Personalized learning: On its rollout at Duquesne City and what it looks like in classrooms

Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 11/21/2023

Every student is unique, and every student learns differently. These are evident truths in education, but words that the Duquesne City School District has especially taken to heart in how it structures education.

This school year, the district has rolled out a focused, personalized learning plan. On a day to day basis, classrooms are starting to function differently, with a special focus on meeting students where they’re at, and giving them voice and choice in their learning. And so far, it’s gone quite well.

“It’s definitely a mindset switch for some teachers because it’s different from the traditional instruction that a lot of our veteran teachers are used to,” said Dr. Jamie Schmidt, the district’s Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment 

“But I think that now that they’ve gotten started and have pushed out the learning paths and the students have been able to access them and engage with them, teachers have seen success. I definitely think it’s going well.”

The idea of personalized learning in the district has been taking shape for several years, but hasn’t been this focused until this school year. Intensive planning started last year, and picked up when the district was awarded a Moonshot Grant through Remake Learning. With the grant money, the district paid for outside providers to take over classrooms two days a month on average. During that time, teachers were able to undergo professional development to prepare for the personalized learning rollout. Moonshot days have continued this school year, enabling teachers to continue to workshop their personalized learning plans.

“It has been amazing on both sides. Even though our idea centered around being able to work with teachers, the opportunities for kids that have come out of Moonshot have been wonderful. It turned out to be a really good project,” said Schmidt.

“I think it’s just continuing to learn what this can look like for our students and what it looks like at Duquesne. We’re really making sure that we’re doing what’s benefitting the students that we serve.”

While personalized learning looks a little different in each classroom, the hub for learning is called Canvas, a Learning Management System for schools, colleges, and universities. Through Canvas, students are given different learning paths based on how they might pre-access on a particular lesson. Additionally, students might be given multiple options within these learning paths, enabling students to have choice in how they might prefer to learn. Students are able to access Canvas through their school-provided iPads.

“Typically, all students are completing the same learning activities, practice activities and evidence of mastery. With personalized learning, you’re really giving students options to show how they’ve mastered their work. And in order to get there, how they learn and how they practice is also a choice to them,” said Alison DeMarco, the district’s Director of Technology and Digital Learning.

As personalized learning develops in the district, DeMarco and Schmidt both concurred that giving students a growing amount of ownership in their learning is a priority. The district wants its students to find their identities as learners, and to have a growing amount of choice in their day-to-day lives at school. That — at its core — is central to personalized learning.

“With students, the older they get and the more involved with their learning that they get, the ultimate goal for personalized learning is to have students involved in the choice of the learning path itself,” said DeMarco. 

“If they have a better idea of who they are as a person and how they learn as a student, then they’re going to have more voice and choice in that learning pathway and they’ll be more involved in the construction of it from the beginning. I think when you can create that partnership between the student and teacher, that’s when you’re really going to see how students can shine and understand who they are as a learner.”

*The following three sections will highlight personalized learning in three classrooms. Those classrooms include a 1st grade class, a 5th grade ELA class and an 8th grade Math class*

Ms. Lohr’s 1st grade class

In Sharon Lohr’s 1st grade class, voice and choice takes priority. The classroom is carefully curated — down to the wide variety of chairs and seating options. With personalized learning, Lohr has enabled her students to have even more say in their learning.

Lohr recognizes that 1st grade can be an interesting transition for students, as they move to a more structured classroom and more intense learning.

So far, personalized learning has helped make that transition smoother.

“It really makes a difference. If things are too rigid, they might check out,” Lohr said. “I feel like doing this and having some of these small choices is great. It helps them stay on track a bit better. Even as a teacher, I feel like my day goes more smoothly.”

On any given day, Lohr said her classroom shifts to more of a personalized learning focus for about an hour. 

During one ELA (English Language Arts) session, students worked in groups or individually, depending on their preference. Moving from section to section, choice is evident throughout the classroom. One group of students are doing word work, and they have the option to write the words on a clipboard or build the words with magnet letters. Meanwhile, another group of students work with flashcards, and have the option to practice it by themselves or with a friend. Throughout it all, Lohr is going from group to group to give instruction as needed.

