May 15, 2018

Bringing Personalized Learning Through Shared Personal Experiences

Elva Guzman Sixth grade humanities

In this conversation with E4E-Chicago Outreach Director Ali Fendrick, Elva Guzman discusses how her shared background with her students leads to strong connections with her students and she also shares her passion for personalized learning.

Ali Fendrick (AF): What led you to become a teacher?

Elva Guzman (EG): I was born and raised in Chicago and attended Chicago Public Schools. My first language is Spanish, but because I’m from here I knew of English just by hearing it in passing and by watching TV. In my house, everyone around me spoke Spanish. When I then had to go to first grade where the teachers didn’t speak Spanish, I felt really lonely. I wasn’t able to communicate with people, with my teachers. I knew how to get by socially, but I could never say what I was feeling because of that language barrier. So then I wouldn’t say anything at all. I started to feel like I wasn’t smart enough because I was different and I knew it.

That experience has played a big role in who I am now and why I chose to go into teaching. If that’s how I felt, that’s how some of my students must be feeling because they come from first-generation Mexican-American families. I’ve always worked with kids, and when I was working at an after-school program I found myself thinking, “I want to be the one giving you homework. I want to be the one helping you during the day. I want to be the one teaching you.” I went back to school, and applied for a job here at Chicago Public Schools and eight years later here I am. I never thought about working anywhere else.

AF: Do your students and families benefit from having teachers that share their background?

EG: Yes, absolutely, yes. The parents, especially the first-generation immigrants, remind me of how my mom was with me, so I know it’s easier for me to connect with them I also use our shared experiences in my bilingual classroom. If I want to get a challenging point across,  I use shared experiences as touchpoints or analogies that I know they’ll understand. But also it’s just the fun, general connection I have with my kids from just knowing that we share those same experiences.

AF: I know you’re passionate about personalized learning. Have you seen the benefits of personalized learning come to life in your classroom?

EG: Yeah. Personalized learning is where students are taking ownership of their learning by having a voice and choice as to what they need in order to meet their academic, social, and emotional needs. I have flexible (flex) seating in my classroom, and it’s especially helpful to students that struggle socially and emotionally. I have students say that this is what they live for. Every day, they’re like “Are we going to do flex seating?” This year it has helped me as a teacher understand that some students are not developmentally in the same place as their peers. And you can push them, but you have to give them time to grow. It takes time. It’s a lot of work, especially with personalized learning. It’s a learning plan for each individual student.

Ultimately, you want to prepare them for life with executive functioning skills, things I never even thought about before. Kids reflect and think about what skills they need to work on. They see the “why” in everything.

AF: Amazing. So, as you know this month is Teacher Appreciation Month. How can we appreciate teachers more?

EG: We put our heart and soul into everything and we’re seeing these kids change so dramatically before our eyes. We’re planting seeds and watering them and watching them grow. They’re becoming beautiful flowers and we want to show off our garden to everyone. Do people see this? Do people realize how important this is? And so, I think that Teacher Appreciation Month is about the “thank you,” the recognition, and the support. If something doesn’t go right, it’s ok. What can we do to fix it? What can we do to calm you down?


Elva Guzman

Elva Guzman teaches sixth grade humanities in a bilingual classroom at Talcott Elementary in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood.