Personalized Learning – a Year in Review

Personalized Learning - A Year In Review (1)Now that the year is over I have been trying to analyze how things went and begin plans for next year. I had several goals, as there were many new things I wanted to try. Personalized learning was at the center of everything, and I wrote about it here several times. If you haven’t read my other posts about personalized learning, check them out first: Personalized Learning: Part 1Personalized Learning: Part 2Personalized Learning: Part 3, How it Works.

Overall, introducing personalized learning strategies was great. So much that I will definitely continue next year. Many students far exceeded my expectations; they loved having the opportunity to move at their own paces, pushing themselves, and were pleased with the results. Others progressed at what I would have considered a “typical” 5th-grade pace but still seemed to enjoy the freedom and having choices. Then there were the stragglers. The students who did nothing. Nothing probably isn’t a fair term. When prepared, they played their instruments during lessons, participated in rehearsals, and attended concerts. But they did not turn in any (or at least very very few) assignments. It had nothing to do with a lack of understanding of the skills. They just didn’t do it. Or maybe they turned in a video, but it wasn’t related to or contained no description of the skill mastered. Regardless of being reminded countless times to do so. This was frustrating, to say the least.

“Personalized learning helps learners become intrinsically motivated to learn, so they own and drive their learning to become self-directed, independant learners.” Barbara Bray & Kathleen McClaskey, How to Personalize Learning 

I used personalized learning for my school district required SMART goal, which worked out well since tracking of data was necessary. My SMART goal was for all students to demonstrate growth throughout the school year by setting their own goals and working towards mastery of a pre-determined set of learning targets. Here are the results of the data produced during the first three grade periods:

  • All students started at a baseline of zero, with no learning targets completed. By the end of the third quarter, 97% of students had completed at least 1, and 85% completed 3 or more (up to a possible total of 17).
  • I would consider the mastery of the first 10 learning targets to be typical of 5th-grade students; however, 35% of the students exceeded that number. Only 3% of students are identified gifted in instrumental music.
  • Several students each quarter submitted the correct number of videos to achieve their goal but did not have the skill(s) mastered. I will need to work on finding additional ways to help students determine if a skill is mastered.

Additional findings that are not data related that I observed throughout the year:

  • Students who used the Essential Elements Interactive app consistently were more successful in mastering their learning target skills.
  • Most students tended to use the suggested songs to show mastery but seemed to appreciate having options. Students were most likely to use the “student choice” option around holidays when I distributed fun music, such as Christmas or Halloween songs. I may try to find additional music like this for next year.
  • Some students completed very few (or zero) learning target videos, but I know this does not accurately reflect their skill levels. This is especially upsetting since they were given class time to work on and record their videos. I need to reflect on if I should provide options in addition to video in the future, and how to best facilitate this.

When surveyed at the end of the year, most students seemed to enjoy instrumental music – you may remember, all 4th and 5th-grade students in my school are required to participate in either band or orchestra, so this is a good thing! When asked about their favorite thing, most named the winter and spring concerts. Many also said they liked having choices and working independently. When asked what they would suggest being done differently for next year’s 5th-graders, most said more modern, or popular songs. That is to be expected. Several said no changes were necessary. One was not happy with the school year. That student said, “you should engage them more and actually teach them instead of making them learn it themselves.” Wow! I’m glad she was honest! Ironically, that was one of the higher performing students, who participated in the county Honors Band and is identified gifted in music. I guess I can’t please everyone.

I think what makes me the happiest is the final question on the evaluation asked students if they will continue to play their instruments in middle school. 43% plan to continue, either playing their current instrument or a different one! I wish I had statistics from last year, but I feel that this is a definite increase.

That leads me to some thoughts for next year, and things that I would like to try.

  • Allowing students to play assignments for me in person, instead of only accepting video assignments. Students would still need to articulate the mastered skill though; I think that is important.
  • Include non-playing skills. I felt that students lacked some vocabulary knowledge and may have benefitted from more time spent on this as well as note reading.
  • Have a fun “theme” for the year, like going on a journey, adventure, or something similar. This might be considered gamification. I will research it more this summer.
  • Come up with a better task for students who forget their instruments for lessons and rehearsals.
  • Understanding that not all students are motivated in the same way, (one reason for personalized learning!) I need to find ways to help the “straggler” students feel motivated to learn.

