Building relationships with administrators and teachers demands thoughtful inquiry, care, and reflection
Education is awash with efforts to personalize learning. But what does it mean for a company to personalize its support for the teachers who use its product? School leader, Jordan Silvestri and Kiddom representative, Melissa Giroux, describe what it takes for an edtech company to deliver the kind of personalized experience to its customers that teachers give to their students.
Jordan Silvestri: Our school focuses on preparing our students during their final years of academic involvement to gain and hone the skills that they will need to be successful after they graduate. We started Torah Academy in September 2016 with a strong vision for how and what we want our students to learn. Every class, student interaction, social setting and community learning experience is another opportunity to help our students see their potential and grow.
After our first year of running the school, we realized that one of our major challenges involved how we were tracking students’ progress. We needed a student-centered program that would be easy to function for the teachers and bring all of our work into one place.
Melissa Giroux: Our initial planning session with Torah Academy was extremely energizing. We were excited to meet a school leader who had great clarity around his team’s strengths and goals: Jordan wanted his team to become more accustomed to using data to drive daily instruction and he wanted technology to support consistent routines so his students could become independent learners. His concrete goals made us confident we could support his staff’s day-to-day work from afar.
Working together over the course of the year, we — at Torah Academy and Kiddom — together learned three powerful lessons about how to deliver personalized support to educators:
1. Lead with Inquiry
When teachers in professional development workshops push back on learning a new tech tool or question if a new platform might mean more work instead of less, it would be easy for a principal to double down on mandates and take a hardline stance.
Empathetic leaders respond with questions: “Can you tell me a little bit more about that?” or “Can you walk me through the steps you currently take?” and most importantly, “How can I help?”
When teachers hear their administration pause to learn a little bit more about them, learning becomes collaborative. Rather than fighting, they work as a team to figure out if the platform can adapt to meet the needs of a range of educators.
Companies, too, need to build that kind of inquiry into every step of their work with educators.
Educators at Torah Academy teach courses that cover everything from Common Core mathematics to Judaic studies, as well as provide services including speech therapy and vocational training. A one-size-fits-all tutorial about edtech product features wasn’t going to cut it with such diverse staff goals.
The first session between teachers and Kiddom invited the educators to express their concerns so that together we could customize the platform to their teaching styles and goals. Teachers learned how to move their existing curriculum from Google Drive into collaborative Kiddom classes. Other workshops, using the Question Formulation Technique, helped teachers frame collective inquiry goals for professional learning communities.
The Right Question Institute frames this process well: “The skill of question asking is far too rarely deliberately taught in school.” We believe that same kind of questioning skill should characterize how teachers interact with edtech companies.
2. Walk the Talk
There’s nothing worse than a classroom full of students staring at you as error messages prevent you from moving on with a lesson. As an administrator, I (Jordan) was worried that some of my teachers might have technical difficulties with onboarding to new technology. The “competency test” for real customer service is simply this: Will it deliver when you need it?
One teacher, in particular, had reported that as she was working to set up her class over the weekend, she hit a snag. She struggled to figure out what was going on. Finally, she contacted Kiddom through the app and had a live troubleshooting conversation on a Sunday afternoon. I was floored by both the teacher’s proactive approach — and the fact that the company walked the talk, big time!
Just as important as responding quickly is speaking the language of the people you serve. The company’s support team has grown from a collection of part-time interns into a team of former educators — people who natively speak “teacher talk” — and avoid the kind of tech jargon that can confuse just about anyone.
No school is the same. Investing the time to send a company’s support team to visit schools and observe users in the field means that teacher advocates learn how to ask questions to troubleshoot and to gain context. They are not merely following tech support flow charts and giving standard responses; they’re relying on their knowledge of pedagogy and the challenging realities of everyday teaching to frame their responses.
3. Stop and Reflect
School-based staff don’t always have time to step outside of their day-to-day responsibilities and reflect on successes and challenges. But particularly when you start a relationship with a company, educators must ask their partners: How are you measuring success?
