Teaching Each Child, Reaching Each Child

Independent WorkThis year, one of my goals is to work towards true differentiation of instruction.  In the past, I’ve done some, but I want to focus on this strategy more fully.  No matter how hard I work to be entertaining and engaging, I know that some students are not listening because they already know it and some are not listening because they aren’t ready to learn it.  Differentiating instruction may be the key to help meet everyone’s needs in one room.

My two classes have a very different make up – one is my inclusion class with 7 special ed students and a number of other low readers.  This class is co-taught with the special ed teacher.  The other has no special ed students and is mainly students reading at grade level (or close to it).  In addition, I have an intern working with me, so at times, there are three adults in the room.

I started out by looking at the students whose reading scores are above average in both fluency and comprehension.  Luckily, our district screens all students 3 times a year, so that information was readily available to me.  Once I had a list of 10 students, I checked their weekly test scores.  We are using Reading Street, which uses a weekly reading test to assess whether students are learning the vocabulary and skills we are teaching.  The tests are HARD!  These 10 students consistently scored pretty high on these weekly tests.  85% was my standard and they reached it almost every week.  With 6 weeks of test scores to look at, I felt pretty comfortable with my data.

At the beginning of class, I pulled these students (3 in one class and 7 in the other) together and explained my plan:  they would take the weekly test as a pre-test at the beginning of the week.  If they scored 85% on it, they could work on an independent project during the week.  If not, they would stay with the class and learn the material.  The hardest part of this is convincing them that it’s okay if they don’t score 85% on the pre-test.  That simply means they still need to learn the material.  Each of them eagerly agreed to try it (I made sure to explain that this is a trial project and we might not do it again if it doesn’t work well).

Of the 10, 5 scored 85% or better.  Those five spent reading class working on a project of their choosing.  I gave them a list of possible projects, with certain requirements:  they had to include the Amazing Words we were studying that week, they had to use the focus area (this week it was the universe), they had to choose a project they could work on all week, etc.

As we moved through the week, there were a few blips.  For instance, the students working on the individual projects felt funny working on something while we were up in front teaching.  They also weren’t sure when they should pay attention and when they didn’t need to.  I periodically started to ask them to put their work away, forgetting they were working individually.  However, I think those are issues that will go away as we continue on.

Overall, I found the idea to be quite a success.  The students were really excited to be part of this.  It was clear they had been quite bored, listening to us go over skills and information they already knew.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have some students who are reading far enough below grade level that they struggle reading our textbook.  During my special ed class, I co-teach with the special ed teacher, so he includes these students when he works with the special ed students.  However, I have another student in the second class who is reading well below grade level.  To help her, I have recorded the tests, etc on an ipod that she can listen to.  I also recorded her spelling test so that she can have her own list of words at her level while the rest of the class takes theirs.

As we move forward, I anticipate bumps in the road I haven’t thought of.  However, I’m seeing benefits already from doing this sort of differentiating in the classroom.  Students look happier and are feeling more confident with their work.  We’ll see how week 2 goes with it!

Gifted and Talented Education

Our middle school started a gifted and talented enrichment program last winter.  A community member donated the funding to purchase supplies and get the program started.  Since then, I’ve met with 40 students each morning for 40 minutes of enrichment.

This has been the most rewarding, challenging, frustrating,and  exciting time for me.  Working with these students demonstrates to me the need for challenging tasks/assignments for our higher level students.  Our program includes students who don’t meet the traditional definition of gifted (since that generally fits only about 2% of student population).  However, these are the students who typically complete tasks quickly, are bored in traditional classes and are rarely challenged.

Currently, we are meeting students’ needs by giving them the time and supplies to explore an area of interest.  We have students working with Lego Robotics, photography, playwriting, newspaper production and more.  The idea is that students will be more engaged in school, overall, since they have this time to look forward to each day.

While this program has been a great benefit to our students, it has made it clear that we need to focus more fully on differentiating instruction in the regular education classroom.  As I have begun to research this topic, I’ve found numerous references to the numbers of student needs not being met in our tradition instruction.

Differentiating instruction is a hot topic right now.  As I work read more about it, and think about how to make it happen in my classroom, I realize that it is going to be quite a challenge.  My school has adopted a new reading/writing curriculum which uses every available minute and I am required to teach it with fidelity.  This makes it difficult to change the instruction for different groups of students.