Next year I will be participating in a “Personalized Learning Expedition Design Team” in my county. There are 50 of us who will be working together throughout the school year to implement personalized learning strategies in our classrooms. I look forward to having a team to consult with as this experiment continues. I believe it is worthwhile, and something I hope more instrumental music teachers will consider!

What am I Reading?

What am I Reading_ (1)It should come as no surprise; I am someone who loves to read. Even as a kid I would often get in trouble for reading well past bed-time. Now I usually have more than one book in progress at a time, especially since I also discovered the world of audiobooks! I try to read a mix of “fun” books and “teacher” books, and this year I read some great teacher books. While none of them were directly related to teaching music, I still found a lot of value in everything I learned.

If you are looking for something to read this summer that will stretch your thinking, here are a few of my favorites from this year:

The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity by George Couros

ChangeThe Innovator’s Mindset is the perfect starting point for why we should look beyond the “traditional” means of education to find what will truly benefit learners. George Couros talks about the need to move past student compliance, and how being innovative teachers can help us encourage innovative students.

Why is this important for music teachers? If we want our students to be musical and creative, we may need to take a step back and try something different. This book will encourage you to do just that.

Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani

empowerIn Empower, John Spencer and A.J. Juliani discuss the importance of empowering students to own their learning experiences. When students are empowered, the learning is more meaningful and long-lasting.

Why is this important for music teachers?  Encouraging students to become independent musicians is something we should all strive for.  Not only does this help students now, but also in the future as they (hopefully) become life-long musicians and life-long learners.

Social LEADia: Moving Student from Digital Citizenship to Digital Leadership by Jennifer Casa-Todd

social leadiaThe book, Social LEADia, defines the term “digital leadership” and explains why it is an essential trait for students to have. Jennifer Casa-Todd gives examples of what digital leadership can look like in schools, and suggestions on how to incorporate it into your situations.

Why is this important for music teachers? Many reasons! The music room can be one of the most visible (and audible?) places in a school building. We teach our students about the importance of sharing our music. A great way to do both is through social media. This book gives many ideas for how to include students in this process and why it is valuable to do so.

Learner Centered Innovation by Katie Martin

Learner Centered InnovationLearner Centered Innovation is what it sounds like: how to change your classroom to put learners at the center. Katie Martin discusses what we need to do for students and also what we need to do for ourselves as teachers to make this happen. I hope to re-read this book over the summer.

Why is this important for music teachers? The world is changing, and we need to change along with it! This book covers relationships, feedback, classroom culture, learning how to learn – things that music teachers live on a daily basis. The question Katie makes you ask is, are we doing these things in ways that best benefit the students? If not, how can we change?

What’s next?

I have quite a stack of books ready to go for summer. Here are a couple I am especially excited about:

  • Inquiry Mindset, by Trevor Mackenzie & Rebecca Bathurst-Hunt – I read Trevor’s first book, Dive into Inquiry, and loved it. Inquiry Mindset is supposed to be similar, how to infuse curiosity and inquiry into your classroom, but geared towards elementary students.
  • Teach Like a Pirate, by Dave Burgess – I’m excited to read my first of the pirate books! This one is about increasing student engagement and teacher creativity.
  • Maestro: A Surprising Story about Leading by Listening, by Roger Nierenberg – Finally, a music book! This book is actually about leadership as it investigates the relationship between an orchestra and its conductor.

What about you? Have you read any of these books? I would love to know what you thought! What other “must reads” are out there to add to the (always growing!) list for this summer? Please share. The only thing better than reading a book is reading a book with friends!


Note: Links to these books are Amazon affiliate links. If you click on these links and buy, I will receive a small commission at no expense to you. The price for the books is the same whether you use my link or not. Think of it as a way to support Off the Beaten Path financially without spending extra cash. Thanks for your support!


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Mozart Minutes

Genius Hour is an opportunity for students to work on something that interests them, that they are passionate about, or that they want to learn.

