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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Boy at monitors and mixing board for school broadcast
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 (53) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Hope Taichert's picture

Hi! I am a student teacher, and I appreciate the method suggested in number six because I have students constantly asking me what they should do next.

Michael Gray's picture

Thank you so much for your very informative reply! I welcome the advances technology has brought to the classroom, and how it has advanced our students' ability to process, absorb, discuss and produce information at a much greater rate than in the past. One of the technologies I have seen begin to take a foothold on the Internet is video logging (vlogging), and with students getting mobile devices at a younger age, I wonder if: a.) you have seen vlogging continue to supplement blogging, b.) vlogging supplant blogging, or c.) an (almost) equal amount of both. With so much bandwidth being dedicated to streaming services for our mobile devices, do you see vlogging as a future technology that will be embraced on a large scale basis (across all grade levels), or do you think it will be limited to middle and upper (high) school grades? I think it (vlogging) will be a technology that will (eventually) replace blogging, as it is easier to just turn a camera on and read from prepared text. In my opinion, the watcher of the video can also interpret viewpoint, mood and tone more easily if it is read by an actual voice than if read on paper.

winnek's picture

Interesting article on the use of technology in the classroom. With the growing number of students whoa re engaged in technology, it's fantastic to see the modern system adapting to students, rather than deterring them from a growth mindset (this is what happened as I was a students). Technology is a fantastic resource for students to be able to interact with, especially with standardized testing being so digital, students need to review how to use technology just as much as they need support in learning standards.

My concern would be about the amount of autonomy in the classroom. As outlined, there are a multitude of resources available for students to engage in digital learning. Are you providing a set of lessons to chose from? If so, how are you determining their usefulness and/or validity? What about the overwhelming amount of options presented to students may over How are you using technology within the classroom and ensuring differentiation? I would argue find a few resources and have students work between them.

One of my favorites is:

Frances Vitali's picture

Thank you, Samer and Winnek, for your insightful posts. Symbaloo is a great tool for helping organize and streamline the 'universe' of resources for students to use (vetted by the teacher) in a content area, project, etc.. As teachers we must acknowledge that the way our students learn and we learn are different. Technology and digital media is how they make sense of their world and bring meaning to their world. So as Khan Academy founder talks about more personalized learning, we are adjusting our own educational paradigms to meet the needs of our students. It is a wonderful time to be an educator as we learn along side students we teach as Seymour Papert emphasizes.

Frances Vitali's picture

Thank you Winnek, for the resource! I will add it to my professional resources and share it with our teacher candidates!

Kathleen Robson's picture

Thank you for sharing. It was important to note that access to technology isn't the only issue but in how teachers/educators use it. In many cases classes are being given iPads and computers but there isn't enough teacher training. What was the source of the teacher training? Can I assume that this was something the school took on together? My last question is about teacher push-back. Were all teachers on board with the initiative?
Thanks again for the post. It is very useful!

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Hi Michael! As a writing teacher, I hope vlogging doesn't replace blogging entirely! ;-) But I do like having students create video responses (so easy with their iPads). Have you seen FlipGrid? It's an even easier way for students to demonstrate learning via video, and also makes it easy for them to respond to each other via video. But I often prefer reading something they have written to watching a video, in part because it's faster for me to read. I think the future has room for both blogging and vlogging!

Gabrielle Mauro's picture

As a current student and aspiring English teacher, I find that technology has always been useful in the learning process. However, I am not educated on the use of technology in general. What are some ways a teacher can assure all students are able to use a certain piece of technology so that lessons run smoothly and none of the students feel frustrated by thinking technology "dominates" their skills?

OOTB Tutoring's picture
OOTB Tutoring
Tutor in Surrey BC - Math, Physics, Chemistry and Calculus Tutor

Thanks for your tips. I am a tutor who is venturing to take my tutoring service online and I will definitely some of the discussed strategies. We all have to evolve with time and make the best use of technology.

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