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Focus on Teachers: Brooklyn teacher Aaron Kaswell talks about his shift to personalized learning

December 11, 2014

When I was at the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) conference last month, I was able to catch up with math teacher Aaron Kaswell from MS 88 Peter Rouget School in Brooklyn, NY.  

A year ago, we highlighted Aaron’s and his school’s implementation of New Classroom’s School of One, a blended learning approach that uses daily assessments to customize the next day’s instruction using multiple strategies, including individual online learning, workshops with teachers and problem solving tasks with peers.

At the time, Aaron was a few months into his second year of School of One.  He was eager and pleased to be moving beyond logistical questions of implementation to focusing on ways to use School of One to engage and challenge students at higher levels.

I was interested to hear from Aaron what he had learned from this past year and where he sees School of One heading for his students and co-teachers.

“Now that we have entered our third year, we are really focused on instruction in each of the modalities.  How does one best run an investigation or small group collaboration on a task?  How do we best use the content from New Classrooms to meet the needs of students?” Aaron told our team.  “We spend most of our professional development time talking about student progress and instructional approaches.  And, because our class times tend to be shorter than how the School of One curriculum is organized, we also spend time taking a hard look at the lessons and culminating projects to make sure we are selecting ones that get at the heart of the math content that students need to learn.”

Aaron continues, “Norming our grading practices is a big priority for us.  My colleagues and I are swapping homework and student tasks to give each other feedback.  We are asking each other, ‘How would you grade this task? This homework?  What grade would you give for this?’  It is an important to be on same page as much as possible without diluting our own voice.”

As research is finding, these important teacher conversations about their practice are indicative of the kinds of changes taking places at School of One sites and other schools implementing personalized learning approaches. 

In Aaron’s view, the change to personalized learning is a process. “We’re not totally shifted but we are shifting,” he emphasizes.

Another sign of deepening of personalization in Aaron’s classroom is the integration and blending of other approaches with the School of One modelAaron calls it, “bringing ‘traditional’ differentiation into my differentiated classroom.”

For example, let’s say Aaron is working with 10 students assigned to him by School to One to work on a specific concept.  Four of the students might have had no exposure to the concept, three might have had one exposure, and three might have had two exposures to the concept.  After a lesson, Aaron offers students multiple level problem sets to choose from. Students self-select one set to try and, if they find it too difficult or easy, they can move to a different set—working in teams or individually as necessary.   Kahn Academy is handy online tool for this strategy because, as Aaron points out, “It offers scaffolded and multiple levels of questions, is user friendly and gives students instant feedback.”

Aaron is also pushing on his own concept of what good math instruction looks like.  Last summer, through a grant from Fund for Teachers, Aaron observed the classes of Tetsuya Miyamoto, the Japanese mathematics instruction and creator of the math puzzle KenKen.  Aaron is integrating Mr. Miyamoto’s approach to giving students challenging problem sets and puzzles and letting them go or “letting them play out what they need to play out,” Aaron explains. “I’m not at the center of the class as much anymore; sometimes I’m more of a coach. I’ve become much quieter in asking more questions that push students to rethink or go back to their work.”

When asked about what these vast changes mean for students, Aaron replies, “We are seeing the dramatic gains come from lower end students—for example my 6th graders who are coming in at the 4th grade level.  They grow one and a half or two levels in math in one year alone.  But I’ve also changed my mindset on student growth in learning.  Since I am the 6th, 7th and 8th grade math teacher, I see the kids move from 6th grade all the way through 8th. I’m not as focused as what students do after one year but more so on what they can do after three years. So, yes, these kids are moving more than one grade level per year on average.  But also, when you look over the three years, these kids are becoming amazingly mature, hardworking and strong in mathematics.”

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