Personalized learning approach sets individualized course for Willow Brook classroom
Personalized learning approach sets individualized course for Willow Brook classroom
Tuesday, July 9, 2019
Maria Farmer no longer stands at the head of her classroom at Willow Brook Elementary School to teach her 22 fifth-graders at the same time. Her students are rarely at their desks at the same time working on the same thing. That’s because Farmer has restructured her teaching methods and class schedule to personalize learning for each student, taking into account where they are in their learning on different subjects and how they learn best.

Students receive daily personalized instruction in math and reading. Fridays are set aside entirely for goal-setting. Students meet with Farmer one-on-one to set weekly, monthly and trimester-long goals and discuss progress. Discussions are very specific about steps students will take to reach a goal and why they are working on that specific goal.

“That’s a big conversation we have all the time,” Farmer said. “I don’t want you to tell me what you want. I want you to tell me why you want it. Because if you don’t have a purpose, you’re not going to fight for it. That’s just a wish.”

Other times throughout the week, students work independently with the over-arching goal of meeting or exceeding grade-level learning expectations.

“Every child is doing something different based on their needs,” Farmer said. “In math, I have eight math groups and students are working at a level from foundational skills all the way up through sixth-grade math. I meet with them in small groups or individually, teach the lessons that they need and assign assignments and independent work all based on that.”

English language arts (ELA) is handled in much the same way.

"They all have their own reading level and I meet individually with every student to discuss their reading of books, and I use the STAR (test) data and the ELA data to develop skill groups for all kids,” she said. “We’re looking at content that’s expected of fifth grade that they struggle in and then I meet with them about twice a week. I meet individually with every student two or three days a week on their independent reading and their personal growth as a reader.”

Moving to a different way of teaching and engaging students requires a great deal of work, but Farmer said it’s worth it.

“It’s very different, but to see the growth of the kids this year in comparison to the past is astounding,” she said. “I do this because I want what’s best for the kids, and every kid is different and not everybody can learn the same. And standing in front of the class wasn’t successful. It was, but it wasn’t as successful. This takes time. It takes patience. It takes organization, but in the end, I think it’s worth every heartache and every tear and everything that I’ve gone through.”
She said her students have embraced it as well.

“We had a big conversation at the beginning of the year of why I wanted to do this,” she said. “I did a lot of surveys of learning styles and learning preferences and things like that. The kids at first were a little nervous, but, quite frankly, when they realized that I was doing this for them, they flew with it. They are so appreciative and so hardworking. They love it.”