As a school for students with special needs, Torah Academy does not use letter or number grades to assess student progress. Teachers focus on helping students master the skills they will need to be productive members of their community. This approach to assessment — with the ultimate goal of having students apply their goals to new environments and interactions — has been core to our program.
During one of our first joint meetings, the company introduced its mastery grading feature to Torah Academy teachers as if it were a new concept. Hardly the case! In response, teachers showed the Kiddom team how that construct fit right in with the school’s methodology, so that teachers could correlate lessons to goals and assess student progress in one fell swoop.
Throughout the year of working together, our joint team relied on routine check-ins to collect feedback, plan targeted professional development and to provide administrators with a sounding board for worries or celebrations.
But by mid-year, it became clear that educators were adopting the platform in very different ways and at different speeds. We consequently scheduled a mid-year professional development day. The Kiddom team spent the day working with individual teachers during their prep periods, to better differentiate and leverage relationships. Each conversation was private, which allowed for candid feedback and questions and supported individual needs. Some teachers desperately wanted more support in analyzing reports; others were still working on building classroom routines using the platform.
Building relationships between teachers and students takes thoughtful inquiry, care and reflection — and the relationship between an edtech company and the teachers who use its products demands the same. When both groups invest the time, authentic learning happens.
Sara went to Syracuse University to get her undergraduate degree in secondary science education. While teaching, she realized how many students with disabilities were flying under the radar and not receiving the air that they needed from teachers. She decided to attend Southern Connecticut State University to get her Master's in special education with a concentration in assistive technology.
Differentiation: the word that makes teachers quake in their shoes thinking about all the extra work they’ll have to do.
Meeting all student needs has been a task for teachers for a very long time, but never ceases to make even the most experienced teacher anxious. In some schools, students are placed in homogenous classes based on their current skill level. But in each of my classes, though I only have about 6 students, each and every student is at a different level. This becomes even more complicated when you don’t want students to see how different their work may be from other students’.
Our skills-based program differs from most schools — instead of focusing on content, we have a list of skills that students need to learn, such as pulling out main ideas from a reading or how to design a scientific experiment, and use different content to teach those skills. In class, I will often model a skill for them, like going through a reading myself and talking through the steps I take out loud so the students can hear. It doesn’t matter if the reading is above or below the levels of some students, as they aren’t reading it; they just need to see the process I used to practice the skill. But then comes the independent or small group practice time and I’m stuck with the dilemma: what to do with all the different levels?
Handing out papers that don’t appear the same openly tells the class who needs a different assignment. Imagine the reactions of students who already struggle to keep their emotions in check on a daily basis or who have low self esteems from their experiences in past schools. Yikes!
Finding a way to assign students work that is on their level without pointing out their differences is key. Using Kiddom, I can virtually hand out a different assignment for each student, and they won’t have to see it. All they will see is that they were given an assignment, and then get straight to work. I can either choose the students that I would like to be sent a certain assignment or I can go to a specific student in the class and start an assignment from there. Emotions spared and skills practiced — check and check.
Students can independently complete their given assignment and submit them all online. I then go in, grade the assignment, and send messages to individual students if needed. Individual assignments, private grades and conversations all support my students in building skills and confidence. Kiddom allows me to provide students with practice on the skills that theyneed to work on and get feedback from me without fear of their peers overhearing.
Once assignments are graded and different students are grouped by their mastery of all the different skills assigned, I also have the option to assign work via mastery groups. I don’t have to go searching through the other grades to see who needs what; Kiddom saves time by calculating and organizing it all for me.
A lot of new teachers struggle trying to not only plan for their whole class, but then planning for individual students who may learn differently. You can have extra assignments made, but how do you assign them without making students upset? With Kiddom helping me operate my classroom, I can level my extremely unleveled classroom and keep my students engaged, focused, and happy.
