What’s Best for Kids

Meet Tanya Leon, an English teacher at Richards Middle School with a vision for rebuilding a system of schooling that’s personalized at scale.
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A few weeks ago, I had the honor of speaking with Tanya Leon, an English teacher at Richards Middle School in Fraser, MI known for her innovative classroom.

I’d spoken with Leon once before for an article I wrote about the future of learning. Some of the insights she shared during that interview really challenged my thinking on our traditional model of schooling.

“Are we doing things because it’s the way we’ve always done it?,” she asked. “Or because it’s what’s best for kids? If we move toward that second question, I think we will realize that for a large part of the population, the traditional model doesn’t work.”

“Are we doing things because it’s the way we’ve always done it?,” she asked. “Or because it’s what’s best for kids? If we move toward that second question, I think we will realize that for a large part of the population, the traditional model doesn’t work.”

Our current education system allows some students to thrive, she says, but many still fall through the cracks.

“If we’re missing one kid, we’re missing one kid too many,” she says. “I would argue, and I think every other educator would argue, that we miss way more than one kid in education all the time.”

She herself was one of those students who loved school, and her daughter is the same way. 

But her son had a different experience in the classroom.

“The current structure was made for my oldest,” says Leon. “My daughter is your typical booksmart. She gets schools, she loves school, and she nerds out on homework. She misses homework in the summer when she’s not in school. My youngest has a very different brain. He’s so smart, but because he’s not a sit-still-and-listen smart, it took us longer to figure out how smart he was.”

To figure out what her son needed to be successful, Leon did a lot of research, asked a lot of questions, and set up doctor’s appointments. She learned how to be an advocate for her own child and it gave her personal motivation to fight for other children like him. 

“I think he was my final push over the cliff of we-have-to-fix-this. We have to change this system so that we don’t lose kids who are smart and gifted in their own way in the cracks because they don’t sit still and listen for seven hours a day.” 

Rebuilding a system of schooling that’s personalized for all

Tanya has a vision for a system of schooling that is personalized at scale. When she’s not busy teaching in her English classroom at Richards Middle School, she also serves a personalized learning coach. 

Her classroom today looks very different than it did when she first started.

“When I started teaching,” Leon says, “I was taught to design lessons and content and material for classes for my collective class. Now, I understand that shift is designing instead a partnership with the students and how they design their own learning experience in a way that will help give them the particular set of skills that they are going to need to be successful in the real world. It’s understanding that every child needs something different.”

Personalizing learning for every student may sound overwhelming to teachers who are already tasked with doing so much.

But Leon says this is a common misconception about “personalized learning.”

“When people hear the term ‘personalized learning,’” she says, “they often think that the teacher has to design 150 learning plans or however many kids you have. But it’s about designing adaptable learning so that those students can customize it for themselves in a way that is meaningful and personalized for them. This helps them reach their goals, regardless of where they start.”

“Nobody knows themselves better than the kids,” Leon argues. “They need to be a part of the process from start to end. They need a voice.”

See also: How Implementing Voice & Choice Can Improve Student Engagement

Developing authentic, transferable, real-world skills

Another key part of Leon’s teaching philosophy has to do with helping students acquire authentic, transferable skills they’ll need to thrive regardless of what their future path may hold.

“I have been a teacher, a bartender, a consultant, and a server,” says Leon. “I have done a few jobs in my day. Never once in those jobs was I asked to sit and prove what I know on a worksheet or to only prove what I know by taking a test.”

What does this look like in practice?

“Very few people get excited over taking a test,” she says. “But if you ask them instead to design a prototype that will help feed their dog using the angles you learned in science, now you’re having kids problem solve.”

“Very few people get excited over taking a test,” she says. “But if you ask them instead to design a prototype that will help feed their dog using the angles you learned in science, now you’re having kids problem solve.”

This approach also prepares students to become active participants in their communities. 

“Imagine you’re asking these students to one day design something for us as a community,” she says. “If you want them to demonstrate how to use evidence to support a point, then that does not have to be an essay. Instead, it could be an amazing commercial or a PSA or a board proposal. That is a skill that they will very likely use later in life, but sitting and hammering out a five-paragraph essay or taking a multiple-choice test is not necessarily something that will become valuable in their daily lives.”

How has this influenced what learning looks like in Leon’s classroom?

“We don’t give tests anymore, at all really,” she says. “Everything that we do is more project-oriented.”

At the end of submitting these projects, students are proud. 

“When you take a test and get an A, you’re proud. I know I used to be,” Leon says. “But I’m more proud when I’ve designed something and when I’ve demonstrated my knowledge in a unique way that the kid next to me hasn’t done. That’s the philosophy behind the way that I want to assess kids, the way that I want my children assessed, and the way that I want to know that the person next to me at work has been assessed. I want to know that they haven’t just taken tests really well, but that they know how to speak and present and innovate and advocate. If that’s what I expect from everybody around me, that’s what I have to expect from my students as well.”

 “And let’s be honest,” she adds. “It’s so much more fun to grade this way.”

