Personalized Learning Changed Liam's Life

My Personalized Learning Experience
By Liam Corcoran

Personalized Learning Student- Liam Corcoran

In my junior year of high school I had no aspirations aside from becoming a famous rap artist. I didn’t have any fans, I didn’t have a plan and honestly, I didn’t have any skills. I had written and recorded one song when I decided my future was in music. I had been steadily getting more and more depressed for as long as I could remember and this was my only salvation. My self-esteem was at an all time low, I hated school more than ever and my frustration with the world as a whole continued to spiral. 

At seventeen, with one song under my belt, I actually had many of the trappings of a successful rapper: I was desperate, angry and insisted on going against the grain. 

That was six years ago. 

Since then, I have written and recorded over 200 songs. I worked as a supervisor at one of Vermont’s first medical cannabis dispensaries. I started a business centered around helping people overcome anxiety, boredom and loneliness. All of these opportunities stemmed directly from what I did my senior year of high school.

Looking back at where I was at seventeen, all of these accomplishments seem impossible. So what made them possible? Pathways. That was the name of the project-based, standards based personalized learning program I attended at my local high school senior year. As I reflect on my Pathways experience - now that PLPs are being implemented - I am able to identify the most important lessons I learned.

1. Confidence

I will always be grateful of how supportive my parents have been to me. The only problem is, no matter how wonderful our parents may be, the fact remains that we spend more time at school than we do at home for nine months of the year. And unfortunately, I have had very poor relationships with the majority of my teachers for as long as I can remember. 

This greatly affected the way I perceived myself. I had a tendency to do the “wrong” thing at school. My attitude was wrong. I talked at the wrong time. I did my work in the wrong way. So there was a constant voice of doubt in the back of my mind, second-guessing my every action. Over time, I internalized the voices of my teachers.

During my year of personalized learning, my confidence steadily grew. No longer were my ideas, my ways of being or my actions wrong. They were accepted by my teachers. I don’t remember one instance when someone said to me “No” when I presented them with an idea of what I wanted to do or how I wanted to do it. Instead, they often responded with “OK, how will you make that work?”. I chose what I wanted to study and how I wanted to study it. 

I began making decisions that I had never had the power to make before. Not only because I was a senior in high school, but because I was also now part of a culture that allowed me to succeed in my own way and fail in my own way. And whether it was a success or a failure, my teachers were there to congratulate me on my effort and help me learn from the experience. 

2. Creativity

Inseparable from my feelings of self-worth were my powers of creativity. From a young age, I had the notion that creativity meant the ability to produce art. This was continually reinforced throughout my schooling career. 

I know now that creativity means the ability to face problems in different ways. There are creative ways to think, speak and move through the world. 

By these standards, I was always creative. I just was never aware of my creativity. I believed that creativity was a rare gift. The truth is, humans are inherently creative. All humans. Sure, there are varying degrees of ability, but we all possess basic creativity and most importantly, the potential to become more creative. 

Currently, there is a growing awareness of the need for people to be creative because the world is rapidly changing and becoming increasingly complicated. In the context of school preparing us for life, the most prominent problem we all inevitably face is employment. At school, I had a very limited range of possibilities presented to me. It wasn’t until my experience with personalized learning that I realized I didn’t have to uncomfortably try and fit myself into one of the traditional employment boxes: business, health care, law, education, etc. I began to realize I was unique. 

During much of my life, I either felt bored or anxious because I was an individual trying to do the same thing everyone else was doing. This created a constant conflict between who I was and what I did. Personalized Learning allowed me to reconcile these two and understand that I had to create my own way of being in the world.

3. Connection

The most important experience for us when we are young (and forever afterwards) is feeling loved. This can be the love of a parent, the love of a friend or the love you have for yourself and the world around you. The more we experience love, the more our capacity to experience love grows. Love is about acceptance and belief. My personality type is hard to love in a traditional learning environment. 

I made it difficult for my teachers to accept me for who I was. I would talk to my classmates when I wasn’t supposed to be, not follow directions and question everything. Obviously, these are frustrating behaviors for someone trying to teach a classroom full of students. But these behaviors are not bad behaviors. Talking to my classmates, I’m learning social skills. Not following directions, I’m thinking for myself. Questioning everything, is inquisitive and thoughtful. 

My teachers said they believed in me, but at the same time, I didn’t feel they accepted who I was or made it possible for me to believe in myself. I used to feel a great deal of resentment towards my teachers for not treating me with respect and allowing me to follow my own path. Their task, I realize now, was near impossible. 