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In my time working with students on the autism spectrum, I’ve witnessed them struggle to recognize emotions and acknowledge non-verbal cues from others. Throughout their schooling, my high school students…
I teach at a non-traditional high school for non-traditional students in New York City. Many of my students struggle with poor attendance due to insecure housing situations. To better support my students, I decided to change the structure of my class by providing flexible due dates and access to learning materials outside of school. I made these changes knowing the tools I was using at the time wouldn’t support self-paced learning, but I assumed I’d be able to adopt new platforms to assist with the transition. Finding technology that supported asynchronous learning however, proved harder than I expected. I explored a plethora of education technology tools, but found much of the same rigidity; either I had to send assignments to the entire class or I had to choose a specific due date. I also needed to use separate tools for sending, receiving, and grading the assignments.
Kiddom’s Planner on the other hand, allows me to meet the unique needs of my students in one collaborative learning platform. As a teacher, I’ve fallen in love with it.
Building a Strong Base
Planner allows teachers to “get ahead” by organizing learning activities for students within units. This could be ideal for blended learning or flipped classrooms, but it’s perfect for my self-paced class. I developed my classes with a foundation of lessons based on curriculum I taught year over year. The lessons and assignments that worked well are the backbone of the class and are the ones I make available for students to access today. I created these learning activities in Planner first, since I know I can use them over and over again. The icing on the cake is the ability to drag-and-drop assignments over to individual students’ timelines (timeline is where where they access assignments).
Now I can easily send a student the next assignment after they demonstrate mastery. They no longer have to wait for their peers to move on, and that’s wonderful.
Playlists to Personalize Pacing
An added benefit to using Planner is that I can also personalize the number of assignments I share with a student at any given time.
Some students (like adults) thrive on knowing what’s coming and what assignments or tasks they must complete. Others may feel overwhelmed when they have too many things to do and don’t know where to start. With Planner, I have the option to store groups of related assignments in a playlist. With playlists, I can quickly assign a complete set of assignments and resources or share individual assignments from the playlists, depending on how much I know that student can take on.
In a self-paced class, having a tool that allows you to match the pace of every student’s workflow is revolutionary.
Ready for Remediation
Sometimes, you don’t have time to reinvent the wheel. With Planner, I can also access Kiddom’s Library of resources, including quizzes, lessons, videos, and more from Khan Academy, CK-12, and CommonLit.
As I mentioned previously, my curriculum is designed over years of testing and adjusting, so I know which assignments work to support learning for moststudents. However, as teachers we know all students are unique and some may need less or additional support. Recently, I’ve been supplementing each unit in my Planner with differentiated and remediated playlists. I take advantage of the relevant content available in Library so I don’t have to make an entire new lesson myself. Sometimes students benefit from hearing the same idea via a different means of communication or from repetition. I keep these additional learning materials available to intervene as soon as students demonstrate a misconception.
Create remediation assignments in advance as a playlist, then assign based on student need.
Possibly the best thing about Planner is that curriculum development won’t have to start from scratch next year. The curriculum I designed is accessible in every class I make in Kiddom. So next year, I already have all of my lessons and learning activities in one place for the next cohort of learners. I’m looking forward to using this strong foundation to find even more ways to meet student needs and develop projects that allow them to explore their interests.
“We’ve blocked three days off leading up to the first day of school for curriculum and lesson planning. You’ve got time to plan ahead.”
When school leadership made this announcement in August during our staff training, I immediately felt overwhelmed and confused. I was a first year math teacher placed at a brand new, alternative high school serving at-risk youth in New York City. Despite my lack of experience, I was tasked with teaching Algebra 1, a course culminating in a standardized test all New York high school students must pass to graduate. I knew three days of planning wouldn’t be enough to design flexible curriculum that could empower every student to have an “aha!” moment every day. Unfortunately, the feeling that there’s never enough time to write and adjust curriculum is a major source of frustration and a bitter reality for teachers across the United States.
