Teaching Through A Lens of Personalization

Today's post is by Don Taylor of Main Street Middle School in Montpelier.

For many teachers, the move to proficiency-based assessment and personalized learning, as mandated by Act 77, has been cause for rethinking and revamping curriculum. One approach to renewing the curriculum is to consider taking on traditional subjects through the personalized learning perspective.
Recently, students in my classroom completed the novel Fever 1793. Integrated into a study of culture and the migration and movement of people, technology and disease, the novel provides an easy-to-access platform for literary analysis that most students enjoy.
More importantly, when viewed through our personal learning framework, which focuses on identity, growth and reflection, and transformation, the novel provides a great literary example of a young adolescent girl’s maturation from self-absorbed teen to responsible young woman. For our middle level students, the examination of the main character’s identity, in conjunction with her developing relationships, provides a parallel to the personalized learning work completed earlier in the year.

After reading the novel and in preparation for writing a short analysis piece, students were asked to create a relationship web for the main character Matilda “Mattie” Cook. Once created, classroom discussion focused on Matilda’s relationships that helped her survive the yellow fever epidemic raging through 1793 Philadelphia.

Students identified how Mattie’s relationships influenced her through different stages of her growth and the principles and values revealed through those relationships. These discussions, along with examination of themes, use of language, and relevant evidence from the novel, were the background information provided to students prior to writing. Based on this approach to the novel, writing prompts were adjusted to reflect these changes in the curriculum. Students were given the choice of addressing three different prompts:

Prompt #1

Select a character from the story who has had a significant impact on Mattie’s growth as a person. Explain the importance of this character and how Mattie’s relationship with this character helps Mattie grow into a responsible young adult.

Prompt #2

Identify and explain the most important event of the story and how Mattie’s

actions (and reactions) during this time represent her growth and transformation.

Prompt #3

Identify the most important principle or value that contributed to Mattie’s growth as a young woman. Describe how this principle or value helps Mattie survive the yellow fever epidemic and contribute to her community.

As we move through the writing process, I will be soliciting feedback from students as to whether this focus on the elements of personalized learning helped them to develop a deeper understanding of the main themes in the novel.

From the practitioner’s perspective, these changes in curriculum were relatively innocuous. That said, the ability to make connections through personalized learning, in conjunction with our understanding of the middle level experience, can make the language arts experience more relevant and motivating for students.