Mozart MinutesI started the school year with several goals and changes I wanted to make in my music program. One of them was to incorporate a student-directed, or Genius Hour, type project. I had heard about Genius Hour several years ago, but it wasn’t until I read Amy Rever’s blog, The Noisy Room Down the Hall, that I believed it was possible in music! Amy is now in year three doing Genius Hour with her middle school band students and it’s quite inspiring. Essentially, Genius Hour is an opportunity for students to work on something that interests them, that they are passionate about, or that they want to learn. In school, students are often limited to content the teacher (or standards) dictate. But with Genius Hour, students get to choose their path. If you are not familiar with Genius Hour, I highly recommend John Spencer’s video, “What is Genius Hour?”  It provides an excellent introduction.

Initially, I planned to have 5th-grade students (second-year players) come up with and carry out their own performance opportunity. They would pick the venue or event, choose and prepare the music, and do the performance. In the end, I decided not to go this route. After observing the students this year it didn’t feel right, and I didn’t know how I would manage that type of project for 96 students. So instead I decided to keep it more open-ended and let students design their own projects. I introduced the project we are calling “Mozart Minutes” to the students by first showing another one of John Spencer’s video, “You Get to Have Your Own Genius Hour.”  I told students they would have the opportunity to create their own projects – learn whatever they wanted to learn or do whatever they wanted to do – as long as it related to music. We spent time in class brainstorming, and I asked students to come up with a list of ideas using Lee Araoz’s framework, “Four Pathways to Genius.”  From there, students were asked to narrow down their list to one great idea. The pathways were more helpful to some students than others. Many didn’t understand that the pathways were to help them come up with ideas and that their final plan did not have to incorporate all four categories! I will need to explain that better in the future. Pathways to genius

The students have been given four weeks to work on their projects during band and orchestra lessons (30-minutes each) plus 10-minutes each Friday during chorus to reflect on the week’s progress. They have also had some time to work during vocal music, and of course at home, if they choose. As you would expect, some students have been more successful than others. Some of the projects have been very creative though! Here is a sample of some of their ideas:

  • Composing a song
  • Learning to play new songs
  • Researching the history of an instrument or composer
  • Learning about how instruments are made
  • Creating background music for video games
  • Creating a talk-show about musicians
  • Building an instrument
  • Making tutorial videos to help younger students

I enjoy watching students and their various approaches. For example, some of the composers start with their instruments, while others begin with paper and pencil. Some are digging into research and creating Google Slideshows, while others are drawing or hand-writing what they learn. A few students have reached out (with my help) to various experts, and some even got responses!

The idea of a Genius Hour in music fits into something I’ve become quite passionate about, and that is empowering music students.  Genius Hour fits almost all of the essential qualities! Students have voice and choice, they get to ask questions, they are creating, and they own the learning process. Isn’t this what we want for our students? Next week we will have a gallery walk showcase for students to share what they learned or created. I am very excited to report back the results!


Links for further reading:

Inquiry and Mozart Minutes (a Mozart Minutes recap)

The Qualities of an Empowered Music Student

10 Reasons to Pilot a Genius Hour This Year, by John Spencer

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Voice and Choice: It Starts With the Little Things

It starts with a small shift. Something you can implement tomorrow. 

Voice and ChoiceI recently had a conversation with someone about what “voice and choice” looks like in an instrumental music classroom. I think their assumption was that incorporating student voice and choice was a massive change, something completely different. While a lot of the mindset behind voice and choice does stray far from traditional models of teaching, I don’t think it needs to begin with monumental changes. As Joy Kirr talks about in her book, Shift This!, it starts with a small shift. Something you can implement tomorrow.

One example of a small shift in my band and orchestra classes has to do with skills. Instead of focusing on what songs the beginners learn, focus on the skills. When you might typically require students to master a certain song in the lesson book, figure out the underlying skill that is important and make that skill the requirement. This gives students options in what to practice – and many times results in them playing more than they would have if only one song were assigned! For example, when I want my trumpet players to practice songs with the new note A, it doesn’t matter if they practice A in “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” or “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” so why not give them a choice in which to work on? When students have a choice their learning becomes more meaningful.

Another small, but effective shift, comes during warm-ups. In beginning orchestra, we do bow warm-ups at the start of every class. When it got to the point that the students were very familiar with the warm-ups, I started inviting 1-2 students to lead each day. They were instructed to pretend the class was learning for the first time. This accomplishes so many things! The student leaders get to share their voices and decide what warm-ups to do. I can hear the student leaders verbalize details of bowing technique (showing me how well they understand it) and the rest of the class suddenly starts to pay closer attention because their peers are standing in front of the room.