How can a teacher be expected to ensure the success of all of their students when they are expecting the same thing at the same time from each one? How can a teacher be expected to address behaviors when they have a whole classroom to manage? How can a teacher be expected to connect with each student and have a chance to accept and believe in each student when the student never has a chance to be themselves? 

Through my personalized learning experience, I developed relationships of trust and respect with my teachers. And my classmates. And all of the people I met in the community. And myself. I felt love more than I ever had before. My attitude toward life itself changed. I had grown to love learning, love the people around me and love myself. 

Not everyone’s experience may be as dramatic but each one is as special. Every person should have the opportunity to follow their passions, fail in their own way and experience love. We should all be empowered to find our own path.

Walking the Talk

A key step to bringing personalized and proficiency-based learning to our learners, schools, and communities is to provide targeted opportunities for professional learning. In southeastern Vermont, that’s exactly what one school district is doing. Teachers, counselors, administrators, special educators, and job-to-work coordinators from across the Two Rivers Supervisory Union (TRSU) are truly stepping into their learners’ shoes.

SchoolHack's Josie Jordan is facilitating a series of semester-long cohorts using the LiFT platform and Bray/McClaskey's, How to Personalize Learning, as the instructional texts. Designed as a graduate course through Southern New Hampshire University, TRSU follows the adage, “The ones doing the work are doing the learning.”

Participants build their own PLP’s in LiFT. They create professional and personal goals, design personalized rubrics using Job For the Future's "Educator Competencies for Personalized Learning", and then later self-assess their instructional practice. By creating their own PLP’s and responding to others' in LiFT, participants truly integrate the affective elements and relevancy of student PLP's.

TRSU educators  also work to shift their classroom culture, curriculum, and assessments to be personalized and proficiency-based. Teachers use the course time to build their proficiency-based learning modules in LiFT and then activate classes when they feel ready to implement. This course provides a unique opportunity for educators, counselors, and administrators to learn together. They have permission to experiment, receive the support and feedback of their peers, and most importantly experience hands-on practice that is actionable.

Thanks to TRSU's pioneering work, we at SchoolHack were able to see that the platform LiFT isn’t just a tool to support students’ personalized learning, but also a learning resource to implement professional learning. This type of powerful collaboration will allow us to watch the TRSU learning community blossom as they continue this innovative work.

Students Share Thoughts on Personalized Learning: Part Four

In the final episode of our interviews with college students, we asked them what they might say to schools, educators, parents or students considering personalized learning.

It's "Our Time"- Notes from the Statehouse

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UP for Learning is an organization that helps educational institutions across the country fully engage students in their own learning through a research-based model that focuses on deepening youth-adult partnerships in schools. I had an amazing opportunity today at the Vermont Statehouse to witness how Up For Learning engaged with students to create a song about Act 77 which mandated personalized learning in Vermont schools.

Their work extended beyond the song writing collaboration and involved the creation of a music video called "Our Time". This morning, they presented their work to the House Education Committee. As part of her testimony, high school junior Dorothy said "I was looking for meaning in my education, and I wanted to show what my education meant to me." The creation of this song was a perfect example of students finding meaning in their education and Dorothy and the others were able to convey through song what education meant to them. Hearing them speak about the importance of having agency at their schools was a special kind of inspiration. 

In general, seeing youth in the Statehouse testifying (and not just touring the building) to a legislative committee, is a heartening experience. It makes sense that students would be testifying in front of the education committee. It strikes me now that all committees should hear from youth on every issue. 

After all, what’s the point of creating laws and regulations if they aren't in service of the next generation and those to come? 

Today was beautiful because a state embraced a group of students who collaboratively created a piece of art declaring their need to be coauthors of their education. This may sound like a no brainer or like its not a big deal but when you think about the old paradigm - that is still present across most of the country - where students are passive participants in a prescribed plan designed to mold them to a set of societal expectations that don't honor their individuality or create a supportive community in which they can grow.  So...it is a big deal.  

This is an absolutely critical moment. We can't afford to continue to have stagnated systems in a hyper connected, rapidly changing world. Today, I witnessed a brilliant example of what learner centered, open-walled and socially embedded education looks like. It is possible. This is not just an isolated incident in a small progressive state. 

This was a glimpse at a larger paradigm shift that is taking place across the country that has the potential to radically improve the engagement of our citizens and our ability to tackle global, complex problems because graduates of our schools will have had the experience of practicing locally through personally relevant projects. 

