"Yes, They Can!" First Graders Set Learning Goals and Monitor Their Own Achievement


Michael (Mac) Comer


Math (adaptable to any subject)

Cheltenham Elementary

To build learners' skills in setting and monitoring academic goals

Learner as Lead, Teacher as Facilitator

Classroom Practice


First grade Cheltenham teacher Mac Comer is building learner agency in his students by providing them choices in both math and language arts. Mac holds an individual conference with each student, during which he guides students in reviewing what they are doing well and in choosing a new learning goal. Mac sets up stations strategically to provide students options for how they will meet their goal and a choice of exit tickets by which they can demonstrate what they have learned.


He has moved away from a "station rotation" model, in which all students pass through each station according to a schedule, to a system in which students are free to choose whichever station they want.  Mac provides scaffolds for students to keep track of their choices (bingo board) and to stretch them to move out of their immediate comfort zone (VIP necklace).  In this way, he is helping students develop foundational skills to become self-directed and independent learners.

How It Works

All students at the sticker station are engaged in working to meet their goals.

A student proudly displays her exit ticket at the Bucket of Fun station.

At first, students used the Bingo Board to keep track of the stations they had visited. However, Mac found that students were repeating the same stations multiple times and choosing stations based on the ease of the exit ticket.

In order to encourage students to try more stations, Mac switched to a VIP Pass to track students' progress. Once students have completed an exit ticket satisfactorily, Mac punches the appropriate spot on the VIP Pass. Note that each station has a maximum of three punches. When students have accumulated 10 punches, they receive a small prize. Students use the back of the VIP Pass to record their goal. 


  • conducts pre-assessment with each student
  • develops range of appropriate goals in math and literacy
  • holds 1:1 conference with each learner to review math assessment results and co-create goal
  • sets up stations
  • provides exit tickets
  • creates and teaches a process on how daily choices are made
  • conducts regular assessments to monitor each learner’s progress

Learners …

  • complete pre-assessment
  • choose goal with teacher guidance
  • choose station
  • use goal to choose which skills to work on
  • use goal to choose which exit ticket to complete
  • complete exit ticket to demonstrate learning
  • attend 1:1 conference with teacher to review progress toward goal

"I think a lot of teachers feel elementary students need all the information given to them, or they need to be spoon fed almost.  I would say if you are not willing to try new ideas, if you are not willing to push your students, you will not ever see success in your classroom.  But if you’re willing to take that step, if you’re willing to be brave and bold… then you’re going to see that even kindergarten students can do the stuff we’re doing in this classroom.”

Mac Comer

Video Interviews

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

Mac discusses his process to support his first-grade students in driving their own learning by setting their own learning goals and the rationale behind it. 

Classroom in Action

Students explain their goals and discuss how they are meeting those goals at the station they chose.  Mac describes in more depth how he supports students in leading their own learning.

Teacher Interview: Impact on students

Mac reflects on changes in students' independence as learners: "At first, they wanted me to tell them everything."

Teacher Interview: Evolving Practice

Mac reflects on how his practice has evolved as students become leaders of learning and he steps more confidently into a facilitator role.

Final Teacher Interview: Reflections and Lessons Learned

If you want to try this...

  • Provide guidelines: Allow learners to choose goals from a predetermined list
  • Provide options for assessment: Offer learners a choice of exit tickets in order to meet their needs for different levels of challenge
  • Be flexible: be willing to make changes based on each learner's response
  • Be prepared to devote time to preparation: Personalized Learning is hard work. However, time invested in planning and preparation will pay dividends.
  • Don’t expect change to happen quickly: It takes time for learners to adapt to freedom and responsibility. Don’t be surprised if initially they want you to tell them what to do.
  • Trust your instincts: Don’t be dissuaded from trying this by others telling you, “It can’t be done” or “These students are too young”!
  • Listen to your learners: Believe in their ability to articulate what they need and want.

Coach's Reflections

Mac was coached by Imaginarium Innovation Partner Megan Hennessy.  We asked Megan for her thoughts about this 8-week journey in Personalized Learning. 

What do you think went well in this cycle?

  • Students know their goals and can explain them. They understand the stations system and they know the expectations.
  • If students don’t understand what to do, Mac makes adjustments immediately.  Along with a positive growth mindset, he is very reflective and always wants to improve.

What were the major challenges you observed?

  • Behavior management is something we don’t talk about much when we talk about Personalized Learning.  Students are afforded a new level of freedom in PL—how do we ensure they are still being respectful with each other and with materials when given that level of freedom?  It can be especially challenging for younger students.

What advice do you have for a teacher who would like to implement this strategy?

  • It’s critical that any system of choice includes a one-on-one goal-setting meeting.  If teachers provide choices for students in isolation, students don’t know why they’re getting a choice.  In the classroom we’re trying to push students to make choices based on what they need, not what they want.  Those one-on-one conversations help students to understand their reasoning and their goals and to benefit from having choices.
  • Teachers should focus on getting students’ feedback by holding frequent debriefs and asking about what they’re doing and how it’s going for them.



Thanks to Cheltenham Elementary teacher Michael Comer and principal Felice Manzanares for their support of this study, and to Imaginarium staff Rachel Wagster and Signe Hawley 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.