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Rock the Bells: Personalize Learning with Playlists

children learning in different groups according to their personalized instruction

In this first article of 2, Content Specialist Eboni Hogan shares a back-to-school horror story that highlights the importance of embracing “bells and whistles” like personalized learning to keep students engaged — and how teaching playlists can help.


Traditional Lesson Plans vs. Playlists

It’s only my first day working with a new co-teacher when she proclaims that she has revised the plan for how we will spend the next 45 minutes in her 11th grade English class.  

Her edits:

  1. She’s ditching my lesson plan. “Too complicated. They’ll get noisy.”
  2. She’ll read the next chapter of The Great Gatsby aloud because “they never volunteer so someone has to.”
  3. In the last 5 minutes, she’ll invite me up to “do your rap thing.” 

This may come as a disappointment but I’m not a rapper. I’m not sure where I went wrong with the initial introduction email. Maybe AutoCorrect changed “teaching artist who specializes in arts integration and culturally responsive approaches” to “rap thing.”

Simple miscommunication can turn an arts educator into wedding entertainment quicker than you can say “hotel, motel, Holiday Innnn”. 

After clarifying that at no point would I be freestyling, I reminded her of how we’d agreed to spend the class time. Students would examine a smaller chunk of the required reading, using a number of cognitive strategies to activate the text. Tapping into prior knowledge would make this classic story personally relevant and then an analysis of various media would help students make real world connections to better understand the themes.

Finally, students would have a choice of two simple performance assessments to express their understanding in a way that worked for them. I didn’t know then that essentially what I was offering was a playlist that provided multiple access points to boost comprehension. But nevertheless, this teacher was convinced that I’d constructed some kind of fun house mirror illusion of a lesson plan. Good fun but ultimately someone is gonna throw up their funnel cake. Or fail the end-of-book assessment.


Personalized learning, student choice, and culturally responsive pedagogy: Merely bells and whistles?

During our brief odd-coupling, I served an ornamental role in her classroom. Still Life of Quietly Seething Teaching Artist in High School Classroom. I quickly became versed in her patterns and rituals. Review vocabulary, read aloud, and written responses with the occasional “special treat” – watching clips from the film “The Great Gatsby”. Not the glitter-bomb DiCaprio rendition. The 1974 version.

Her way of teaching was as predictable as how her students responded. No one was particularly enthused but the invariability and clarity around expectations was effective for a good portion of the students. The rest struggled each day, often derailing the rest of the class when boredom or frustration became overwhelming.

Those that could not or were unwilling to adapt to her rigid structure were labeled “apathetic” or “difficult” and in suggesting alternative ways to bring them into the loop, it became clear that concepts like student choice, culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP) and personalized instruction were considered bells and whistles. Students don’t need too many choices. Giving students too much space overcomplicates things.

A good teacher is a good teacher. And a good teacher’s students will learn.

And with that final statement, I packed up my satchel of rap goddess goods and marched off to the site coordinator’s office to request a new assignment.



When improving student outcomes drives educators to the teaching strategy deserts… enter playlists.

I will say, this was not standard operating procedure with a majority of the educators I had the pleasure of teaming up with. Many teachers are under so much pressure to improve student performance that they take to roaming the Strategy Deserts, looking for ways to enhance their practices. 

I’m used to initial resistance and I appreciate the skeptical ones because they keep me honest. I’m not in the trenches with them every day, beholden to assessment procedures and protocol. My only hope is that the work I’m passionate about takes the pressure off of them having to be the center of their students’ learning. The pressure of being a good teacher whose students will learn. 

This is why playlists are particularly effective in refocusing that lens. Throughout the year, I compile and produce a diverse collection of materials that support specific academic content standards. 

Kiddom playlists are shared in a format that allows for teachers to customize them before inviting students to plot their own journey towards a common learning goal.

But I’m still that teaching artist, peddling culturally responsive pedagogy like it’s the most useful set of knives you’ll ever own (It can cut through a penny; allow me to demonstrate!) so naturally I approach playlist curation with the same sensibility. Give students materials that inspire them to learn and they will, with or without a “good” teacher.


Come back next week for part 2, in which Eboni shares how culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP) can be implemented in a classroom and its link to personalized instruction.

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For the first time, educators can share and manage digital curriculum, differentiate instruction, and assess student work in one place. Learners can take assessments online, see student performance data with the click of a button, and teachers have the insight and tools they need to create individual learning paths.


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