When looking for ways to increase student voice and choice, first look at the things you are already doing. Find ways to give students options within those things. Even better, ask students for their suggestions! The beginning steps in this process don’t have to be big; they have to be effective. I think you’ll find once you start incorporating small choices and giving students small opportunities to share their voices it will become easier. Eventually, you will feel more confident taking more significant risks. It’s from these significant risks that you gain the possibility of finding big reward.

Links for further reading:

The Qualities of an Empowered Music Student

Personalized Learning, Part 1

How I Increased Voice and Choice in My Music Classes, and Why I’ll Never Look Back

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The Qualities of an Empowered Music Student

Then ask yourself, what am I controlling that my students could do for themselves?

I am so excited to share this post, which I co-wrote with Kathryn Finch! 

Empowered Music Student

For a long time, our focus was on engaging the learners and making sure students were “actively engaged” in music making in my classroom. But more recently we have discovered that engagement is not enough. To make an impact and to optimize life-long learning, students must be empowered. The best explanation of the differences between engaged students and empowered students came from Bill Ferriter.

engage vs empower

Which brings us to the question, what does an empowered music student look like? This student

  • has a choice and a voice
  • asks questions (and then finds the answers)
  • is connected (to students and musicians inside and outside the classroom)
  • creates as well as consumes
  • owns the learning process

Has a choice  

Maybe that starts with lesson plans. When planning ask yourself, where can I offer more choice in this lesson? For example, in the elementary music room, students may learn to play classroom instruments with the proper technique by performing instruments during a sound story. Often, the specific words and instruments are pre-determined. But do they need to be? Read the sound story to your students and let them decide how and when instrument sounds would be appropriate. The impact is big. Students love the chance to choose and often perform better when it’s their idea and creation. Once you feel comfortable finding ways to offer more choice in a lesson, the next step is to lesson plan with students instead of planning for students. Take the plunge. Start a project in class and share that you aren’t positive what the next steps are or how long this project will take. Ask for student feedback to plan future music classes.

Has a voice

This could start with rehearsals. When an ensemble (classroom, choral, or instrumental) learns a piece of music, ask: How did we do? What did you notice? What areas should we work on next? This is a great way to make thinking visible. Ask students for the next steps.  Ask them for suggestions. When appropriate, ask someone to begin the piece when the group is ready. Allow students to lead and offer feedback so the activity transforms from being done to them into something they can mold and shape with their own ideas. It doesn’t have to stop there. Sometimes questions come up in discussion or rehearsal. How do we handle that? Do we lead the class back to the main objective because we have a pacing guide and future plans already made? Or do we run down a rabbit hole with them because a genuine, authentic question was asked? When students have a voice in the classroom, they believe their thoughts and opinions truly matter. Teachers who give students voice believe this too.  

Asks questions

Typically in education, the teacher asks the questions, and the students answer. What did you hear in that piece of music? Or, what symbol tells the musicians to get louder? Empowered learners have the opportunity to ask questions and then take it a step further, to find the answers. In a music industry class, students could learn various job opportunities by creating and managing their own bands. The students learn as they go what it takes to start a band and determine their next steps throughout this authentic process. No longer is the teacher the keeper of all information. Instead, the teacher must encourage students to ask questions and empower them to find the answers.  

Creates as well as consumes

We all consume books, movies, YouTube videos, etc. but do we all find a balance of creating as well? This creation could be as simple as improvising rhythmic or melodic ideas, or more complex by writing song melodies or lyrics. It also invites students to use their voice, make choices, and ask questions as they work through the process of creating something musical. As music teachers, we know the value of having our students consume high-quality music, but we must also encourage them to create their own high-quality music. When we create, we invest and share a little of ourselves with the world. We learn to take ownership of our music making. We make decisions and learn to handle bumps in the road. Creating is not only an important skill in music, but it is also a valuable skill in life.

