On day one of math class, about one-third of school students are ready to master grade-level standards while others aren’t yet able to complete basic skills. Indeed, it’s not uncommon that students’ abilities span not just one grade level, but several grade levels. And while whole-class instruction may meet the needs of some students, more often than not, it leaves out many more students than it helps. An effective way to tackle the challenge of teaching core academics to all students across ability levels is to implement a personalized approach supported by a variety of carefully chosen digital resources.

In the Putnam County (TN) School System— a rural school district with 23 schools spread across 400 miles—our personalized learning approach has allowed us to reshape education for students on a variety of fronts. In the past several years, we have implemented a number of district-wide initiatives to support personalization and differentiation for students including the launch of our Virtual Instruction to Accentuate Learning (VITAL) program in 2008. Highlights of VITAL include a virtual homeschool, blended and online learning across every one of our schools, course recovery to ensure students stay on track to graduate, and course acceleration—all with the goal of preparing students to be future ready.

Intentional design
Our transition to personalized learning has been an exhilarating journey that picked up even more momentum through our work with Education Elements beginning in the 2017-18 school year. First, we defined what personalized learning meant for Putnam County and then formed a district leadership team to develop supports that align to this vision. Using the organization’s personalized learning implementation framework, we diagnosed areas of need and focus while further workshops exposed our teams to design thinking and innovative approaches to personalized learning so that each school team could ultimately create its own instructional model. In our first year, we implemented personalized learning in our six middle schools. This school year, as we continue this work in our middle schools, our 11 elementary school have embarked on their first year of personalized learning, and in 2019-20, our district’s three high schools will follow suit.

At the core of our personalized learning program is our use of data to inform instruction. We use NWEA MAP data to help us create “personalized learning paths” for students that accurately represent their strengths and weaknesses across core academics while providing detailed insights into their skills within each subject. That information helps ensure our instruction is aligned with students’ specific needs, and furthermore, empowers us to provide students with appropriate tools, resources, and curricula. Here are five digital resources we use to meet students where they are and take them where they need to go.

1. Canvas
Canvas is our learning management system (LMS) and provides a framework for our blended learning environment. It allows us to document, track, and deliver various resources to both students and teachers. Canvas also functions as a professional development tool that connects our master teachers to our newer teachers. For example, master teachers can create entire base curricula, including a menu of digital resources, and make them available to teachers across the district. This is particularly useful for newer teachers who have far less experience in teaching particular courses.

2. Shmoop
One of our most versatile digital resources is Shmoop, which we use district-wide for ACT prep, AP exam prep, and blended-learning coursework. Students love the fun and approachable tone of Shmoop, and teachers appreciate the breadth of Shmoop’s resources, plus the built-in quizzes. Teachers have leveraged Shmoop for everything from helping students learn the essentials of Greek mythology to breaking down works of literature using Shmoop’s vast library of literature resources. Shmoop is also an important resource for differentiation and acceleration. Students who are struggling with foundational skills use Shmoop’s Math Shack while those who are ready to move at a faster pace access Shmoop’s various subject-area resources and test-prep materials to accelerate their learning. Importantly, many of our students are accessing Shmoop outside of school to help with homework and independent study, as well as to supplement summer learning. This school year, we’re also working to integrate Shmoop into our Canvas LMS for an even more seamless integration.

3. Edgenuity
Last year, Edgenuity bought Compass Learning, bringing together two of our favorite digital tools into one system. Edgenuity is a powerful blended-learning tool that we use for credit recovery and credit acceleration. It gives provides Putnam County students the ability to take courses not offered at their school, such as career and technical education (CTE) and various foreign languages. In addition, students in grades 9-12 use Edgenuity to recoup classes they may have failed in the traditional classroom, giving them a clear path to recover recredits with minimal lost time. This year, we’re piloting UpSmart from Edgenuity. This tool allows teachers to differentiate instruction by giving them the ability to determine exactly where their students are for any given content strand and help them focus on the specific content they need to master in order to move forward.

4. MATHia by Carnegie Learning
We input our MAP data directly into MATHia to help us further develop personalized-learning pathways for students. A math-learning engine powered by cognitive science and research-proven instructional design, MATHia continually learns and adjusts, making sophisticated pedagogical decisions and providing ongoing formative assessment every step of the way. For instance, MATHia will rephrase questions for students, redirect them, and home in on the parts of the problem that are proving difficult with the understanding there are often multiple ways to do the math correctly. MATHia doesn’t just tell students what they got wrong, it tells them why they got it wrong and provides them with more opportunities to practice those skills on similar problems.

5. IXL
Teachers use IXL to help students refine their skills across all four subjects offered by the program (math, language arts, science, and social studies). Students enjoy the game-like aspect and the opportunity to earn rewards. The targeted, interactive practice on specific content strands helps build confidence and foster engagement, while giving students the requisite skills for higher-level work. IXL gives students practice that aligns with both national and state-specific standards. It also includes a data tracker, so teachers can see what students are working on in real time and identifies trouble spots for teachers to target through small-group or one-on-one instruction.

Commitment is the key to success
Recent research demonstrates that a successful transition to personalized learning is supported by a firm commitment by district leadership, as well as widespread buy-in and a shared plan of action among district staff. In Putnam County, we have experienced all of these components and look forward to the continued expansion of the VITAL program as we continue to refine and improve our district-wide personalized learning implementation. Our instructional design has proven to be highly beneficial for our middle school students, and we expect to see even more student agency, self-directed learning, and high levels of engagement as we continue to innovate and expand personalized learning across all of our schools.

About the Author:

Lance Key is instructional technology specialist for the Putnam County (TN) School System and a member of the Putnam County VITAL program. Selected as the 2016-2017 VITAL Teacher of the Year, Key has taught math for 13 years (from 6th grade math to AP Calculus) and has been using the blended/flipped model in his classroom for the past nine years. He will present several sessions at FETC  in January, including Increase Student Engagement with Interactive Design. Connect with Key on Twitter at @lancerkey.


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