Because I taught at a competency-based (a.k.a. standards-based) school for at-risk youth, pre-packaged curriculum and assessments offered very little flexibility for personalization or modification. The content was prescriptive and standardized, which meant taking it apart to meet student needs sometimes took longerthan just making it myself. Plus, the available content was designed around how much time I’d spend teaching it versus what I actually needed to get students adept at learning the topic at hand. With students on my roster performing at a range of grade levels from elementary to beyond high school, I decided against bundled curriculum and textbooks and instead committed to building an in-house curriculum tailored to mystudents’ needs.
If that sounds like a lot of work, it was. But writing curriculum wasn’t just labor-intensive, it was emotionally exhausting. I put my heart and soul into plotting the journey my students took with me. There are thousands of teachers doing this kind of work at any given moment. And while this practice might be best for students, it’s unsustainable given how many responsibilities teachers already juggle.
Curriculum planning sessions: where “the work” really gets done
Despite the immense amount of work involved, my colleagues and I fine-tuned our curriculum every year based on student skill gaps and results from formative assessments. We experimented with online curriculum products such as Rubicon and BetterLesson as well as adaptive learning programs such as Cognitive Tutor and Math180 to supplement our custom curriculum — but it was virtually impossible to get the kind of flexibility we wanted without sacrificing quality. To somewhat quote Darth Vader, I found the lack of quality edtech curriculum deeply disturbing. This was at odds with my experience, because I relied extensively on edtech for assessments. I taught in a school with high rates of chronic absenteeism, so it was vital students could demonstrate mastery without having to physically show up to class.
As I gained more experience teaching, I realized the most effective curriculum for students should provide a variety of options for assessment and instruction. Beyond a library of PowerPoint slides, my mathematics curriculum evolved into a patchwork of in-house and free online resources following a scope and sequence specifically tailored to meet my students’ needs. They could easily access a library of lessons and assessments I’d created from scratch, or use Khan Academy videos coupled with IXL exercises aligned to standards we were learning in class. It took a lot of time and effort to curate the best resources from the surplus of providers, but it was worth it; I learned a lot about my students and my students learned in a way most suitable for them.
Curriculum design is fundamentally emotional work, representing the journey educators plan for students to make meaningful connections with concepts.
At Kiddom, we understand the benefits of a homemade approach to curriculum, but we also recognize the incredible burden this practice can add to teachers’ lives. That’s why I’m proud to announce Kiddom’s Planner will soon be available. It’s a curriculum tool designed specifically to offer teachers the flexibility they need to meet the needs of 21st century students. With the Planner, teachers can design curriculum for a class and easily modify pathways for groups or individual students. The Planner will be integrated with the Kiddom platform, which means teachers can effectively plan, assess, and analyze learning from one place.
Kiddom’s Planner — design curriculum and modify pathways for individual students
Well-designed and differentiated curriculum affords teachers the opportunity to help students meaningfully connect with the subject matter and expand their skill sets. It must offer the flexibility to individualize learning in real-time based on student needs without inconveniencing teachers. Teachers can’t sustainably inspire students if they’re overburdened and inadequately equipped. My experience has taught me to believe that it is possible for technology to ease administrative burdens and increase the quality of interactions between teachers and students. If teachers can use technology to thoughtfully guide individual students through the learning process, then we can expect every student to learn what’s necessary their own way: to have their own “aha!” moment. And as teachers, we know those are the moments that really matter.
“One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.”
— Carl Jung
Eight Resources for Designing Competency-Based Curriculum
The first instructional model I learned as a teacher was “I Do, We Do, You Do.” Also known as the gradual release of responsibility (GRR), I thought this strategy was effective when introducing new concepts because it allowed me to “reach” every student at the same time. But like any instructional technique, GRR has its shortcomings: it erroneously assumes all students learn and work at the same pace. And while this technique may have satisfied pedagogical best practices developed in the 20th century, teaching to the average is no longer considered an ideal practice since it fails to optimize learning for the individual student.