Is connected

Music teachers know well the power of networking. It can be a lonely job at times, with no one else in a school who teaches music. So, we network and learn from others near and far, in person and online. Why wouldn’t we want those opportunities for our students? We strive to be the best for our kids, but we can’t be experts on everything. Nor should we have to be. With a little work behind the scenes on social media, we can invite an expert into our room, in person or through facetime. With the help of technology, we can connect classrooms so students can learn from their own peers around the world. It’s a powerful tool we shouldn’t overlook. Connecting students to musicians outside of the classroom makes the experience more authentic, and therefore more meaningful.

Owns the learning process

When students own their learning, it doesn’t mean they are given free-reign to do whatever they want. It means they are involved in the process and are charged to actively control their own learning. Students can tell you what they are learning and why it is important to them. Students have more questions they want to find answers to, and have determined their own next steps in the process. They are engaged and excited about their own learning. Students are not waiting for the teacher to lead the process, they own the process and look to the teacher for guidance and support.  

So, how do we as music teachers make a shift towards empowerment in the music classroom? Well, first things first. Remember that it’s a shift. It’s not something that happens overnight. Start by giving yourself permission to think about it. Then ask yourself, what am I controlling that my students could do for themselves? When we start to question why we do things, we begin to see opportunities for change.  


Links for Further Reading:

How I Increased Voice and Choice in My Music Classes, and Why I’ll Never Look Back


Next Steps for the Kindergarten Music Program

Learner Centered Innovation

Personalized Learning: Part 3, How it Works

How to Build a Recording Studio




Personalized Learning: Part 3, How it Works

I have posted a few times about my personalized learning goals for this year, and have received some questions about how it works within the band and orchestra world. I’ll try to explain how some of the day to day activities work within my classroom. You can access my previous posts here: Personalized Learning: Part 1 and Personalized Learning: Part 2.

Things are still going very well! By the end of the second quarter, 51% of the orchestra students met their goals (compared to only 27% in the first quarter), with 12% of those students actually exceeding their goals. 90% were able to show progress from the first quarter. While some might say that 51% isn’t a very good number, I am quite happy with it for halfway through the year. Considering the students are asked to be very independent learners, especially compared to the other aspects of their school experience, it’s great progress.

I have made a point to talk to students each class period to have them identify the skill(s) they are working on. This has helped them understand better that the learning targets are skills they need to master, not songs. Students have also started to look at feedback on videos that did not receive a passing score, to figure out what they need to fix. Once again in the second quarter, there were a small handful of students who made amazing progress! For me that is the best part of this project, seeing students who always do what you ask but nothing more, become inspired to push themselves beyond the status quo.

Here are a few tools and strategies we are using to make this all work:

Essential Elements Interactive

All students have school-issued iPads and we have installed the Essential Elements Interactive app, which corresponds to the lesson book, Essential Elements.  Within the EEi app students have access to recordings of all book songs, fingering charts, and more. The recordings can be played many ways, which the kids love: melody alone, melody and metronome, or the melody with a choice of 4-6 different accompaniments! Students can even choose to make the piece slower. Students who actually practice using EEi love it and are making great progress. The app also has the capability for students to record themselves playing along with the accompaniment and submit it to me, but since we use Canvas as our LMS that function isn’t necessary. The EEi app has been great for my purposes because it gives students something to reference when struggling with a specific skill, such as rhythms. The students also love being able to change the accompaniment, and I suspect often play pieces more times just to hear the various options.

Flexible Seating

After learning more about classroom design over the summer I decided to obtain some flexible seating options for my students. I talked about this in my first blog post in September. What I’ve discovered, is that students enjoy having a choice in where to practice! Many have settled into their favorite spots, and several seem to prefer standing, which is always fine with me. My biggest concern about giving students options of how to sit (on the floor, on a stool, with a pillow, etc.) was that there would be posture issues. The reality is, kids who have posture issues on a chair have posture issues on a stool or sitting on the floor! So while alternative seating options didn’t cure any posture problems, it didn’t create any new ones either. Those students continue to receive posture guidance from me throughout the class. During lesson time when students are practicing alone or with a partner, they appreciate having the option to find their own workspace within the room.

Recording Studio

IMG_2774I talked about the Recording Studio in my post about Flipgrid but students use it just as often to complete Learning Target recordings. The Recording Studio is a corner of my closet that gives students a quieter place to record their videos. During lessons, students are frequently working on all different things so the room can get loud. This helps to reduce some of the background noise and adds a bit of privacy to the recording process.


