Individualizing Education for Every Student: A Conversation with Becki Smedley

As a self-described “dream chaser,” educator Becki Smedley is making strides to transform the country’s education system one classroom at a time. Her dedication to individualizing education for every student pushed her to leave Quest Academy in Utah, an innovative school with her ideal classroom, to move across the country. Now in Florida, a state wrought with debates over standards and some of the lowest funding in the country, Becki is inspired by the sunshine and palm trees as she continues her work to create engaging learning experiences for students and educators.

At Weld North Education, we believe in the transformational power of technology in the classroom, and we left our conversation with Becki inspired to do more. We hope you can relate to her enthusiasm as she expresses her ideas and insights in this rousing conversation.

 

Weld North Education: As someone who has the courage to follow their heart and the belief to succeed in the path they take, can you tell us how you impart this philosophy to your students?

Becki Smedley: I believe in leading by example. I struggled in math and thought it was never something I could get. I refused to ask questions because I didn’t want to look like I didn’t know what I was doing. I graduated high school with honors, and went on to college where I failed math three times. I was shocked at how I could graduate with honors and fail math in college. Finally someone broke down math for me and turned a light on in my head and everything finally felt connected. At that point, it inspired me to become a math teacher because I wanted to help others make those connections. This last July, I just finished a second masters in mathematics education.

I tell my students that when something in front of you feels hard, it’s not that you can’t do it, it’s that you’re not ready for it YET. So we talk about how I, as their teacher, can help them move forward to tackle that next problem. As I travel internationally, it’s really opened my eyes that things don’t have to be done the way that they’ve always been done.

WNE: You embraced edtech early, so was there a specific moment that made you a believer?

Becki: I grew up with Oregon Trail® in elementary school, had a pager in junior high, and got my first cell phone in high school. So, I’m on that edge of being a millennial, and while I never had access to the amount of technology our students have now, it was on the periphery of my learning. I grew up using a computer, and as editor in chief of my high school newspaper, I was used to sharing and re-sharing documents. When I was new to teaching, a fellow educator told me about using Google Docs, and I got really excited about where technology could go.

From there I created a Google Form for multiple-choice exams and used an overlay to grade and correct the tests automatically. This opened a whole new world for me, and propelled me to seek a second Master’s Degree in Education and Technology.

I come from a family of educators, and the first time my sister-in-law was able to come home without a stack of essays to grade, her energy jumped exponentially. I constantly share ideas with her at family dinners because from my work with charter schools, I had access to tools she had never seen before. I am encouraged by the power of technology to allow us to be educators, but not have teaching take over our life anymore. When I see other educators do things that take a lot of time, I say to them, “Why are you still doing that? Your time is too valuable. Use it for the kids, not for the papers.”

WNE: Have any particular student journeys stood out for you in your experience with edtech?

Becki: I was in special education for six years, and that’s where my heart falls. When I shifted to general education, I found myself wanting to challenge both the high and low ends of my class. I had a fourth-grade student with a 504 plan during my first year as a regular education teacher. I used technology to notify her in advance of any activities we had planned for the next day. But when we moved to online curriculum, the ability for her to re-listen to a concept was life-changing. She went from a student who struggled with proficiency to one who was consistently proficient. She went on her own pace and I was her facilitator in the curriculum while still attending to her 504 needs. It allowed her to become a learner who was thriving.

On the other hand, I had a student in sixth and seventh grade who was going ahead of pace. We opened the door and let him run, and he did 2.5 years of math progress in his 7th-grade year. He was on the high side, and technology allowed him to fly while still allowing me to be the facilitator.

WNE: We’ve talked a lot about the benefits of edtech, but what do you see as the biggest challenge?

Becki: Finding the right piece of technology can be a big problem. I feel like through grants of group sourcing, we’re finding it easier to find the financial piece for the tech, but there is so much technology out there that it can be intimidating to teachers. Especially if you’re used to teaching a certain way, it can be hard to envision how to use these new things in your classroom.

For example, I can’t see how to use VR as a math teacher yet, and it seems like it’s got a great place in science and social studies right now. I say “yet” because I think it will come into my classroom someday, but I just haven’t been able to find a way so far. So it can be overwhelming to understand how to use something in your personal situation because no two classrooms are the same and what’s working for someone else may not work for you.

WNE: How do you combat that feeling of being overwhelmed in your classroom?

Becki: That’s something I’m focusing on this year, mental health and fear in particular. A lot of the decisions we make are due to fear, like the fear of the unknown, fear of being uncomfortable or embarrassed, fear of the student knowing something we don’t know. If we can push through that to be vulnerable with ourselves and our students, we can create some unique moments. The kids were born into this world of technology, and in a lot of ways, it’s their first language, so it’s okay to ask them for help and be upfront with our own struggles. It helps us to model that growth mindset for students and teach them that it’s okay to try something new. There’s sometimes a disconnect between generations, but just accepting that things can be different and it’s okay to change can be life-altering.

WNE: You seem to be a real role model for your students and your fellow teachers. Do you act as a coach within your school?

Becki: Yes, definitely. I think every school needs someone to answer questions with no judgment. Not someone who looks at asking questions as a sign of inferiority, but a coach who is approachable and is willing to help no matter how simple the task is without making them feel dumb for asking. I find that both young and old teachers have questions, but we’ve created a community where everyone’s helping each other and we’ve cultivated a mentality that we’re all in this together.

