Transforming the Classroom to Personalize Learning

Maybe it's been a while since most of us spent significant time in a classroom. Most of them haven't changed much.

But some schools are slowly changing the physical structure of the classroom, as well as how students learn in them.

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Brandis Friedman visited one West Side charter school in particular that is making learning "personal.”


  • David Diaz, fifth grader

    David Diaz, fifth grader

  • Aiko Castrejon, eighth grader

    Aiko Castrejon, eighth grader

  • Jordan Jetters, fifth grader

    Jordan Jetters, fifth grader

  • Whitney Sullivan teaches both fourth and fifth graders in her classroom.

    Whitney Sullivan teaches both fourth and fifth graders in her classroom.

  • Scott Frauenheim, principal at West Belden charter school

    Scott Frauenheim, principal at West Belden charter school

  • Phyllis Lockett, founder of LEAP Innovations

    Phyllis Lockett, founder of LEAP Innovations

  • Kelly Pollack is a second grade teacher and has been at West Belden for 14 years.

    Kelly Pollack is a second grade teacher and has been at West Belden for 14 years.

Brandis Friedman: Inside this West Belden charter school, the classrooms look more like start-up space: people working in small groups ... headphones ... lots of technology.

David Diaz, fifth grader: I like this chair better because if you're stressed out, you can just do a little jump.

Friedman: No rows of desks and chairs. Instead, tables, futons and the mushroom.

Diaz: We can feel comfortable, instead of just sitting on those chairs.

Friedman: Fifth grader David Diaz is one of 500 students at the Chicago International Charter School's West Belden campus in Belmont-Cragin. Here, this rearranged classroom design is part of the learning process. The students themselves can explain how it works.

Diaz: So, there's three groups. One group – there's workshop, flipped kids and seminar. So, flipped kids is where they do something more advanced than the other kids, so they get it.

Jordan Jetters, fifth grader: Seminar is like with the teacher, and if you need help you'll go to seminar. But if it's easy or you need a review, you would go to workshop.

Aiko Castrejon, eighth grader: So for example, if I don't know slope as well, she puts me in a group of kids who are based on my level. Everyone's in group based on learning needs – people with similar strengths and weaknesses as them.

From left: Students David Diaz, Jordan Jetters and Aiko Castrejon.From left: Students David Diaz, Jordan Jetters and Aiko Castrejon.

Friedman: Teachers say it's all designed to provide personalized learning for each student – letting them work at their own pace, wherever they're physically and academically comfortable. Fifth grader Jordan Jetters thinks it works better this way than the entire class getting the same lesson at the same time.

Jetters: You would sit in class bored when the teacher’s talking if you already understand it.

Friedman: What's more, the grades aren't separated. First through third graders are all in the same classrooms, and  in Whitney Sullivan’s classroom, fourth and fifth grades are combined.

Whitney Sullivan, fourth/fifth grade teacher: Not every kid learns the same way. Not every kid is going to understand fractions in a day. Some need a week, two weeks, some might need a month, and it's so nice to have that flexibility. We’re still hitting those standards and those benchmarks that these kids need to make in their grade level, but we're doing it at a pace that works for them. They're not getting as frustrated. They're more motivated.

Teacher Whitney Sullivan, left, in her classroom.Teacher Whitney Sullivan, left, in her classroom.

Friedman: When Sullivan arrived at this school for her first teaching job three years ago, she found a much more traditional setting.

Sullivan: It was the style of teaching that I had learned about in college. That was the first year, and it was a great intro to your first year of teaching. It was exactly what I had experienced in student teaching. And then my second year here was when we started to transform the classroom. I didn't even know that this style of classroom existed.

Friedman: Soon, her principal Scott Frauenheim, also new to the school, wanted to make some changes.

Scott Frauenheim: In the traditional setting, we were always doing what's always been done, and always getting results that we've always gotten. In traditional sense of education, desks in rows facing the front, teachers doing much or all of the lifting from the educational delivery. And so the students – we’ve just seen them thrive in this approach of releasing that control to them.

Scott Frauenheim, principal of the West Belden campus of the Chicago International Charter School.Scott Frauenheim, principal of the West Belden campus of the Chicago International Charter School.

Friedman: With grant funding from the education nonprofit startup LEAP Innovations, Frauenheim set off to increase student engagement and achievement. Two grants, totaling $380,000, paid for professional development to learn how to change the classroom, test new software and technology, and of course, the new furniture.

Phyllis Lockett, LEAP Innovation founder: Education hasn't really changed since the turn of the century. For most of us who have been brought up in the education system, it has relied on one individual teacher, teaching 25-30 kids in a classroom. And that's really hard for one teacher to understand in today's world – the needs of every single student.

Friedman: Lockett has championed charter schools for some time. But LEAP's work partners with both charter and district-run schools.

Lockett: They're creating a competency-based approach that is focused on learner mastery and their competency, not based on their grade level or amount of time that they’re in their seats. They’re engaged in the opportunity to help students where they are.

Friedman: The district has rated this school as a level-one school, with student growth and attainment being average or above average for the 2015 school year. Teachers say where they really see the difference is in the students helping each other.

Kelly Pollack, second grade teacher: They learn more from each other sometimes than they do from a teacher. So, just kind of seeing that mentoring happening is really proving mastery to us. It's really incredible to see that.

More on this story

Principal Scott Frauenheim says 52 of the school's 55 eighth graders were chosen to take the selective enrollment high school test; 25 percent of the class has been selected, including Aiko Castrejon, who you heard from in the story. She'll be attending Northside College Prep.

See statistics on West Belden charter school hereFor more on LEAP Innovations, visit their website.

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