The Clothes Pin System

clothes pins

I’m not completely sure where I got this idea, but I have seen others do similar things with cups on student desks. Each student or group gets 3 clothespins: a green, yellow, and red. They clip the green clothespin to the top of their music stand. Students can switch to yellow if they have a non-crucial question, and switch to red if they cannot move forward without help. This keeps students from following me around the room and interrupting time helping others. It then allows me to focus on who needs help next. The best benefit is that often students will solve their own problems while waiting for me!

Many things with the project are still evolving, which is to be expected. For example, I have decided for the 3rd quarter, students who did not succeed in meeting their goals so far will need to come up with a detailed practice plan. Something to help hold them accountable. I’m sure there will be other tweaks and adjustments along the way. It’s a learning process for all of us!


To read more about Personalized Learning, check out these posts: 

Personalized Learning: Part 1

Personalized Learning: Part 2

Personalized Learning: Part 2

I began writing about my Personalized Learning plan back in October, shortly after it was introduced to the students. Now that the first quarter is over I’ve had a chance to evaluate the results and am starting to make some changes moving forward.

To quickly recap, during the first quarter, students were given a list of Learning Targets (skills) and were asked to set a goal of how many they would be able to show mastery of by the end of the quarter. To show mastery, students had to submit a video of themselves playing a song to demonstrate each skill. I suggested three songs that would work for each Learning Target, and also offered the option for students to choose their own song. In addition to the video, students also had to leave a written comment, explaining the skill that was mastered.  All videos and comments were to be turned in through Canvas, which is the new LMS my county has introduced. Students were given time during class and also were to use home practice time to complete the Learning Targets.


At the end of the quarter these are the results for my orchestra students:

  • 45% of the students thought they had met or exceeded their goals
  • 27% actually met their goal (meaning, the skill was correctly mastered and the comments were included)
  • 9% exceeded their goals
  • 30% did not have 1 video successfully completed

The thing that surprised me the most was the number of students who turned in a video and then NEVER went back to check the feedback to discover either the video was not correct or the comments were missing! Most thought that since the video was turned in the Learning Target was complete – even though I reminded them at the beginning of each class to check the feedback on any submitted videos. Many did not leave a comment, or did not leave an appropriate comment (they said something like, “I mastered playing Hot Cross Buns” instead of naming the skill, “I mastered playing songs with 3 notes”). I have not finished all of the calculations for the band students, but just glancing the percentages seem very similar.

There were several students who commented on the end of quarter evaluation that they enjoyed the freedom they had this quarter. Many seemed to appreciate having choices, which is exactly what I  hoped! Quite a few students also mentioned wishing they had more time to practice. I don’t know what the solution is for this. Maybe starting a lunch time practice club? Or something after school? I don’t know yet.

Things that made me smile: when asked if there was anything else they wanted to tell me, here were some heartwarming responses:

  • “I want her to know that I really like the new way she is doing things by letting people work at their own pace.”
  • “I have loved playing violin.”
  • “I enjoy playing with Mrs.Ducassoux because she pushes me to practice a lot so I can get better, and to love music as much as she does.”
  • “I would like her to know she will never know how thankful I am for this great experience.”

There were also some students who said they still feel lost, and need more help. Others who want more time working as a full group. Which is to be understood. Full group instruction is what they are used to, and what they are comfortable with.

My goals moving forward:

  • Be more deliberate about mini-lessons at the beginning of each class
  • Provide more opportunities for students to lead mini-lessons
  • Get students to understand that learning targets are skills, and not songs. Maybe during class have students verbalize the skill that is being practiced
  • Offer additional practice times during/before/after the school day
  • Conference with individuals more frequently to assess progress
  • Help students make and stick to a plan for completing their quarterly goals

So, I would say this project is a work in progress. Some things are going well, others need to be tweaked. But overall I think it’s on the right track. This is a huge change from the way I’ve done things in the past, and a huge change from the way I was taught. But George Couros reminded us in “The Innovator’s Mindset” to think about change this way:

“Change is an opportunity to do something amazing.”

This has the potential to be something amazing. I’m excited about what it can do for my students! clark-tibbs-367075


To read more about Personalized Learning, check out these posts: 

Personalized Learning: Part 1

Personalized Learning: Part 3, How it Works