See also: Competency-Based Progression: Designed for Student Success

Breaking away from the ‘bell schedule’

For our school systems to be truly personalized and competency-based, Leon says we may need to rethink the traditional “bell schedule” in which all students learn at the same time from around 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. 

“We have to look at the structure of school as far as this eight-to-three time period goes,” she says, “We have to look at fact that all kids belong in a seat for seven hours, as well as the fact that if they’re 10 years-old, they belong in fifth grade, if they’re 12, they belong in seventh grade. That’s just not how kids work.”

Every student learns differently.

Some students need more time for a particular skill than their peers. Others may move very quickly. Some yet may have extenuating circumstances in their lives that make learning difficult at different times of day.

“Some of my secondary students are being able to rush home to help take care of their siblings,” Leon says. “Others can’t function at 8 a.m. at all, and they don’t come in until 10 a.m.”

In Leon’s middle school English classroom, she puts this philosophy into practice by making timing flexible so long as students master particular competencies.

“Some of my students are fantastic, critical readers who are good at questioning and analyzing and applying and advocating,” she explains. “But the same student might struggle so much the second I say that we’re going to work on communicating  and presentation skills. It’s important to be able to reallocate that time so that the students get the support they need when and where they need it and allow them to accelerate their learning when they don’t need that extra support.”

She used an example from her personal life to illustrate this point. 

“We’re renovating my basement right now. If you were to come to my house,” she says, “you would have no clue how long it took me to do this wall behind me, but it was a long time. But it wouldn’t matter how long it took so long as I did it right. I think that this is the philosophy that we need to have in schools. We need to get everyone to this point where we say they’ve mastered whatever skills they need to have mastered, but at the end of the day, it does not matter how quickly or slowly as long as they do that.”

“Moving students along before they’ve mastered these skills is damaging,” she says, “and so is making them sit there once they’ve mastered it.”

Leon is also hopeful that our experiences learning from home during COVID-19 may have a silver lining.

“One thing that I think this pandemic has highlighted for us,” she says, “is that students can learn anywhere. Some might learn best in a classroom, but many have learned really effectively from home or from grandma’s or from somewhere else. I think that while the pandemic has been detrimental in a lot of ways for a lot of people, it has shown us that maybe education doesn’t just have to happen from eight-to-three in a brick-and-mortar building. Maybe we can start changing the system a little bit so that we can meet the needs of our learners in different ways.”

Going beyond “pandemic skills”

For the past eight years now, Fraser Public Schools where Leon works has been a 1:1 school, which means that each student has had a personal iPad to use for learning.

Over time, Leon has witnessed a change in how her students use technology as a device for learning and for problem-solving.

At first, of course, the iPads were new and shiny and students focused mostly on the apps and the games.

But since then, this novelty has shifted into something more profound.

“Now, in year eight,” she says, “we’re seeing those kids just naturally know how to start problem solving with this device. It’s removing so many barriers that I honestly didn’t even know existed when I first started teaching, and they’re organically removing these barriers for themselves at this point. It’s fantastic.”

For some students, she adds, technology provides a crucial outlet for self-expression.

“I remember during our first year 1:1,” she reflects, “I had this student who was very shy and withdrawn and never wanted to engage. Then, one day, we were doing an activity where I asked them to do a virtual discussion, and this kid had so much to say. I thought for a minute he’d been hacked, because I’d never heard that much from him.”

The experience left Leon nearly in tears.

“The way the device removed that barrier and allowed him to engage with our class was fascinating. I was sitting behind my screen almost in tears, thinking, ‘This kid has such powerful things to say. Why haven’t I given him a different venue up until now to do that?’”

While many people are focused on “learning gaps” as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Leon argues that these gaps have always been there, but are merely exacerbated by pandemic learning.

Further, many students have acquired new skills during the pandemic

“All of these things that kids are doing with technology right now, they aren’t ‘pandemic skills,’” she says. “These are skills that students need long after this is over.”

See also: Stop calling it “learning loss”

In her own classroom, Leon has observed her students becoming more self-sufficient during pandemic learning. They’ve been solving problems on their own before coming to ask her for help. This is critical, she says, during middle-school years when it’s important for students to become the owners of their own learning.

All in all, Leon is hopeful that our experiences during pandemic learning will leave us a little more open to rebuilding a system that is better for all students, not just those students who thrive in the traditional model.

“I’m hoping that educators everywhere are more open to continuing the conversation,” she says. “How can we make sure we don’t go back to normal and that we continue to remove barriers, to open doors, and to advocate for our kids?”

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Nikki Herta

Nikki Herta

Nikki’s love for writing, editing and pedagogy brought her to Michigan Virtual as their Content Creator/Editor. A Michigan native, she studied writing at Grand Valley State University before continuing on to the University of Minnesota for her master’s degree. While there, she also taught first-year writing to college freshman. Outside of work, she enjoys hiking, playing table-top board games, and curling up in front of the fireplace with a good book and her sassy, ancient cat, Princess Eugene.

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