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Creating Culture that Drives Personalization

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Daniel Guerrero

Instructional Coach & BetterLesson Blended Master Teacher

Background Information

As the school year went on, I noticed that a student in my class was rating himself lower and lower on the self-assessment. To many educators this would be a red flag, but for me it felt like I had succeeded with him because in his own way, this student was progressing, by being able to identify his strengths, advocate for help, and make decisions for himself!

When I think of a strong classroom culture, I picture one that fosters student skills to manage their own learning process. Building this culture with students is my favorite aspect of teaching. It requires me to take into account what resonates with students on a personal level, and to map out the skills that they need to make it possible. Beneath this culture of student agency are three specific skills and mindsets that I focus on every year:
  • Character
  • Choice
  • Authentic reflection

What is character?

Focusing on building character, and investing students in what I call the ‘systems of character’ is essential to a building a personalized culture. Picking the words that would define my classroom was easy when I thought about what I wanted it to look like in May. My students (and I) needed to have:

  • Grit
  • Synergy
  • Professionalism
  • Drive
  • Community

I purposefully picked words I thought most 5th graders didn’t totally understand because that allowed me to affirm the moments, give examples, and teach them what each one meant and looked like in school and in their lives. Also, in order to affirm this system of character, I used incentives and applications. Incentives came in the form of ClassDojo, which was perfect for reinforcing when students showed one of these characters. Application meant giving kids opportunities to experience these independent of me as well. For example, the class economy we called Dojo Dollars, where the points accrued for showing our focused character traits turned into currency. Students could choose to have jobs, sell study tools, or give tutoring to make more dollars, but had to always watch their budget to pay for rent, bills, and potential fines and loans (you wouldn’t want to get hit with the interests rates that some of the ‘bankers’ set up!).

For more strategies on how to push character in your classroom, check out the Featured Resources section to the right.

Why student choice?

When students feel like their actions and decisions are a part of becoming a great person, it seems only natural to let them wield that power. Student choice is not designed as a flawless way to get kids to master a concept, but it is an acceptance that mastery is best achieved by the student’s own hand. In our class, choice came in the form of pace, place, and content.

This can be seen in the Workshop strategy, where an individual rotation allowed us more small group time and one-on-one interactions where I could model for kids how to be meta about their decisions. Students could choose the activities that they thought would help them learn best, but it wasn’t always pretty. Just like me, they often would pick what they wanted to do, not what they needed to, which is where reflection comes in.

Balancing accountability for their work with choice was such an interesting space to be in.

For more strategies on how to include student choice in your classroom, check out the Featured Resources section to the right.

Inspiring Authentic Reflection

That student that you heard about at the beginning of this article was engaging in the Marzano Practice strategy, a strategy where the students would self-assess their understanding of a topic. For them, this opportunity to reflect, and to ground their decisions in what they learned about themselves, was invaluable. With character driving the ‘why’ and choice driving the ‘what,’ reflection served as a perfect thing to do before, in between, and after those steps. Given that some of these were new skills, students needed help with writing reflections, and being totally honest with what they needed. Appreciating that even personalizing reflection, and allowing students to do this in different ways, was helpful to meet them where they were. Marzano Practice helped with this because students who felt they reflected incorrectly once they got to their level of practice could bump themselves up or down a level.

These skills and mindsets, as you can see, feed into one another, and absent one, the whole system may not have worked. Luckily, I had some amazing students that always inspired me to push more, and these systems developed through their feedback and support all the way. They developed a culture where they were the ones that drove their personalization.

For more strategies on how to include authentic reflection in your classroom, check out the Featured Resources section to the right.

BetterLesson Master Teacher Project

Daniel was a part of the BetterLesson Blended Master Teacher Project. For the project, BetterLesson chose 11 of the highest-performing blended teachers in the country to capture and share their effective practices. All of the Blended Master Teachers have one thing in common: they use technology in strategic and innovative ways to personalize the learning of their students. To find out more, please visit the project site.

The high-definition strategy videos and teacher-created artifacts you'll find here represent a unique body of practice by blended learning teachers for blended learning teachers.

Opinions presented in this Insight are those of the author and do not necessarily represent TLA's opinion, nor should be considered an endorsement by TLA of any organization or product.

Daniel Guerrero

Daniel Guerrero

Instructional Coach & BetterLesson Blended Master Teacher

Daniel Guerrero believes deeply in the personalization of student learning, and the strengthening of the teaching profession to build students who challenge the 21st century’s problems. He joins BetterLesson, after teaching 4th and 5th grades in Miami, FL, as an Instructional Coach, meeting virtually with teachers to support them in their goals to move their classroom to be increasingly student-driven.