When I relied on “I Do, We Do, You Do” in my first few years as a teacher, I immediately saw gaps in student learning. Students that were learning at a rate faster or slower than the pace I set were either bored (maybe they grasped the concept quickly) or distracted (maybe they couldn’t connect to the concept in the way I presented it). I devoted a lot of energy to keeping the whole classengaged throughout the lesson, but this task proved difficult to achieve and often created unnecessary classroom management challenges. The added stress from relying solely on “I Do, We Do, You Do” inspired me to experiment with more student-centric instructional strategies.
I found three components of instruction difficult to incorporate well with GRR:building student choice and voice, offering differentiation, and supporting multiple learning modalities. Using the Kiddom platform, I’m going to explore how teachers can employ student-centric methodologies to address these areas and take their craft to the next level.
Student Choice and Voice
Typically, teachers come to class with a planned lesson, activities, and independent practice. We know however, that students are most motivated when they’re able to choose their own path to success and voice their opinions throughout the learning process. To increase engagement, students need to be provided with more opportunities to choose and connect. Interest-based projects and Socratic seminars are instructional practices designed to provide students the freedom and flexibility to choose their own path to mastering skills while providing them with a channel to express themselves.
With interest-based projects, where students learn via a complex, but flexible project driven by their own interests. They’re able to explore topics relevant to them, which leads to high-quality of work and deepened conceptual comprehension. Using Kiddom, teachers can easily share different interest-based projects with different students via a standards-aligned content library, a Google Drive attachment, or sharing additional types of attachments. Once the project has been shared, grading and sharing feedback is seamless via Kiddom’s rubrics. The platform comes preloaded with academic and social emotional learning (SEL) rubrics, all of which can be modified. Teachers can draft their own rubrics too: outlining specific expectations for groups of students. Interest-based projects make classroom decisions appear just as much the student’s responsibility as the teachers, fostering a sense of ownership that will heighten investment and long-term learning. The Kiddom platform makes it incredibly easy to assign and manage a wide variety of interest-based projects across multiple classes.
Socratic seminars place deeper learning directly in students’ hands. Prefaced with a pre-reading, the seminar facilitator leads conversation with open-ended questions, teaching students to think critically, cultivate higher-order questioning, and comment on peer responses. Provide students feedback during Socratic seminars with these rubrics via Kiddom. Attach the Socratic seminar rubrics to give students thorough feedback as they reflect after a seminar. Kiddom’s SEL rubrics include categories like Self-Assessment, Active Listening, and Speaking, which when appended to a seminar assignment can give students the opportunity to reflect on their own performance. Where GRR limits student involvement in the assessment process, the Kiddom platform keeps the line of communication open. Qualitative feedback in addition to a score motivates students to participate and continue improving.
The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) is a student-centric protocol that guides students to form questions most meaningful to them within the context of a class unit. Provided with a “focus” by the teacher, students create various questions, then prioritize them after reflecting on what they want to learn as a group. Using Kiddom, teachers set up a “QFT focus” as an assignment description or Google Drive attachment, directing students to upload their question list as a response to the assignment or in the comment loop. Leveraging Kiddom’s content library to provide launch activities for question formation makes lesson planning easy. SEL rubrics such as Decision Making, Problem Solving, and Relationship Building, can be aligned to QFT tasks. Give students feedback as they create questions to drive learning. Student engagement with this method will alleviate the stress of finding the “perfect topic” and guiding questions to hook students. Let them lead the way!
One of my biggest challenges with “I Do, We Do, You Do,” was differentiating well. Differentiating appropriately for an entire class working on the same task, at the same time is near impossible. In the 21st century, educators should expect education technology to adequately provide the information necessary to differentiate content, process, and product for a class of students.
