Getting personal with personalized learning: How a third grade class is learning to direct their learning while building social-emotional skills


Amanda Swift

3rd Grade Gifted and Talented

All subjects

Edison Elementary School

To use project based learning to teach students how to direct their learning and work collaboratively.

Primary Driver: Learner Paths, Secondary Drivers: Goal Setting and Learner Collaboration



Amanda Swift is the third grade gifted and talented teacher at Edison Elementary. This year, Amanda has been teaching her students 21st century skills to help them grow as learners, leaders, and communicators. Some of the 21st century skills that she is teaching include being curious, appreciating and cooperating with others, conducting research, and thinking and inquiring critically.

Amanda wants her students to master content, but she also wants them to learn the skills they need to succeed. Swift uses project based learning (PBL) to allow students to pick groups and projects to meet standards. During group time, Amanda works with her students on building relationships, developing empathy, and showing compassion.


How it Works


During one unit, students are aiming to answer the question “If Earth became uninhabitable, to where should humans move and why?" They research life on Earth, human needs for survival, and the conditions of different planets. Students create groups and decide where they would want to move. Students are given the opportunity to direct their learning while they work on these projects. Using planning documents to keep themselves on track, students decide on the format of the final project and create it through a shared group process.

During group work, Amanda builds her students’ collaboration skills by helping them work through conflicts and discuss ideas respectfully. Each group hase a “talking stick”; only the student who is holding the stick can talk. The talking stick helps students take turns and listen to each other. She also holds “board meetings” with groups that are having conflicts. She guides how students talk to and about each other by redirecting negative comments and promoting positive, empathetic exchanges.

Students start by researching different planets and forming groups. They use this planning document to determine how to use their eight weeks to complete the project. This process helps students develop time management and planning skills.

During group time, students work on their projects. Amanda checks in on groups to make sure they are on task, respectful with each other, and functioning cohesively. 

Amanda holds board meetings with groups that need helping resolving conflicts. She helps them talk through the problems they’re having, asking questions like “What do you need from your group members to be successful?” and “What can you do to help your group member that’s struggling?”

At the end of each day, students do shout-outs to celebrate their classmates, building relationships and fostering a more positive environment in the classroom. These students are raising their hands to give another student a shout-out.

Students choose how to present their final projects. This group researched Mars and created a poster to demonstrate what they learned. Other groups created slideshows or news articles.

At the end of the unit, students present their projects to their classmates, as well as parents and guardians. Each team must collaborate to decide the details of the presentation.


  • Set goals for learning and developing collaboration skills.
  • Conduct independent and group research on a project.
  • Form groups based on a topic, not what their friends are doing.
  • Work as a group to research and create their projects.
  • Make plans and divide up work among the group.
  • Refer to the teacher when needed to solve problems.
  • Work with group collaboratively and respectfully. 
  • Present the project as a team to the class.
  • Create rubrics for content and 21st century skills.
  • Introduce unit and accompanying rubrics.
  • Model how to do research on the topic.
  • Model how to work collaboratively and solve problems.
  • Scaffold respectful communication.
  • Facilitate discussions about conflicts by holding "board meetings."
  • Check in with students to see how best to support them.

"I really want to send this message that you can choose how [you're going to do something], I'm going to help guide you and I'm here as a resource, but you're in the driver's seat."

-Amanda Swift

Video Interviews

Initial Teacher Interview: The 'What' and the 'Why'

Amanda discusses the kind of work she is doing and what makes it important for third grade students. Amanda believes that students should be learning more than just the academic content; she incorporates interpersonal skills into her lessons as well so that they can learn how to collaborate and work as a team. She lets students have control over their learning and uses data to measure student outcomes.

Classroom in Action

Amanda talks about the Utopia question that students will be answering during this unit: "If Earth became uninhabitable, where should the humans move to and why?". 

Impact on Students

Students are not just becoming better learners in Swift's classroom; they are also developing social emotional skills, such as working as a cohesive group and leading kindly. Students are often asked to reflect, set goals, collaborate, and shout out positives they saw throughout the day.

Reflections: Student Collaboration

Amanda shares how she supports 21st century skills in her classroom by defining what skills like communication and collaboration look like and analyzing what it means to master these skills. Amanda notes that it can be difficult to see the development of these 21st century skills from the end product, and therefore it is important to evaluate students throughout the learning process.

Reflections: Challenges

Amanda discusses how her teaching practice has evolved during this cycle. She emphasizes involving students in the reflection process and giving them opportunities to practice their collaboration skills. However, students sometimes struggle to work respectfully with each other. Amanda scaffolds their collaboration efforts with rubrics for social skills. She also helps students set goals for communication and working with each other.

To Those Who Believe Not all Students Can Do This...

Amanda shares her response to someone who believes her students are too young to have agency, choice, and voice in their learning. 

If You Want To Try This...


  • Set expectations early. Once students understand expectations, teachers don't need to micro-manage the process.
  • Be reflective. Frequently revisit each stage of the process both individually and with the students, to find out how they are progressing. 
  • Trust your students. They can make the right decisions when given the opportunity. Be a guide and help them build their confidence and freely express themselves.
  • Promote empathy and relationship building. It's important for students to understand how to work well with others.
  • Evaluate throughout the learning process. It can be difficult to measure 21st century skills, so observing whether students are using them throughout a project can help.
  • Be comforable with ambiguity. You don't need to have every detail figured out, especially when students are taking on leadership roles.
  • Problem solve with students. Involving students in creating solutions helps them build problem-solving skills.
  • Be patient. It can take time for students to adjust to PBL.

Coach's Reflections


Amy Burns, the Innovation Partner working with Amanda, noted that Amanda makes an effort to know all her students, resulting in strong relationships and an environment conducive to learning. Amy has observed that Amanda is very thoughtful about taking her lessons one step at a time, making sure that students are ready before moving forward. She uses protocols, exemplars, and feedback loops to support her students. 


Special Thanks to...

Thanks to Edison Elementary teacher Amanda Swift, her students, and Principal Sally Whitelock and Vice Principal Joan Wieser for their support of this study. Special thanks to Imaginarium staff Rachel Wagster, Amy Burns, and Sophie Gullett who all contributed to this report.

A huge thank you to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation whose Next Generation Systems Intiative (NGSI) grant has been instrumental in helping Denver Public Schools design, study and scale personalized learning.