The Dance of Personalization in Literacy

Written by: Chrissy Park

Changing the Way We Think 

As educators, we get used to teaching our units the same way each year. We rely on the greats to show us how to teach literacy using a balanced literacy approach. Jennifer Serevello, Lucy Calkins, Linda Reif, Lester Lamanick, and so many others have shown us systems, programs, and strategies to teach literacy concepts to children. Over and over again they have proven to be effective in teaching literacy to children and we have seen growth year after year. 

The one thing that all these greats have in common? They do not know our students. They are not in our classrooms and our students do not know them. We do not need to throw these great works out, we need to change the way we think about them. We need to include our students in their learning and allow them to understand how what they are learning connects with the world around them. The key to doing this? Personalizing children’s learning so they choose their own learning path, their learning targets, and understand how it connects to the world around them. 

Using Playlists to Personalize 

Over the last couple years I have been thinking about how to use personalization with elementary students, while also incorporating all the elements of a balanced literacy approach. Through working with the Tarrant Institute and Learning Lab I have gained the skills to create playlists in order to incorporate all these elements. These playlists are a way to restructure independent work time in your workshop block. It acts as a guide for children while the teacher is working with small groups and conferencing with students. They allow students who understand skills to move ahead and try skills that have not been taught in a mini-lesson yet. They also allow students who might need more time and practice with a skill to get that practice. They allow for true differentiation and personalization. 

What is a playlist? A playlist is a self guided path where students can choose skills and targets that they feel they need to work on. In this example of a 3rd Grade Nonfiction Playlist, students work on finding the main idea and supporting details as one of the skills in their path. They choose a learning target that fits where they feel they are at with that skill. After, they choose a resource and complete the activity that matches their learning target. Once finished with the activity, they submit their work on whichever platform the teacher is using and complete the reflection questions (For this playlist the platform used was Seesaw. Google Classroom and Google Slides also work well). Here is another example of a 5th Grade Nonfiction Playlist with different reflection questions. 

Incorporating Social Justice 

This year I realized that these playlists also lend themselves well to reflection around social justice topics. Using Learning For Justice, I adapted their Social Justice Standards into scales for my students to reflect on. The students used a playlist to explore topics like diversity, justice, and taking action. They reflected on these deep topics and conversations using book creator as a way to create their own Social Justice Reflection Journal. 

Playlists can also be used to teach mini-units or used for one week to highlight a social justice topic or event. For example, this year for Martin Luther King Jr. Day my students completed a one week playlist focused around equality. They looked at songs, past and present, and reflected on how they represented inequalities throughout history. This was a way for them to connect our classroom conversations with some self guided reflection around the topic of equality and inequality in our society. 

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance” ~ Alan Watts

Making 'Real-Time' Personalization Possible | MarTech Advisor

Over the last two years using these playlists I have seen a change in my students. They are excited for our literacy time and motivated to try out new targets after they have mastered one. They are more self-directed and they understand how their learning is connected to the world around them. Educators can feel that there is always something new to try and it can be overwhelming to do it all. I invite you to think of this as not something new, but a way to organize all the work your students have already been doing. I invite you to see the magic when your students are excited to push their thinking and work harder when given feedback. Most importantly, I invite you to join the dance called personalization. 

Chrissy Park is a classroom teacher at Burke Town School in Burke, Vermont.