"You can comb the internet for the most exciting, enticing, entertaining writing prompts or topics and still find a good number of your students unengaged... One of the best ways to gain buy-in for writing is by simply allowing students to write about topics and ideas that interest or concern them."
Whether you’re going full-steam ahead with a fully-flared personalized learning initiative or just trying to sample some PL techniques to build buy-in, engagement and educational authenticity for your students, providing learners with the perfect blend of support and open-endedness can be a major challenge. Here are a two classroom-tested English-Language Arts routines (one for reading and one for writing) that leverage the power of personalized learning:
Reading: “Living Notes” for Books & Novels
If you went to primary school in the 1980s or ‘90s, you remember the classic book report exercise: read the book, summarize the plot, talk about the most memorable part and draw a picture. That process might be dry, shallow and repetitive, but if you’re in an ELA classroom where students are reading a variety of different books at the same time, your students can apply some of those same book report principles to deepen their own independent reading and create a potentially valuable resource for their peers.
The first step for you is to identify what features of any given text your students should be noticing or working on and provide them with a structured framework to document what they read. For novels and fiction texts, encourage learners to focus on plot, character and setting. For nonfiction and informational texts, emphasize descriptions, how individual details support an overarching main idea and technical vocabulary. Once you’ve used the online space or created a scaffolded note-taking sheet to document these “Living Notes,” students can apply that tool to organize their thinking and guide their reading as they work through any text they choose.
This is a great strategy for learners because it allows them to maintain independence and grapple with a text that’s appropriately challenging for them while still receiving the kind of organizational support students have historically gotten from the whole-group model. When students are finished with a book, their “Living Notes” continue on to serve as a strong learning artifact or helpful guide for other students who might read the same book later on.
Writing: Blog Time
You can comb the internet for the most exciting, enticing, entertaining writing prompts or topics and still find a good number of your students unengaged by the writing process. One of the best ways to gain buy-in for writing is by simply allowing students to write about topics and ideas that interest or concern them. While allowing students to pick their own topics can feel unstructured, if you establish “Blog Time” as a regular routine, you’ll have learners generating so much writing that you’ll be learning new things from them every week!
Start by having each learner choose a blog topic for a set term (two months, a trimester or quarter, etc.), and ensure that they can articulate why they think that will be a strong topic for them (it could be basketball, comic books, baking, crafting, video games, etc.) and give a few examples of “posts” they could write about that topic. Then set aside time each week for students to research, write and edit a post related to their topic (many middle and high school teachers find that Fridays work well). These blogs don’t actually have to be published -- they could be housed in a Google Drive document or through the file management system of an LMS. The idea is that learners are building authentic research and writing skills in a way that helps them develop routines that they can transfer to other situations for writing.
Learners love blog time because it allows them to access, build and refine academic and real-world skills by exploring topics of natural interest and intrinsic motivation. This approach aligns with the principles of both personalized and competency-based learning by providing a safe sandbox where exploration and support are both limitless.