Interest-based projects are a space for differentiation as students are able to pursue topics appropriate for their performance level and interests. Engagement for students at any level is achievable here as students pursue projects that challenge them to improve from where they started. With guidance from their teacher, students can engage in an interactive feedback loop via comments. Students can ask questions and receive responses they can refer back to while working independently or in homogenous groups. With Kiddom’s Google Drive integration, students can also submit interest-based project materials via a Google document, slides, or spreadsheet, providing proof and evidence of their learning. The ability to modify assignments provides differentiation that GRR simply cannot.
Socratic seminars help students learn from each other and reflect on their ability to engage in academic discourse, taking differentiation to an interactive level. Choosing an accessible pre-reading is important to start. Passages can be found in Kiddom’s content library filtered for different grade levels or attach links to leveled readings online in an assignment for students to prepare. Differentiated guiding questions can be asked during the seminar, then after, students receive feedback to improve. Guiding questions can be sent via Kiddom to students in need of extra time before engaging in a discussion. The platform provides teachers with the data needed to differentiate discussions and assess students at appropriate levels. And while Socratic seminars are meant to be open-ended, providing students with feedback is vital since sharing ideas can make some students feel vulnerable.
To differentiate with the Question Formulation Technique, have students come up with their own questions via Kiddom’s Google Drive integration. Students brainstorm questions from the topic with their peers and submit the product to their teacher for review. Alternatively, teachers may post a link to an outside resource in the assignment description to launch discovery of a new focus, then students can upload their list of questions in Kiddom as an attachment. The teacher can help prioritize questions to pursue as projects afterward. Having students create their own inquiries from one guiding prompt cultivates higher order thinking skills much more efficiently better than “I Do, We Do, You Do” allows.
Multiple Learning Modalities
We know planning a lesson that incorporates auditory, visual, andkinesthetic learning well every day is a Herculean task. With Kiddom, preview and assign standards-aligned content and assessments from Khan Academy, CK-12, CommonLit, and more all from one place. The ability to filter resources by keyword, grade level, and subject area allows teachers to assign interdisciplinary, appropriate content for students working on projects and exploring new units. This is a great way to find out which learning methods students prefer.
For example, Socratic seminars are initiated typically as a follow up to an assigned reading or a prompt for students to consider. Assign articles and passages leveled appropriately from our content library directly to the student dashboard for pre-reading to Socratic seminars. Since all of our content can be filtered by student interest and topic, interest-based projects can be launched as students explore different resources via the Kiddom dashboard. Or, assign students a video or activity or link an outside resource to a Kiddom assignment to set students up to create their formulate their own list of questions to guide their learning with QFT.
Choose small groups of students to assign a video from Khan Academy and a different small group of students an article from Common Lit. Afterward, have students share what they learned with each other, allowing students the opportunity to be the master and expert. This level of student ownership is empowering and not typically seen within the I Do, We Do, You Do framework. If students are engaging with different kinds of learning materials and can explore those together, the learning experience becomes unique and exploratory for all.
More Time to Connect and Inspire
The “I Do, We Do, You Do” method certainly shouldn’t be retired entirely, but teachers should challenge themselves to guide students to take the lead. The student-centered approaches outlined above can really remove the unnecessary stress the GRR method creates. More importantly, these approaches give valuable time to work directly with students in small groups or one-on-one. While students excitedly tackle their own interest-based projects or explore questions they created, teachers get to focus on connecting with and inspiring students. Note that with the Kiddom platform, the most important work still takes place in the classroom, via interactions with students. Sound education technology should expand these interpersonal experiences. These are the experiences students learn from and remember most. Happy teaching and learning!
P.S. If you’re looking for one-on-one support when experimenting with these strategies using the Kiddom platform, reach out to us! We offer professional development via demos, tutorials, consult sessions, and live chat. Our team of former educators (including myself) would love to learn more about your practice and how you’re using Kiddom to work directly with your students.