Blooming with enthusiasm

SHELTON—Soft voices enliven a table in the center of the first-grade classroom at Holy Trinity Catholic Academy in Shelton. While teacher Cindy Nizzardo observes from a distance, a small group of students are reading, and are helping each other with the more difficult words. Each one has their own color-coded basket of books, set to their current reading ability. Madelyn’s basket is pink; Isabella and Kateryna both have blue. A cheerful spectrum of other colors lines a shelf, awaiting their owners’ turns.

This is a Personalized Learning session on reading, structured to help each student learn his or her best path to reading mastery. “Personalized Learning allows students to be active participants in their learning process,” says Holy Trinity’s principal, Lisa Lanni. “It is a great cultural change, although many of our seasoned teachers were already doing something like this in their classrooms.”

The diocesan Personalized Learning Initiative took a situation that teachers had already recognized—every child learns differently—harnessed the ability of technology and developed a program that gave teachers the tools and training to give their instincts greater cohesion and depth. Like all students in the Phase I pilot program, these youngsters took an assessment test at the beginning of the year in math, language arts and reading. The Edmentum online learning program then set up a path specific to each student.

While the students at the center table are each reading different books, Nizzardo is also noting the progress of a group in a far corner, who are all listening to a CD of one story while reading the same tale in their books. “The chicken stomped, whomped and clompity-clomped” the story went, giving students in that group an experience of alliteration beyond the reach of normal first grade readers. A different student each day becomes “teacher” here, choosing the book to read, operating the CD player and keeping the rest of the group on track.

At another table, youngsters are following individualized reading paths. When first grader Nicholas logs on to a HP Chrome Pad, his QR “badge” identifies him. The computer knows each student by name and knows the path they will be following this lesson.

The format allows Nizzardo to focus precisely on the skills and needs of each student. As the students rotate through their stations, she takes one small group at a time to reinforce reading skills or introduce new ones. “Please take out the letters S, T, E, P, O, L, and B,” she tells one group of four. The students select magnetic letters from a box. “Now please make the word STOP.” After they do, she asks them to change one letter to make SLOP. “Listen to that sound,” she encourages one student. “Sound it out. s..L..op. What letter is that?”

With another group she focuses on comprehension: “What’s going on in this story? Why did this character come along? What do you think will happen next?” Though it’s still a first-grade reading lesson, it’s an entirely different reading task, geared to a different set of learners.

The groups switch stations every twenty minutes. A new set of students will take the center table, reading, cooperating and collaborating. Whether they zoom ahead on their personal computer time or do best working with classmates, all of these first graders are learning responsibility, leadership and accountability. These skills will grow with them throughout their lives.

“No two flowers bloom in the same way” says a poster on Cindy Nizzardo’s desk. No two students in her class do, either. But, with confidence and enthusiasm, they all bloom.