Linking the Known to the New


I have a confession to make. Despite working in the curriculum department, despite quite a few years in this education field, and despite reading, researching, and hours of discussions with colleagues…I’m still trying to figure out what personalized learning is.

Good news, though, if you’re sitting next to me on the same gently rocking boat–it’s OK. We still have time. In my case, things became clearer when I listened to students.

Last Monday night I drove my two boys to Covington Middle School for their 6th grade orientation/showcase night. Wearing both my educator and dad hats, we toured familiar hallways (to me, at least; my 5th grader’s eyes bulged a bit at the rows of lockers and the open staircase in the entry, “Is this school really TWO WHOLE STORIES?”). I slyly introduced him to some 6th grade teachers, and embarrassed him in front of Mr. Gourde, the principal (“I can text him anytime, you know.”).

Toward the end of the evening we crossed into the 7th grade hallway and beheld quite the sight–dozens of mounted QR codes, each with a hand-scrawled title referencing the challenges and tragedies of tribal sovereignty. Scanning the codes brought to life the voices of 7th graders via SeeSaw, reciting two-voice poetry about injustices inflicted upon Native Americans. Parents, teachers, and community members wandered up and down the hall/wall, scanning, listening, brows furrowed, eyes alight. Similar examples of student work, some infused with technology, some not, were on display in most of the hallways and classrooms at Covington. Voices reaching out beyond the classroom….

I heard other voices just then. Lucy Calkins. Sam Bennett. Kylene Beers. Robert Probst. Harvey Daniels. Ralph Fletcher. Donald Graves. Nancie Atwell. Cris Tovani. Linda Rief. Especially Linda Rief. All of them whispering in my ear, “Students still need what they’ve always needed: real reasons to read, write, think, and problem-solve, and the teachers who model themselves as learners and thinkers striving to connect the classroom to world outside.”

Linda Rief’s beliefs about teaching fundamentally changed who I was as an educator nearly twenty years ago. In her most recent book, Read Write Teachshe reminds us that our mission has not changed:

I want them to be articulate, compassionate citizens of the world who can communicate their thoughts and beliefs and feelings well to others, and who can understand and evaluate the thoughts and feelings and beliefs of others. I want them to work together cooperatively and collaboratively to solve the problems in the world. I want them to have a voice.

Last year we invited Sam Bennett back into the Evergreen family to help us remember what’s always been important about student learning, what she first called our attention to in the opening of That Workshop Book:

A workshop has its roots in learning from the dawn of human existence. Once one caveman learned to make fire, he showed the next caveman how. He didn’t say, “I have fire. Now go make one.” Throughout history, a workshop has been a physical and mental space to organize human learning. Think master and apprentice. Think making things. Think transferring the skills and knowledge from one generation to the next through demonstration and the creation of products that have use in the world–products that help further the course of human progress.

Sam and Linda’s calls to action echo Graves from a generation earlier, that by nurturing student voice, choice, and feeding their human agency we arm them as critical thinkers in a world where critical thinking seems thinly present. Bennett and Graves both describe the workshop as a place where predictability of structure “allows the unpredictable work of deep reading, brilliant writing…and connections of new to the known–that is, learning–to happen.” Over thirty years earlier, Graves said

Predictability means that writing occurs daily, at set times, with the teacher moving in the midst of the children, listening to their intentions, worries, and concerns. They know she will be nearby attending to their work. She rarely addresses the entire class during writing time. She works hard to establish a studio atmosphere. Predictability also means she won’t solve problems for them. Rather, she asks how they might approach the problem. She listens, clarifies their intentions and their problems, and moves on.

The voices of these educators, master teachers, and researchers of students form threads connecting our beliefs about best practice–the act of always seeking to know our learners, to understand and reveal the why behind the structures and rituals that seed and grow critical thinkers–to the present-day personalization of learning where student agency, voice and choice are (still) central to the classroom core. Too often we lose those threads in the immediacy of now, whether it is the influx of new technologies, or state standards, or tests, or the evolving demands of our school communities. If that cliched pendulum of educational reform does exist, it isn’t a swinging back and forth of belief or ideology; rather, it’s our own tendencies for distraction and a wavering resolve that moves us away from what matters most.


I stood in the Covington hallway of student voices for a good long while, thinking to myself “I’ll just listen to one more and then I’ll go.” I was excited and proud that my son would be joining those teachers and kids next year, energized that what we’ve always known hadn’t been lost in the new.

Listen to your students. They’ll remind you.



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