“It’s giving them options so that we’re all working on the same thing, but they’re picking the way in which they want to learn it, which I feel like is giving them some autonomy over it, so they’re a little more motivated to do it,” Lohr said. “They take more ownership over their own learning.”

On another day, Lohr’s students were learning about seasons and patterns of the sun. Students had the option to choose the video that they wanted to watch — one about the moon and the other about the sun — and then they shared their learning with a partner.

Throughout each lesson, students are taken on different learning paths on their iPads, depending on where they’re at with their learning and knowledge of a specific lesson.

“I’m making sure that I’m teaching them right where they need to be, and I’m not overwhelming them,” Lohr said. “They’re more involved, and they’re making good choices. They’re good at evaluating if something is too hard for them or too easy for them.”

Ms. Folkmire’s 5th grade ELA classes

Deneen Folkmire recognizes that ELA can be quite challenging for some young learners. Writing doesn’t always come naturally for everybody.

With personalized learning, students have been able to take ELA at a more comfortable pace — whether it be faster or slower, depending on their proficiency.

“For the kids that haven’t quite grasped a concept, I think having that flexibility with pace has been very beneficial, because not everybody is at the same place at the same time,” Folkmire said.

“And for some students, it allows them the flexibility to move on and get more enrichment and the opportunity to do other things once they’re finished. So they’re not held back because the rest of the class isn’t grasping the concept. I think that’s where it’s really been good.”

Folkmire said that up until this school year, she had integrated elements of personalized learning in her classroom, but now those efforts are more focused.

“We had that collaborative work, we had that voice and choice and we had things sprinkled everywhere, but now we’re more intentional with it,” Folkmire said. “I think intention is important with anything you do, and when you’re intentional, you’re able to get the results that you’re looking for.”

Personalized learning is a fluid process in Folkmire’s classroom. Students take assessments to see where they’re at before their learning path is determined, but Folkmire also has them set goals constantly in a running Google document, based on their PSSA scores and diagnostics. Students can also retake their assessments as a learning tool.

Proficiency and understanding of a topic can oftentimes be shown in different ways. Sometimes a student might be asked to write a paper, but Folkmire will give a student the option to exhibit their learning in a different way, like a test or a powerpoint.

“I’m constantly accessing what they need, because that constantly changes,” Folkmire said. "Every kid is a different individual, and you have to treat them as such.”

Mr. Uram’s 8th grade Math classes

At the beginning of the school year, Andrew Uram got in front of his class and made a declaration.

“I straight up told them, ‘this is different for me, and this is different for you. This is different for all of us, but this is what education is going to look like at Duquesne for their entire high school career,’” Uram recalled.

For Uram’s students, personalized learning has come at an interesting time in their educational career. Up until this year, they’ve gotten quite used to learning a certain way, of following a certain routine.

If there was a bit of transition, it might not come as a surprise. But Uram said the change has been met with open arms.

“I feel like 90 percent of the kids love this, because it’s not me just standing up there and teaching,” Uram said.

“Now that we’re two months into this, it’s pretty fluent. The kids know exactly what they’re doing, and that routine has helped them a lot.”

At the start of each lesson, Uram creates multiple learning paths. The students take a 3-5 question pre-test on Canvas, and then Uram does his direct instruction before determining everyone’s learning paths. Students who might not be grasping the content well are assigned a teacher assigned lesson, while other students will move on to the assignments and activities.

Students complete assignments and activities on their iPads before finishing each section with a test. While students work on their iPads, Uram will walk around the classroom, facilitating and helping. Assignments and activities usually are assigned within Canvas on a Monday, but the students have until Thursday to complete everything.

Students are also given some choice within the classroom, as Uram sets up his desks in pairs, and allowed students to pick partners at the beginning of the school year. Students also might be given multiple assignments to choose between on a particular topic.

“It gives them some choice and it kind of alleviates their stress, because they know they have up until Thursday to get everything done. They can work at their own pace. It’s not like a worksheet has to be done in 20 minutes. They have an ample amount of time, they have me facilitating throughout the classroom and my paraprofessionals come in and help out,” Uram said.

“I think the stress level for kids in Math has gone down. I just feel like we’re not pressed for time anymore. Kids aren’t stressed about getting this one assignment done on this particular day. It’s kind of like, all of it’s due at the end of the week. I feel like it helps them a lot.”