engagement. 
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Personalized Learning: Enabling Student Voice and Choice Through Projects (Transcript)

Student: If you invest in us, we're asking for $25,000 with 16 percent equity.

Advisor: I'm going to propose that you sell your baskets for maybe like $40, and I'm prepared to give you $50,000.

Chae: The whole focus of personalized learning is the students see the relevance of what it is that they're doing. And so the outcome is students are engaged. They're enjoying the learning process. They're working collaboratively with others. They're able to share what it is that they've learned and have their own successes.

Chae: Here at Nashville Big Picture High School, we offer rigor, we offer relevance, we offer relationships, and all of it is centered around students and their personalized learning.

Gary: Who would be the ideal target for somebody who's trying to recruit for a group like this.

Student: Really, it's just anyone who has like a gap in their life that they need to fill.

Gary: Oh, man, that's a killer statement.

Gary: I think the essence of personalized learning is understanding where the students is and where they want to go. We use a lot of project work in class. And with the project work, I try to give them voice and choice. Give them a menu of options that they can research. Also a menu of options that they can choose to show learning.

Gary: The last group that we'll hear from today will be Naomi, Brianna, and Nicole. And they are going to inform us on what exactly the Black Lives movement is and what it's about.

Nicole: In Mr. Gary's class, we have U.S. history, and what we do is learn about different things that is going on in the world, either from the past, or what's going on today.

Nicole: Eric Garner, he died; he was standing out after eight. New York police officer put him in a chokehold, and his last words were, "I can't breathe."

Nicole: So my project was Black Lives Matter, and I chose that because I'm kind of passionate about that. I'm passionate about black rights.

Student: Black Lives Matter was created in 2012 after Trevon Martin's murder.

Gary: It puts them in the role of being the expert, and they're able to share with students about something that they've researched, and it gives them a sense of confidence because they have that role in front of the room, and they're sharing that information.

Gary: You guys, good job! We'll pick up on Friday morning.

Chae: When it comes to personalizing our learning, we do have some commonality, so that when we do have projects, we also have to look at content and what standards are. But student voice is key. So it's students-centered because a lot of the ways of, "How did you learn it?" some of that comes from the students' voice.

Derick: And right now I want to go around with everybody and talk to you about your product -- see where you are. I'm going to ask you about your equations that we worked on last class. The better you feel about your product, the better it will be.

Derick: We have started a project called Shark Tank. It's just like the TV show.

Derick: You'll present your product, we'll give you feedback and say, "I'm gonna invest in your company," or, "I'm not going to invest in your company."

Derick: What I wanted to do was give the students opportunity to create their own business. It could be real, it could be imaginary, but to create a business that they have a product.

Student: It's going to be like solar panels on a iPhone case that charges up the phone.

Derick: What is your product going to sell for?

Student: Okay, they're going to sell for $4.99 plus tax.

Derick: $4.99?

Student: Mm hm, plus tax. And it's going to come up to five dollars and nine cents.

Derick: So that's all you need for the campaign to get started, to get people to buy it.

Dan: It had to have a marketing piece, they had to make a promo, print a logo that promotes your brand. You could have a jingle, and if you have a jingle, you can just sing it, or you know, or like [Dan and Student sing].

Dan: How do you like to learn math? What are you good at? Do you like music? Let's sing a song about quadratic functions. You like to draw? Let's draw a graph, and let's paint a picture. We're covering the same standards, but it looks different.

Dan: This a video?

Chris: Part of the product.

Dan: Oh, that's right, you got the cranium.

Chris: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Chris: Personalized education, it's really the same thing, but you get more of what you're interested in, so that's good, because you like also get an insight to what you want to do.

Student: Hello, everyone. This is Impulse Products, and we would like to present Arctic Impulse.

Derick: They did all this research, they got in groups of three or four, and then presented their project.

Student: This is how we created, and this is where we usually distribute across the U.S.

Derick: Me and my advisors, we were the Sharks, we were sitting on the side. At the end of the project, they would throw out some investment numbers, just like Shark Tank, they give a dollar amount, usually, and they give an equity amount.

Student: Our investment, we were going to ask for 10 percent of equity for $100,000.

Derick: I'll give you $75,000 cash, but I want 17 percent equity.

Gary: I'm going to give you $100,00 for 20 percent equity in the company. [laughter] Money talks. I need to know right now, though. I need to know either you're in or you're not.