Individualization is everything, so I find that teachers (myself included) are more comfortable asking questions in a one-on-one setting instead of a more intimidating session like a PLC. Acronyms can be very prohibitive and embarrassing to ask about, so people often find me in the hallways or the lunchroom to ask a question instead of those more formal trainings. And it’s the same thing with our students; we can’t assume that just because this is something they “should” know, that they actually do.

WNE: In your opinion, what are the biggest impediments to schools or teachers embracing technology?

Becki: For me, it goes back to my beliefs about fears in general. Teachers are fearful of web-based tech because once you have the Internet in your classroom, the students have access to unlimited content and it can feel overwhelming. It’s scary to let kids go free on the Internet. I’ve seen some teachers try to do something simple like allow music in their classrooms, but it just opens a rabbit hole. So the challenge is, how do we help kids incorporate the tools? How do we teach to use the tools to embrace this onslaught of information and also decipher what is quality information?

We live in an instantaneous world, so kids are used to turning to things like Wikipedia for a quick answer, and we as teachers have to find ways to incorporate that into our classrooms. We talk a lot about digital citizenship because much of the curriculum is coming from an online setting.

WNE: Could you describe your ideal classroom experience for us?

Becki: My ideal classroom is probably where I left last year, Quest Academy in Utah. My room had flexible seating with 4–5 students at a table. I had low lighting, allowed kids to stand up and move, and also choose if they wanted to listen to music or not. I allowed students to choose their learning environment, then used the data to back it up. So, for example, if a student started listening to music and I saw their productivity was affected, I would talk to them about it and we’d decide together on the best way forward.

I believe that the more data you collect, the better, but you have to actually use that data. One of the best things about the evolution of online curriculum is that we no longer have to designate a testing day. The data comes from day-to-day existence in the classroom, so it allows tests to be what they are (a snapshot), and not such a big deal. The student’s ability to demonstrate mastery should always be at the forefront. So much of our education has been boxed in, and we put so much value in how they do on a test or compared to the person sitting next to them. It’s no wonder we have kids struggling with mental wellness.

In my previous school, the teachers would sit in groups with lists of students, and we would name something personal about every single kid. If someone in the group didn’t know something special about a student, we would assign someone to make a personal connection with that student and ensure they had their needs met. Many of my students didn’t understand why I left such an amazing environment, but I had to. Sometimes you have to leave something you love to chase your dreams.

WNE: And how do parents fit into the learning experience in your opinion?

Becki: I think parents are one of the three most important things a student needs for success.

To succeed, I believe students need:

  1. To be willing to put forth the effort
  2. A teacher willing to meet the individual need
  3. Parents to provide support

Every kid and every parent is different, so, again, it’s all about individualization. Some parents may need to meet with a teacher on a monthly basis while others only need a yearly check-in, and that’s okay. Educating the masses is a disservice because our kids are so diverse, as are we as teachers, and technology gives us the opportunity to meet them where they are. If there are 30 students in a classroom with one teacher at the front, some are bored, some are lost, and some are learning. To help parents understand the vision and to buy into it, we need to show them how we can meet their student’s individual needs.

WNE: What is your definition of blending learning, and what are your best tips for creating an optimal blended-learning environment?

Becki: Blended learning for me is when a student is in control of their education, and they use multiple resources to achieve their learning goals. Online resources, one-on-one, virtual, simulations, YouTube, a blend of everything education has to meet the individual student’s need. We’re taking steps to get there and have a lot of resources to offer, but we need to remember to individualize the experience for the student.

I did an online survey on Facebook and asked my close friends, “When you’re in school, sitting in math, how many one-on-one conversations did you have with your teacher?” Twenty friends chimed-in, and the overall consensus was that two people can remember having a one-on-one conversation with their math teacher. How can we expect them to understand if we’re not having a conversation with the kid? If you want to find out what your kids need, you have to have a conversation with them. There’s going to be the quiet kids and the ones shouting out the answer, so you’re not going to truly do blended learning on an individual level until you have a one-on-one conversation.

And it doesn’t have to be in a formal setting; a five-minute conversation on the playground is better than five hours of whole-group instruction. It’s almost life-changing when we have a one-on-one. A computer has no way of knowing what is going to be the key to your learning, what string you need to pull, what concept you need to reteach. So, when I talk to my students, especially the frustrated ones, I make them tell me what they do understand. I say, “Before you tell me what you don’t get, tell me what you do get.” And that way it can build their confidence up because even the kids struggling the most understand something, and I can step in to help them make connections.

There is something so cool about what math does for confidence. In her book, Mathematical Mindsets, Jo Boaler talks about how a person’s internal worth can be tied back to math. She identified a correlation between whether people feel like they are successful in life and how well they did in math. Math doesn’t stop when you leave high school, so we have to stop treating worksheets like they’re going to tell us what that student needs to carry into their life.

WNE: How do you keep your school on the forefront of tech?

Becki: I recognize that our country is losing teachers, and I don’t know what it is that’s pushing people away from education, other than that it is easy to get bored if you’re not being challenged. Schools buy a product and expect that it will fix everything. I don’t think edtech is a solution. These are people we’re educating, not robots, and you have to establish positive, trusting relationships with them. If teachers can be comfortable with change and the evolution of technology and work alongside supportive administrators who institute intentional changes, then the students will benefit. But we must always ask if it’s the right thing for our learners, and not just make changes on a whim.