Voices from Classroom: I changed my classroom after 20 years because the world has changed

By Kevin Fleischman
Camp Ernst Middle School

When people imagine what a classroom looks like, most of them picture rows of desks, students filing quietly into the room. They picture the teacher standing in front of the classroom like a symphony conductor, signaling to the kids that learning is about to begin. I’ve been a teacher for almost 20 years, and that’s been my experience almost every year.

Last school year everything changed.

In 2016, Camp Ernst Middle School decided to introduce a personalized learning program to better support each of our students. With the evolution of technology and the way that has impacted all of our lives, the world has changed dramatically since I first began teaching years ago. Why wouldn’t that mean that we need to change the way we teach? That’s why I was so excited to be part of the team that would bring a new personalized learning program, Summit Learning, to our school.

Personalized learning is not a new concept to teachers. Every effective teacher is constantly figuring out ways to reach every student, whether it’s the student who needs extra help with concepts that he didn’t quite grasp last year, or the student that is ready to move on to advanced topics more quickly than her peers. But coming up with lessons that target each student’s exact skill set is impossible in a classroom full of 30 students. Any teacher who tries wouldn’t be able to do so for very long without burning out. That’s why our school was thrilled to hear about a program that could help us better reach each of our students, while empowering them to take charge of their own education.

Since we implemented Summit Learning last year, students are able to work through assignments at their own pace. They spend much of their day in project-based learning time, during which they are working with their peers on projects that interest and excite them. And each student in the school now has a dedicated teacher who mentors them by helping them set individual goals for themselves and regularly checking in on their progress.

Kevin Fleischman

Creating a classroom built around personalized learning presented new challenges for me as a teacher. Because students were able to work at their own pace, I created different options for my students based on how they’d like to learn a particular topic. For every topic – from pronouns to point of view – I designed study guides and plans for small group or one on one instruction. I also initiated a program called “Couch Coaches,” where students who were ahead could volunteer to mentor their peers on the comfortable couch I had in the cozy back corner of the room.

My students began learning in new ways. It wasn’t always easy, but it’s paying off. I remember the moment that I first saw the transformation in one of my students. After about a week or two of working on the “Parts of Speech” content, the first student approached and told me he was ready to take the test. The moment he finished it, I got a notification on the Platform – an online tool that helps students and teachers set and track goals, learn content at their own pace and complete deeper learning projects – telling me he had missed passing by one question. Furthermore, the platform’s analysis indicated that of the three different topics being tested, he had missed all of the correct answers on the last topic, so it was pretty clear what he didn’t understand.

When I arrived at his desk, I found him not disappointed but furiously back at work. In the thirty seconds that had passed since he had finished the test, he had looked at the same analysis I had, drawn the same conclusion I had, and had already begun working again. He had dismissed the idea that he had “failed.” Instead, he used the assessment’s results to determine what to do next.

The maturity and the responsibility he was showing stunned me. I watched student after student start to own their learning. By the end of the first semester, my 8th graders weren’t walking into class and waiting for me to start a lecture. They would sit down and get to work. It was thrilling and awe-inspiring to see my students shift from passenger to driver.

This doesn’t mean that my classroom is a quiet space with 30 students staring at their screens and doing solo work. Technology isn’t the teacher; I am, and although it may look different, I’m teaching more now than I ever have before. I don’t lecture or deliver direct instruction as much as I used to. Now I have more time to utilize many valuable aspects and skills of my job that I always wished I had more time for, such as designing targeted small group instruction, and building positive relationships with kids.

I believe the majority of teachers enter this career because we are an idealistic lot by nature. We want to help each and every child who walks through our door succeed. Last year, my students knew when they could move ahead on something, and when they needed study guides or more intensive support. This wasn’t just helping them gain the academic skills they needed to be successful; it was helping them develop the habits that are important in a professional setting as well, like self-management, perseverance and supporting your teammates.

Today’s kids live in a different world from the one I taught in 20 years ago. It’s changed, and it’s time that our idea of an effective classroom changes too.

Kevin Feischman is an English teacher at Camp Ernst Middle School. He is a member of KCTE and a board member of Watch Write Now, a non-profit mobile film club dedicated to building critical thinking skills.

3 thoughts on “Voices from Classroom: I changed my classroom after 20 years because the world has changed

  1. Thanks for giving the “inside” perspective. I believe it is critical for us as a society to ensure we have different learning opportunities for students. I appreciate your insight, reflection, and candor about a topic that has been a heated topic in many circles. It is my hope more students engage and learn through this modality. Yet, the question, remains should we be assessing students to understand their learning style to ensure we are placing them in the right environment to succeed?

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