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Tania Figueroa, a fourth-grade teacher at Patrick Henry Public School in Chicago.
Tania Figueroa, a fourth-grade teacher at Patrick Henry Elementary School in Chicago.

When I was a student, as the child of Mexican immigrants, I felt pressure to leave my own stories and experiences outside to fit into my classrooms’ cultures.

I did what I was asked in the way I was asked because I knew I was expected to adapt to the educational environment around me, not the other way around.

I saw the same dynamic at play when I first became a teacher at Patrick Henry Elementary, a majority-Latino public school in Chicago. Students were just going through the motions. Class was like an assembly line: Learn math, then science. Move on.

Learning is personal. Educators and students all bring their own stories and experiences to the classroom. One semester, I saw one of my colleagues allow her students to choose their stations. I watched the way that small bit of autonomy — the allowance of choice — changed the way they saw their tasks. They felt ownership over their work. Learning went from passive to active. At home that night, I designed a choice schedule for my own class.

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Soon after, our school was selected to work with a local nonprofit, LEAP Innovations, to design a schoolwide model for personalized learning, using a framework to rearrange our classrooms conceptually and physically. We allowed students to exercise autonomy within their learning environments, to work alone or in groups, and to set individual goals.

“Without personalized learning, my students, with fewer resources than so many of their peers, would be expected to fall to the bottom of the educational barrel. Instead, they are thriving.”

We implemented flexible learning time each day and began developing interest-based units, which allow students to choose from non-traditional classroom subjects like animal rights or activist art. Perhaps most importantly, we found ways to connect our lessons to students’ communities and cultures — to make learning personal.

Now, I see students who look like I did at their age, but who have found their voices many years earlier than I had the chance to. These are students who have grown up with the same pressure to conform as I did, but who have already found the courage to ask for what they need and to expect what they deserve.

In all, more than 120 schools in Chicago are embracing the shift toward personalized learning. Outsiders may be surprised that the Chicago Public Schools have the fastest academic growth rates in the country, but educators on the ground understand how shifts in strategy can transform outcomes. It’s not just about tailoring instruction, but arming teachers with insights that enable them to move beyond outdated heuristics on student potential.

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Personalized learning has the potential to make good on the promise of an educational system that unlocks each student’s potential. My students shouldn’t have fewer opportunities than their peers in Chicago’s affluent suburbs. When we committed to personalizing learning for our students, we committed to building the educational environment they deserve.

Walk into a classroom now, and where you once would have seen rows of silent students, you may see one group in the corner collaborating on a science project, one student in a reading nook working quietly, and pairs of students helping each other through math problems.

My students are not expected to disappear into the cultural melting pot the way I was. They stand out. They are proud of where they come from. They are curious learners, asking questions and taking ownership of their own knowledge creation. They don’t depend on me just for answers, but as a source of questions.

We’re learning that when you stop telling students what you need from them and instead ask what they need from you, everyone will learn more and learn better. Not every school can offer students the same financial resources, but every school can guarantee students something of infinite value: a voice in their own education.

Without personalized learning, my students, with fewer resources than so many of their peers, would be expected to fall to the bottom of the educational barrel. Instead, they are thriving.

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Tania Figueroa is a fourth-grade teacher at Patrick Henry Elementary School in Chicago.

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