Getting the ‘snowball’ rolling at Oregon High School

Business and tech teacher a catalyst for personalized learning at OHS
Scott De Laruelle

Photo by Scott De Laruelle. Personalizing student learning in the classroom is nothing new for Oregon High School business and information technology teacher Bruce Nelson. He’s served as a valuable resource for teachers who are beginning to incorporate personalized learning methods into their classrooms.

Personalizing student learning in the classroom is nothing new for Oregon High School business and information technology teacher Bruce Nelson.

But for many of his fellow educators, it’s a leap into the unknown.

To help bridge the gap, he’s served as a valuable resource for teachers who are beginning to incorporate personalized learning methods into their classrooms. OHS teachers have been working on projects as diverse as a tailored gym class, a sophomore-level English journal and an outdoors-based television project.

Nelson, who used to teach technology conferences to educators across the state, first heard about personalized learning a few years ago. The more he learned, the more he realized he was already doing it, particularly with the teachers he was working with.

“They would create a project and learn what they needed to learn based on that project, and I was more of a resource,” Nelson said. “I found adults just naturally learn that way, so began teaching my kids that way.”

In the past, using a more traditional classroom method, Nelson found he wasn’t getting through to all his students when he was teaching them all the same lessons.

“My best kids were learning nothing, my lowest-ability kids were overwhelmed, and the kids in the middle, they were great,” he said. “(Personalized learning) solved some of the problems I had in the past of making sure we keep all kids together and they all learn the same things in the same period of time.”

Nelson said he’s excited district administrators are getting behind the personalized learning effort.

“We wanted it to be a grass-roots effort; we didn’t want it to be a top-down mandate,” he said. “As a teacher, it’s hard when people are constantly telling you what to do and how to teach. We started to give people ideas and sharing different ways they could personalize learning in their classrooms.”

District technology director Jon Tanner said Nelson is a “key leader” in personalized learning at the school.

“Students in his classes understand not only what they are learning, but why it’s important, and how it will benefit them in the future,” he said. “Bruce understands that not all students learn at the same pace, and he has designed classes to allow students to move at a pace that is right for them.”

The great outdoors

One collaborative project that involved several different teachers and subject areas is one Nelson is working on with art teacher Michael Derrick and ag teacher Jillian Beaty for a student “outdoor TV show” project. With the show, kids have a variety of options on how to demonstrate their learning in different subject areas.

Nelson said by tailoring students’ projects to their educational needs and strengths, they end up learning more than in a regular classroom setting.

“It’s amazing, because not only are they learning about the subject they wanted to focus on, but they are learning about other areas often not even realizing it,” Derrick said. “It has become a cross-curriculum adventure.”

Since Derrick and Nelson have worked before on personalized learning projects, this latest one seemed natural.

“You have so many kids here, when you see them in the halls, you can see they like the outdoors, they have the camouflage hats on, so we came up with idea of doing a hunting show, which are so popular, and a lot of kids already (record) their hunts,” he said. “Bruce has kind of been leading the charge at the high school for a lot of personalized learning, and he said it would be great for personalized learning, so we took and ran with it.”

This spring, Derrick’s students are learning “so much more than just photography.”

“They do their story on turkey hunting, and all of a sudden they’re researching turkeys in the state of Wisconsin, which were almost extinct,” he said. “When they write their story, it’s English, they have to write out a script. They’re learning history, they’re learning biology and the life cycle of the deer and ecological stuff. It all comes together, and it’s been great.”

Beatty said it’s great that her ag students are earning art credit with the class.

“It’s wonderful to hear my students talking about camera settings at a trap shoot,” she said.

Gaining momentum

Personalizing learning “isn’t easy,” Nelson said – particularly for teachers who must adapt to a new method and take up more of their own time to plan things out – but once started, the process will grow “exponentially.”

“It’s like a snowball – it starts really small, and it starts to grow exponentially – and we’re still in the small snowball stage,” he said. “We’re not by any means starting to incorporate even half the teachers in any one building. It will slowly evolve.”

That’s not to say he expects the district to one day convert to an all-personalized learning curriculum, as – true to the concept – it might not be the best fit for every pupil.

“A good number of kids will really like the ‘legacy’ or traditional classroom, where a teacher tells them what to do and then they do it,” Nelson said. “Some kids have a real hard time with trying to come up with ideas for projects and then assessing themselves. They need the structure. We’re trying to create a structure that is flexible for them, and it seems to be working.”

Yet, for many students who have tried personalized learning, they seem to resist going “back” to the old ways, Nelson said.

“This last unit, I did it traditional – I was teaching on the board, they follow the same exact steps with me, and I found a lot of them didn’t like that anymore,” he said. “Once they’ve experienced it, I think then they found they really like it.”

The main advantage of personalized learning, Nelson said, is getting students more engaged, which helps them learn faster and retain information longer.

“Think back about that course in a class in high school you really didn’t care for,” he said. “You probably weren’t paying attention, you were thinking of a million other things, you did the work to get it done – ‘just give me a grade’ and you move on.

“With personalized learning, every topic, they should really be able to get into, and my experience is, they do a much better job.”

While Nelson cautions that no learning method is a “silver bullet,” he’s excited to see how the students who are already getting personalized learning in elementary and middle school will do once they get to high school.

“I think they’ll bring other kids with them,” he said.  “My hope is, as the students experience this more in other classrooms, they may put some pressure on their teachers to at least offer them more choices, or give them options, or they will gravitate to the classes that are more personalized, and away from ones that are the more legacy model, 1800s model.

“The most important thing is giving students choices and a voice in their learning and how they are assessed. Because once they have choices in how they can show the instructor they’re learning, they are going to learn it at a much deeper level.”

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