Class: Seven, six, five--

Student: Mr. Derick.

Derick: Yeah! Whoo! [clapping]

Derick: I never seen these kids get excited about a math project. Everybody got involved! Even the kids that were not good in math. They were getting involved. They were doing quadratic functions. They were doing all these things. I would be silly, as a teacher, not to give them that opportunity to be creative and get excited about a math project.

Student: I learned how to market my business, and make new investments.

Chae: When you're able to make it relevant to a student, it helps them to want to do it, and not just do it because that's what's expected. Student voice is key. Hear it, learn it, ask for it. What is it that will help you do better. How can we help you improve? What do you need from us?

Gary: I'm in for $50,000, and just to make it sweet, let's keep it at 15 percent. [applause]

Derick: All right! I feel ya!

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Addressing four teenagers standing at the front of the classroom, Gary Hook, a history teacher at Nashville Big Picture High School, told them, "I'm going to give you $100,000 for 20 percent equity in the company. I need to know right now, though. I need to know whether you're in or not."

A panel of four additional 11th-grade teachers sat beside Hook, and each of them took turns making different investment offers based on the product, potential revenue, and investment request that the students initially pitched.

The power switched into the students' hands when they chose an offer, and all of their classmates erupted in cheers. They were participating in a two-week Shark Tank project -- based on the show of the same name -- where entrepreneurs pitch investors to fund their company.

A tall teenage boy in a pink hat is standing at the front of the class with his hands on his hips. He's standing beside two teenage girls who are behind a desk turned into a podium. The three of them are smiling out to an audience.
Three Nashville Big Picture teens after they chose an investor for their Shark Tank project.

What began as a classwide math project to learn about the profit function equation and quadratic functions culminated into a grade-level presentation to imitate the show Shark Tank.

Each student was tasked with joining a group to create a fictitious business, which included developing a product and marketing plan, choosing a location and work space, and identifying how much money they would need for startup costs and what the return would be for investors.

"One of the things you hear all the time as a math teacher is, 'When am I ever going to use this?'" says Derick Richardson, a Nashville Big Picture math teacher. "I try to bridge that. And so through this project, the kids were able to see, 'Oh, man, we're talking about stuff that I hear on the news and that I see on this TV show that I like, and it actually makes sense.' Everybody got involved, even the kids that are not good at math. I've never seen these kids get this excited about a math project."

"When you're able make learning relevant to a student," adds Chaerea Snorten, Nashville Big Picture's principal, "it helps them want to do it and not just because that's what's expected. The whole focus of personalized learning is that students see the relevance of what it is that they're doing. The outcome is students are engaged, and they're enjoying the learning process."

If you want to engage your students in personalized learning projects, here are six tips from Nashville Big Picture High School for how you can get started.

How It's Done

1. Make Your Projects Simple

Not every project has to be a grade-level collaboration like the Shark Tank project. Instead of the traditional paper or PowerPoint presentation, give your students choices in how they show their learning. They may choose to make a video, act out a skit, or create a painting.

Kristin, a Nashville Big Picture junior, was asked to depict slavery in any way that she wanted for her history class. She chose art. Her painting depicted Harriet Tubman and a slave girl against a backdrop of words.

A painting of a young black girl and Harriet Tubman holding hands against a backdrop of words in black, red, and yellow, representing the oppression of slavery on one side and freedom on the other.

These words -- ranging from “kidnapping” to “hope” -- depicted a slave's journey from slavery to emancipation. She appreciated not only being able to choose how she would express her learning, but also the public display of her art -- alongside other students' work -- in the school hallways. "My art is a part of me," shared Kristin, "and so for people to walk by and see a part of me, it feels great."

When Harley, an alumnus, entered Nashville Big Picture in ninth grade, he was given the choice in how he could approach his first project. "I made a video documentary about myself,” Harley recalls, “and from that assignment, I realized that I loved making movies." From that moment forward -- from his exhibitions to his senior capstone project -- Harley expressed his learning through video. "I wouldn't have put in as much time and effort if I had to write a lot of papers, but by making a bunch of videos, I was able to do awesome work because it was something I cared about," he says.

Watch Harley’s short video for Edutopia about student voice and choice (and read his four tips on how teachers can engage students).