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Liam entered a personalized learning program his senior year of high school and as a student of SchoolHack co-founder Josie Jordan, found a passion for learning and a desire to teach.  Liam studied social entrepreneurship at Champlain College and developed a platform for personal and communal empowerment.  A volunteer and member of the Community Advisory Committee at the Community Justice Center in Burlington, Liam brings his social and personal work to SchoolHack helping the student voice be heard and connecting schools, learners and the outside community with one another.  Liam is a lifelong Vermonter committed to empowering the local economy and environment, and a passionate explorer of the outdoors and an artist.

IT TAKES A COMMUNITY

Revolutions can be noisy things, accompanied by lots of shouting and protest and upheavals. Or they can be quiet affairs, preceded by rumbles of discontent, small tremors, and minor transformations that startle us when we suddenly realize that everything has changed. The personalization of learning is a quiet rebellion against the unrelenting focus on standardized testing and the one-size-fits-all curriculum and standards that have characterized education policy in recent decades.

More important than what it is against, however, is what it is for. It is for putting students at the center of their learning and allowing them to pursue their own curiosities, interests and passions. It is about helping them connect these interests to rigorous learning experiences, and providing them with the time and the tools they need to succeed. It is about engaging parents, businesses and communities more actively in the education of our young people than ever before. It is fitting that this dynamic approach to education has taken root and begun to flourish in Vermont, a tiny state with a population known for its independent spirit, willingness to buck larger trends, and a strong inclination towards civic participation and “small-d” democracy.

In 2013, the General Assembly of the state of Vermont passed and the governor signed into law legislation mandating that every young person in Vermont have a personalized learning plan, that their learning be assessed not through grades earned in courses, but through the attainment of “proficiencies,” and that they have access to many “flexible pathways” towards graduation, including work experience, early college options and dual enrollment. This remarkable legislation, embodied in Act 77, was somewhat overshadowed by the more controversial Act 46, which sparked on-going and often heated discussions about school consolidation. But Act 77 has perhaps more power to shape the educational experience of our young people in Vermont than does the administrative structure of their school district.

Personalized learning is a way of tapping into the interests, desires and enthusiasms of the young people in our communities, and putting these to work.

Personalized learning is not an educational bandwagon that has come from “on high” by policy makers who have spent no time in classrooms. It is a unique case of policy meeting practice; great teachers in all corners of Vermont have been doing this for years, and now they have the supporting policy they need to do it even better. In my research, I have interviewed Vermont high school graduates from years past who were fortunate enough to have these personalized learning options. Some of them were on the verge of dropping out of school when these opportunities presented themselves. They talk about how their lives were changed by their experiences, how they were inspired to pursue their new-found academic interests in college, or how they discovered careers in which they are now thriving.

Vermont communities are filled with intelligent people doing interesting things. This is what personalized learning is all about: connecting young folks with the people and the resources beyond the school walls that can help them realize their dreams. If you are a farmer or a gardener with skills to share, a retired engineer with a lifetime of experience, a tinkerer inventing gadgets in your garage, a film buff, a chef, a tracker or wildlife monitor, or a craftsperson with unique artistic knowledge, please heed the call when a teacher contacts you in hopes that you can donate a bit of your time to a young person who needs what you have to offer. Better yet, contact your local school and offer to contribute your time and expertise. I can assure you that the benefits go both ways.

We are living in a time of rapid transition in which the old models and structures, be they economic, political, technological, social or environmental, clearly won’t suffice, and new ones are being invented. It’s a very exciting time, but schools and communities need to change and adapt to meet the new circumstances. Young people are an incredible resource for a society in transition. They are not so conditioned by old ideas that they can’t imagine things differently. They have the energy to try new things, and if released from the fears of “getting the wrong answer,” they might prove to be the enthusiastic experimenters and inventors that we need. They want to be of use, they want to find meaning in what they do, and they want to create a better world. Personalized learning is a way of tapping into the interests, desires and enthusiasms of the young people in our communities, and putting these to work. But teachers and schools can’t do this by themselves – they need all of us pitching in. It really does take a community to educate a young person. Personalized learning is, at best, a way to create dynamic youth/adult partnerships in order to do the important work that needs to be done to revitalize our communities and lead us into the future.


This commentary is by Kathleen Kesson, who is a researcher, writer and teacher educator who lives in Barre. She is the former director of the John Dewey Project on Progressive Education at the University of Vermont and director of teacher education at Goddard College. Currently she is professor of Teaching, Learning, and Leadership at the Brooklyn Campus of Long Island University. Since 2013, she has conducted research on Vermont’s personalized learning initiatives.

*Reprinted from Vermont Digger, August 21, 2016