Sharing Early Attempts is Key to Districtwide Momentum Toward Personalized Learning

Dr. Karen Gaborik, Superintendent, Fairbanks North Star Borough School District

As Fairbanks advances through our district-wide implementation of personalized learning, it has been exciting to see elementary teachers lead the way in the design and application of instructional models that will more effectively meet students’ needs. These educators are fully engaged in the process of internalizing their training, using design-thinking to create student-centered classrooms, developing dynamic scaffolds to support student learning, and leveraging technology to more accurately assess student learning and target instruction.

One of the most powerful components of the elementary design phase has been the sharing of these early attempts at new instructional strategies. This fall’s Launch Week provided the first opportunity for Fairbanks to “go public” with our personalized learning implementation. All elementary schools participated, and many held Launch Week events in lieu of or in tandem with their traditional fall open houses and Title I parent nights. Teachers displayed for parents at least one personalized learning strategy they were working to implement in their classrooms. The idea was not to address all content areas or the entire scope of a day or a week, but to bravely display first attempts at meeting children’s individual learning needs in a very intentional, systematic way. As superintendent, I directed all secondary school administrators and district program directors to attend an elementary Launch Night of their choice. The impact was powerful, as our leaders not only gained clarity around the vision of personalized learning in our district but were inspired to reflect on how best they could support this initiative.

On the heels of Launch Night, we held personalized Learning Walks in every elementary school. These walks were structured very similarly to the instructional tours. Teachers volunteered to host visiting teams of professionals, including principals, fellow teachers, and district program managers and other leaders. During each five‑to‑seven‑minute visit, team leaders collected observational data on their personal devices, using a very simple Google Doc form. They focused on one of the four core areas pre-identified by the teachers who volunteered for the visit. After each observation, the team conducted a short debrief while walking to the next classroom. At the end of the tour, they then debriefed the entire experience, highlighting elements of personalized learning they saw throughout the school. Team leaders followed up with comprehensive written feedback to individual teachers and schools, with ideas about how educators could “bump up” their practice to the next level.

I participated in Learning Walks at two elementary schools, and to say I was inspired would be an understatement. I was so impressed by the level of student engagement I encountered. I watched kindergarteners utilizing activity playlists. I observed students of all ages making choices around a broad range of activity options for a single lesson. A wide variety of flexible seating was available. Teachers created and taught structures for multiple small groups, which allowed them to focus on a very small segment of students at one time. I watched students use digital tools that gave immediate feedback and adapted in real time to their levels of learning and skill acquisition. Students reflected on their growth after a lesson and then set goals for the next.

At one of the Learning Walks, a long-time teacher in our district said to me, “I love teaching again. I feel like I can be effective with all my students.” And one very active young boy, when asked how he liked the new things he was experiencing in his classroom, answered, “This is awesome!”

Most powerful, however, were the visible first steps in a shift from a culture of teachers performing in silence and solitude under the duress of punitive No Child Left Behind mandates to one of collaboration, sharing, and excitement about their practice. Collegiality is returning to our district. Principals are clamoring to find out what other schools are doing. Secondary principals want to see elementary teachers in action. Teachers across the district want to observe the personalized learning “runners” who have dived into the deep end of the pool and are addressing targeted instruction, data-driven decisionmaking, student ownership and reflection, and integrated digital tools across multiple content areas.

This week, I kicked off a Personalized Learning Exchange in which educators will gather in twice-monthly Saturday sessions to share personalized learning tools, strategies, and support. I believe our personalized learning initiative needs to be 100% teacher-driven and see my role as providing opportunities for communication and sharing, while offering support and cheers from the sidelines.

For me, leadership involves the identification of powerful ideas and the implementation of processes, structures, and supports that empower people to mobilize themselves toward a compelling vision. If you have the resilience and the patience to do that well, you can inspire transformative change.