2. Let Your Students Choose What They Learn (It's Not as Scary as it Sounds)

In place of a quarterly test, Big Picture history teacher Gary Hook assigned his students a mini-project to research, investigate, and present on a topic within modern U.S. history. He gave them a list of topics from the ‘80s to the present -- ranging from movements (like gay rights and Black Lives Matter) to the impact of social media on modern-day society. If there wasn't a topic on the list that his students wanted to research, he let them choose their own topic as long as it fit within modern U.S. history.

Give your students a list of options from which they can choose, whether it’s a book to read in language arts, a topic to research in history, or a business to create in math. "With project work, I try to give them a menu of options that they can choose from to show their learning," explains Hook, “as well as a menu of options that they can choose to research. This allows them to operate in a space where they are comfortable.”

3. Give Your Students a Project Framework

Giving your students choice in what they learn and in how they express their learning doesn't mean that content or standards get thrown out the window. Hook was able to give his students choice while still meeting his content objectives. Nor does giving your students choice mean that your assignments lack structure or planning. "When it comes to personalizing our learning, we have to look at what our content and standards are. We start there," says Snorten.

"The essence of personalized learning is understanding where the student is and where they want to go, as well as where you need them to go," adds Hook. Give your students a project brief to make sure that they cover the content and skills you need them to learn. Hook gave his students a project brief outlining the objective, topic options for research, guidance on how they'll carry out their project (such as working in groups and presenting their topic), and details on what needed to be included in their process.

4. Use Temperature Checks to Assess Your Students' Work

When assessing personalized learning projects, do one-on-one or group temperature checks with your students. Are they hot or cold? Are they way off or close to grasping what they need to understand? When Richardson's students were working on the Shark Tank project, he would go from group to group, checking in on their profit functions.

Richardson also checked in on their progress with their product, their marketing campaign, and the elements of their project that were less tied to math. "Sometimes you have a project, but you don't follow up," he explains. “You hand out a sheet of paper, they go do it, and that's it. I really wanted them to get excited about this, be passionate about it, and create something that they really might be able to use outside of the classroom.” Student choice about their project brings relevance to their learning. By showing interest in the whole project, you show interest in their passions and in your students themselves. They’ll become more engaged in their work if they believe that you're excited and engaged in what they're doing and in who they are.

5. Get to Know Your Students

"We need to understand who our students are and how they learn," stresses Richardson. Once you understand your students' needs, you won't waste time delivering content in a way that they won't comprehend. "It saves you a lot of time and effort," he says.

"Like adults," adds Courtney Ivy Davis, Big Picture's school counselor and internship coordinator, "their passion is what drives them. It's what gives them excitement, and we want them to be excited about their passion and tie that to their education so that they can be successful lifelong learners." Students don't walk into your classroom with their passions and interests written on their forehead. You have to uncover these things while giving your students the opportunity to explore and discover their interests for themselves. By offering them choice in what and how they learn, you allow them to figure out how they learn best. Building intentional relationships with your students will allow you to guide them in this discovery. Here are 22 ways that Nashville Big Picture builds intentional relationships with their students. (Note that these strategies are applicable even if you're at a bigger school.)

6. Ask Your Students What They Want and Need

"Student voice is number one," emphasizes Snorten. "Hear it, learn it, ask for it. 'What is it that will help you do better? How can we help you improve? What do you need from us?'" Building personal relationships with each of your students is important, but it also takes time.

If you have a class of 40 students, and want to know their needs and interests now, ask them.

See Related Resources: When We Listen to Students and Student Surveys: Using Student Voice to Improve Teaching and Learning

Help Your Students Figure Out How They Learn Best

Rather than opening a textbook, memorizing steps to an equation, or learning the teacher's method on how to understand something, personalized learning allows your students to figure out how they learn best. They also get to see how their peers learn best, showing them that there are many ways to problem solve and reach the same solution. "At other schools, they might know one specific way to do things," explains Richardson, "but our students are prepared to be more creative in how they figure out the solution. They learn how to learn on their own, and they take that into college."

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Michelle Korenfeld's picture
Michelle Korenfeld
Lifelong creativity educator offering a unique interdisciplinary method of teaching English together with facilitating creativity

This resonates with me very much: "I would be silly as a teacher not to give them this opportunity to be creative...". What those teachers ask their students are good questions: "How can we help you improve?" and "What do you need from us?". Beautiful.

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