This post is part of a series about the Building Blocks for Personalized Learning. By engaging in opportunities to make connections beyond the classroom to real-world learning activities and situations, students are better able to experience personalized learning. These connections may occur within a school’s own learning community, but they may also include local or even global pursuits that help students learn more about themselves while making a contribution; participating in a work experience; or attending an off-campus educational environment. When students make these connections, the learning is more authentic, relevant, and in turn becomes more personalized to their individual perspectives and goals.
Encourage Service Learning – According to the National Service Learning Clearinghouse, service learning is “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.” Students must be provided with opportunities to give of their time and talents to improve their learning and living communities. Joe Bandy, the Assistant Director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, describes several benefits for students that are directly related to the goals of personalized learning. One benefit is that by helping others, students are able to learn more about themselves and discover and develop their individual skills and abilities.
Provide Ways for Students to Serve within the School – Some schools begin the year by suggesting various ways that students can volunteer in the learning community, such as working in a school store; assisting a teacher or media specialist; offering support to an office; organizing special events or school activities; being active in a club or group; or participating in a safety patrol. Classrooms could be given a section of the school environment to beautify and maintain in order to encourage a sense of connection. Even typical classroom jobs give younger students the experience of contributing to their classroom learning community, and older students could be buddy readers for younger students or collaborators with technology and projects. Students of any age can offer technical support for their peers and teachers within a “genius bar.” This resource may be especially important as schools are implementing 1:1 technology initiatives, Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT), and new digital learning tools and resources.
Locate Experts to Share Experiences – Schools and teachers can help students develop greater connections by identifying experts to share their experiences. One way to begin this process is to utilize the expertise of parents and teachers. When students hear about the paths that professionals have taken to achieve their careers and learn about specific occupations, they are able to make more informed goals and choices for their futures. It is also beneficial for the community members as they begin to feel more connected to their local schools. The use of digital tools and resources, can facilitate the connection with experts outside of the local community. According to Lock (2015) in Designing Learning to Engage in the Global Classroom, through “this change in the learning landscape and with the advances in technology, students and educators are better able to work with other students and experts in new and meaningful ways at anytime and anywhere in the world.”
Collaborate with Local Organizations – There may be organizations within the community that can provide additional ways for students to contribute; to offer volunteer services, or to receive ongoing support. Some organizations focus on particular issues or groups with specific needs and interests within a community, for example, the Latin American Association, the food bank, churches, sports clubs, etc. Many of these organizations are already involved in some kind of local service or outreach, and as students begin interacting with them, they can better understand how a community works as a unit; is organized by its members; and collaborates to make necessary changes to benefit everyone. Observing this interaction in the ‘adult world’ reflects what we want for students to understand about interdependence in their worlds – in their schools and communities. Through these experiences, they may learn more about themselves and their passions and interests. Reaching out to these organizations can be begin with parents at the school, but it may require some careful research into what resources are available and appropriate for student involvement.
Connect with Local Businesses – By connecting with businesses, students are able to learn more about the types of local occupations that are available. Having students participate in internships can facilitate this connection. This work experience is valuable for students as they make choices about college and/or careers. Finding the right fit is important and will help students discover more about themselves and their abilities as they engage in real work. The National Research Council (2012) noted that work-based learning activities can also provide “employability” or “21st Century” skills and serve as a foundation for lifelong learning in a time of rapid technological change. Each school should develop its own database of business contacts, and connecting with the local Chamber of Commerce might be a good way to begin this database. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also provides multiple resources for high school students for career planning.
Provide Connections to Higher Education – Connecting with institutions of higher education is also another way of helping students develop greater understanding about what personally excites them concerning careers and education. Many colleges and universities offer summer youth summer programs, and with these experiences, students may discover new unique talents. These activities are often offered for free or at a lower cost for students from low income families. Colleges are also a wealth of resources for connecting with experts in in particular fields who could be good sources of information for the classroom. In addition, many colleges and high schools offer dual enrollment for students who are willing and capable to participate in classes outside of high school allowing for a district to truly personalize an educational path for a student with special needs or talents. Most districts already have information about these programs, but they need to ensure that the information is accessible and communicated to teachers, parents, and students.
Facilitate Global Connections – Students often have difficulty seeing beyond their local communities and having a clear picture of themselves as members of a global community. Beginning with their own country and expanding throughout the world, students could discover more about opportunities that exist for making global connections. This year, ISTE Connects published a blog post called 6 Resources for Fostering Global Education that provided some practical advice for educators to help students make global connections regardless of exceptions in age, language, or economics. Technology offers a variety of ways for classrooms to connect with each other throughout the world, and this provides students with a greater awareness of how they personally can participate within a global community.
Market the Success – When students began to bridge the connection between their personal interests and aspirations to the available resources within the community at large, it is necessary to begin marketing and publishing this success. Not only is the recognition from marketing positive for the school to showcase its efforts, but it also benefits the members of the community. This marketing allows community members to highlight how they are collaborating with their local schools and providing ongoing support. Some marketing strategies include publishing a video to document success; noting the activities on the school’s website; and curating student portfolios. Many schools also have their own site-based news broadcast, and these experiences can be shared via this medium throughout the school. Incidentally, participating in the production of the school news is another way that students can volunteer their talents while developing new skills! These strategies help to communicate what students have learned and what they have accomplished.
In their book, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, Thomas and Brown explain, “In our view, the kind of learning the will define the twenty-first century is not taking place in a classroom – at least not in today’s classroom. Rather, it is happening all around us, everywhere, and it is powerful” (17). Ideally, as students make connections, they may be better prepared to make personal choices about future careers; set goals for future learning; and find greater fulfillment in life.