In addition, I have 25 very active students for 2 hours, in a small classroom (I have one of the smallest rooms in the building).  These things make it more difficult for me to manage things by myself in the classroom.  Making sure that all students are able to pass the weekly tests, complete the formative assessments along the way and keep up with their assignments, while allowing students to work independently should present quite the challenging task.  The curriculum we are using is also very heavily teacher-directed, which leaves me with little time to work one on one with students.

Currently, I’m hoping to start using a pre-assessment with my high level students to ‘test out” of the week’s work.  They would then be able to go deeper into the subject matter and create a product demonstrating their learning.  This seemed like the best way to get started, without getting overwhelmed.  I also have a separate spelling list for students who pass the spelling pre-test each week.

As we go along, I’ll keep you posted on how things go.  I know it’s going to be challenging, but I believe it will be fun, too (and necessary).

If any readers out there already use differentiated instruction/assessment, please post some of the ways you handle it.  I know I need all the help I can get!

Parent Teacher Conference Time!

Okay, the longest week of the year has arrived!  I love parent teacher conferences, since it’s an opportunity to meet with parents and discuss their child.  Sharing successes with parents is always fun.  The downside to parent teacher conferences is the long day.  We hold ours in the evenings, after a full day of school.  It makes for one tired teacher by the end of the week!

As a parent and a teacher, I’ve spent many hours in parent teacher conferences (on both sides of the table).  One thing I know is that it’s very helpful to have information to share with the parents.  When I first started, no one prepared me for conferences.  It was hard to know what to say to the parents.  It felt very awkward to just share the grade their child had earned, with a smile and a nice compliment.

Over the years, I learned to create a progress report of skills to share with the parents.  As a teacher, this gave me specific information to share with the parents.  I was able to focus on the skills and topics we had been working on in class.  Going over this information let parents see where their child was succeeding and where their child could work more.

As a parent, I noticed that at the elementary level, teachers tended to have this sort of report prepared for me at each conference.  Once my children reached the secondary level (about 7th grade), teachers were sharing more about the number of assignments turned in and less about the skills my child had achieved.

This began to be a bit frustrating for me.  I would sit, waiting to speak to a teacher for 30-45 minutes, only to be told, my child has an A and everything is fine.  It seemed to me that if the teacher had a report prepared (similar to what the elementary teachers do), they would have more to share with me and we would both be able to use this time to better help my child.

While I am in no way implying that teachers are not doing their job, I have found that when we have this report prepared, conferences go much more smoothly.  When I create the progress report, I try to look at skills and topics that I already have data for.  This way, it’s a quick task to look up the data and fill out the report.  I think it’s well worth the half hour or so filling out the form, since it makes the conference go so well.

At our building and level, we schedule conferences.  This means that I meet with my homeroom students.  Since we team, I don’t teach them math, science or social studies.  This progress report allows me to discuss how the child is doing in other classes, even though I don’t teach them.

6th Grade Progress Report

I also will often have students write a letter to their parents explaining how they think they are doing in class.  The students are amazingly honest in these letters (often brutally so!)  The parents enjoy seeing the letter written and are interested to hear what their child has to say about the work he or she is doing.

In the spring, we use a student led conference format, which is also highly successful.  More on that next spring!

What do you do to prepare for conferences?

Building a Sense of Pride in My Students

One of the hardest tasks for a teacher is to convince students to take pride in their work.  Each year, I do my best to explain to students why they should be proud of their work.  However, I’m usually not terribly successful.

This year, I’m trying something different.  I had a refrigerator printed (life size) to post on my wall.

Here is the blank door

For posting things we are proud of.

As students do something to be proud of, we post it on the fridge.  I explained to the students that it is just like what you do at home: when you bring home a paper that you are proud of, your parents put it on the refrigerator.  That’s what we will do in the classroom.

Already, I have had students asking if they can post a picture on the fridge.  I have been graphing the percentage of work turned in for each class.  At the end of each month, the class with the highest average turn in rate will have a certificate posted on the refrigerator.  At the end of September, the Speedsters (one of my classes) were thrilled to have their certificate posted.  It’s my hope that this will encourage students to turn in more assignments.

Refrigerator with points of pride

In addition, as a group won a competition in class, they wanted their picture posted on the refrigerator.  I was encouraged when they asked to have their picture posted, since it means they are taking this seriously.

As we go through the year, I’m hoping the students will be excited to post points of pride in our classroom and take more pride in their work.  (We also posted the lunch menu, since that’s where most of us post it at home!)