For several years I had a custom sewing and alterations business in a home studio. I put emphasis on the magic of a perfect fit. Clothes that fit well are flattering and build confidence in the wearer. When we teach interior design, we help students understand that effective interior design begins with understanding the needs and wants of the client. In the food-services industry every restaurant offers a menu with choices that will meet a variety of needs and tastes.
It makes sense that if we want students fully engaged in the process of learning, we need to offer them choice with opportunities that are precisely tailored to their needs. Student agency must be built into everything we do. Choice is not only the first step to personalized learning. It also provides automatic differentiation, which, in turn means inclusion for students from varied backgrounds and abilities. Choice allows us to offer our students the magic of the perfect fit. That, in turn, builds confidence, and isn’t that what we’re trying to do?
Teachers know that we should always begin lesson planning with the end in mind. Activities and assessments should align with objectives. That’s Teaching 101, and I’d like to go beyond that here. Keep all your effective, research-based best practices! Activities and assessments should still align with objectives. But when I’m lesson planning, I now add the element of choice whenever I can. Choice is the scale or measure I hold up to each new lesson plan. Students respond in amazing ways when they can make the activities and assessments meet their needs.
It’s important not to go crazy with personalization. If I could give one piece of advice, I’d say, “Start small. But do start.” Pick one or two lesson plans you’re already familiar with and see if there’s a way to add more choice into what you’re already doing. Once you feel steady with one or two lessons, reflect on what you’ve learned and build from there.
What does adding choice look like in the classroom? Here’s just one example.
My 8th graders have several State standards they need to meet in connection with sewing and textiles. These standards include using equipment properly and following safety requirements as well as using specific industry sewing techniques. In the past, we’ve met these standards over a 12-day unit with most of those days in our sewing lab. After two days focused on how to use equipment properly and safely, students create a drawstring backpack that incorporates all the techniques required by the State standards. Once students finish the backpack I have always let them work on optional projects in the sewing lab. However, this year, I was limited on the number of days my students could use the sewing lab because I have a class that meets during the same period as our ninth-grade full-semester sewing course. The teacher for that course was kind enough to arrange her schedule to give me nine days in the sewing lab so we could complete the backpacks. I knew my students would want more sewing, so we moved our sewing to the regular classroom with exclusively hand-sewing techniques and supplies.
Before we got started on projects, I let my students know what supplies and tools I would make available to them and asked them to submit a plan for a project they could complete using hand sewing. Some students found patterns online, and some students designed their own creations. I had all the necessary hand-stitching tools, embroidery thread, stuffing, small zippers, buttons, and beads. Fortunately, I also had several boxes of all types and sizes of fabric that had been donated to the school. My classes worked on their hand-sewing projects the last three days before Christmas break (usually among the most chaotic days of the year in junior high). And yet things were relatively peaceful in my classroom.
Not everyone will agree with me on this, but I feel that slow sewing has a calming, meditative effect. It was fantastic to look at my classes and see both boys and girls hunched over embroidery hoops or using other tools to hand make gifts, ornaments, or other small items. Each student chose what to make, which meant that the chosen project most likely fit each student’s ability level. Students were joyful and helpful as they worked. Most of them seemed excited to share what they had created.
The slow-sewing days were low stress for me, and I will likely incorporate them into future sewing units, even if the sewing lab has a higher availability. As always, when I reflected on these days there are things I would change for next time. Students had to wait in line to get a hand needle from me, partly because I wanted to make sure they got the right size and type of needle for the project they were doing, and partly because I wanted to keep an eye on the needles and make sure I got them all back at the end of class. Getting all the needles back was the trickiest part, as a few needles inevitably fell out of sight and ended up on the carpet every class period. Although I believe I found them all, I might incorporate a check-out system next time around—a trade-your-phone-for-a-needle option. They can get their phones back when their needle is safely returned.
Students also waited in line for embroidery floss if they wanted it, because I knew I needed to show them how to separate strands in the skene without making a giant, tangled mess. I would keep that process in place, but I would also streamline it by having the thread colors coordinated and wrapped on cardboard in advance. Overall, I’m happy with how the hand projects turned out, and even happier that I was able to allow my students so much choice with this activity while still meeting the standards with sewing techniques. Here are some examples of finished student work.