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Professional Opinion

Schools' team effort paves way for personalized learning

New Jersey district built excitement for change by getting K12 teachers involved early and intensively
Ross Kasun is superintendent of Freehold Township Schools in New Jersey. Pamela Haimer is assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
Ross Kasun is superintendent of Freehold Township Schools in New Jersey. Pamela Haimer is assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

As a leader in a school system today, it can be difficult to make the choice to move forward with a districtwide change, knowing that the team around you may not fully endorse your decision.

For us, the implementation of personalized learning across Freehold Township Schools in New Jersey was a move we knew would require all hands on-deck. It was the best decision for our students, and our teachers were going to be the ones making major changes to their lessons.

Because of this, we made sure to include many teachers in the process from the start—building excitement and early buy-in for the work.

This is how we made change happen—and how you can, too.

Make it fun

As we embarked on our journey, the first activity we performed as a team was the Marshmallow Challenge—to show the power of iteration and that it is OK to fail forward.

For those unfamiliar with it, the Marshmallow Challenge is a team-building activity where you are given 18 minutes to build the tallest free-standing structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string and one marshmallow. When the time runs out, the structure must be standing with the marshmallow on top.

Our message upon completion was, “If we wait for it to be perfect, it’s too late.”

We also showed the documentary Most Likely to Succeed and read A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown, to reinforce the need for change.

And we used Twitter feeds, slides, Google Q&A, collaborative apps and more to collect and amplify teachers’ opinions so that we could grow and build together.

Make it a team effort

Because we want our teachers to be the leaders of their own learning, we invited them to design programs, lead professional development, write blogs, arrange book groups, and be an ongoing part of vetting digital content.

Our teachers worked directly with the district to create tutorials in the form of screencasts and videos about the vision for personalized learning and the tools available. That enabled us to foster leaders of their own learning in all our schools, at all levels.

Our goal was to make sure our teachers had a voice right from the start. It’s an open-loop process that provides teachers with district-chosen digital providers, school-based purchases and teacher-chosen tools.

Share ideas and experiences

To make sure our faculty would have 24/7 support, we had teachers and supervisors of instruction develop internal websites. These were specifically designed to provide not just tools and resources, but also to celebrate, encourage and motivate those who are innovating with our personalized learning vision.

These websites host videos and blogs where educators share experiences and ideas. They also explain key concepts to keep all educators prepared and informed.

Full steam ahead

The Freehold Township School District serves 3,900 elementary and middle school students, and has made substantial progress implementing personalized learning over the past three years, largely due to the support of our teachers.

Beginning with an emphasis on targeted professional development to leverage personalized learning’s potential for our students, we are confident that the student-centered classrooms we are building as a team will only help to produce connected, independent thinkers who are well prepared for all that lies ahead.