Wednesday, April 27, 2005

How well do you know your students?

The discussion on readiness is only one part of three elements that Carol Ann Tomlinson mentions as important factors to consider when modifying the content, process or product of a particular lesson. She also mentions student variability in the areas of interest and learning profiles. It's imperative that the teacher knows intimately the interests and preferred mode of instruction for each student in order to tailor lessons to those findings.

She goes on to provide a chart that describes the general principles of differentiation such as respectful tasks, flexible grouping, and ongoing assessment and adjustment. She then lists a range of instructional and management strategies to accomplish this task and heeeeeeere they are:

multiple intelligences
taped material
anchor activities
varying organizers
varied texts
varied supplementary materials
literature circles
tiered lessons
tiered centers
tiered products
learning contracts
small-group instruction
group investigation
independent study
varied questioning strategies
interest centers
interest groups
varied homework
varied joural prompts
complex instruction

More detailed discussions will follow on some of these strategies. Suffice it to say that the options are plentiful.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Advanced learners need ...

Our last strategy in this series deals with what to do for advanced learners who already know the skill, already have the understanding, or are able to grasp the concept quicker than others. Here's what Tomlinson says should be done:
Activities and products that are quite complex, open-ended, abstract, and multifaceted, drawing on advanced reading materials; or
A brisk pace of work, or perhaps a slower pace to allow for greater depth of exploration of a topic.

It's easy to see how organizing lessons with these things in mind will build on the strengths of these students and allow them to go deeper, increasing their learning and maintaining their enthusiasm. Compare that response to the reaction one has when facing a page full of exercises created for practice of a skill that has already been mastered.

After reading through all these strategies and feeling a little overwhelmed by the complexity of the teacher load for differentiating lessons, I was encouraged by this timely reminder for balance.
However, you need not differentiate all elements in all possible ways. Effective differentiated classrooms include many times in which whole-class, nondifferentiated fare is the order of the day. Modify a curricular element only when (1) you see a student need and (2) you are convinced that modification increases the likelihood that the learner will understand important ideas and use important skills more thorougly as a result.

What a relief! Teachers must pick and choose those activities where differentiation will meet the identified needs listed above.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Don't beat a dead horse

Our conversation on readiness will now move over to advanced students. What adjustments need to be made for them? Here's the first strategy advocated by Carol Ann Tomlinson in her book The Differentiated Classroom.
To skip practice with previously mastered skills and understandings.

The questions that need to be asked about practice and homework are, "How much is needed to reinforce the concept?" and "When are they ready to move on." Boredom will set in if students are doing endless practice when they have already mastered the skill or objective. These students will benefit from the suggestions in the next two strategies.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Go slow to go fast

Strategy #4
A more deliberate pace of learning

This one also has a great deal of common sense. It's just not possible, nor productive to keep plowing ahead for the student that is not ready. The trick is how to manage the class for those students that need more time to absorb a difficult or new concept. Extended day clearly meets that need. What are some other ideas out there? Does anyone have some strategies that are effective in carving out more time for the struggling student?

Friday, April 22, 2005


Strategy #3
Activities or products that are more structured or more concrete, with fewer steps, closer to their own experiences, and calling on simpler reading skills.

Logically, the struggling student will not do well with abstract concepts. Chunking is a term I've heard a lot, meaning breaking down complex objectives into bite size learning steps, and it's another way of describing this strategy. What are the classroom management obstacles that need to be overcome to make this happen? It wuold be great to share ideas and observe one another in action right here at Halecrest to support one another in pulling this off successfully.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

What makes a successful program?

Joanne Jacobs highlights two schools from Milwaukee where stark differences in student achievement exist. This underscores a discussion I had recently with some colleagues who were saying that the program doesn't make the differnce. The key is the implementation which hinges on teacher ability, coaching, a collaborative culture, and administrative, support.

Not ready? How about some direct instruction?

Strategy #2
More opportunities for direct instruction or practice

This one is a no-brainer. The key, of course, is giving them instruction and pratice that is right at their ability level. Practice is only beneficial if they are getting practice and being successful. More direct instruction is the big winner. How can one organize the classroom to allow for direct instruction for these students? I've seen plenty of research that confirms the fact that struggling students benefit most from direct instruction. The Standards Plus Curriculum that we invested in this year is a useful tool for that purpose. We are trying it out in some of the Extended Day programs, but it could also be used as an intervention in your classroom. Let me know if you want to take a peak.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Ready or not, well not exactly

Readiness, along with interest and learning profile vary with each student depending on the skill being taught, says Carol Tomlinson. Over the next seven days, I'll be posting Tomlinson's strategies that can be applied for students with less developed readiness along with reflective questions on how that might be applied at Halecrest. Feel free to jump right in any time. :) Strategy #1
Someone to help them identify and make up gaps in their learning so they can move ahead

OK, I can hear you all crying out from the depths of primary to the heights of upper grades, "See, we've been telling you all along that we need more help." Remind me to put that on the agenda when we look at proposed budget for 05-06. Seriously! But first, how can we align the personnel resources that we now have to help students identify and make up gaps in their learning? Are our instructional assistants being used in this way? Do our current assessments give us appropriate data to know where student gaps are? I'm very encouraged by the Everyone a Reader training scheduled for April 21. The volunteers that come out of this program should be able to move children forward by addressing their reading gaps. Thanks a million to Barbara and Linda for their persistence and determination to bring this to Halecrest once again.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Clarity leads to differentiation

Carol Ann Tomlinson reminds teachers that articulating what's essential for learners to recall, understand, and be able to do in a given domain helps students focus on what's important. Here's what she says about teacher's clarity on these issues:
The teacher's clarity ensures that struggling learners focus on essential understandings and skills; they don't drown in in a pool of disjointed facts. Similarly, the teacher ensures that advanced learners spend their time grappling with important complexities rather than repeating work on what they already know.

Looking at the extremes might be a good way to evaluate how your students are doing. Think about those struggling learners. Does it appear that they are focused on essential understanding and skills or drowning in a pool of disjoinged facts? How about your advanced students? Are they grappling with important complexities or repeating work on what they already know? Food for thought!

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Carol Ann Tomlinson in The Differentiated Classroom quotes Seymour Sarason who says

"Any classroom efforts that aren't powered by an understanding of what keep schildren eagerly pursuing knowledge are doomed to fail.

Here's some advice a colleague of hers once gave to a fellow teacher who was struggling with students who were drifting away.

Forget all the books and manuals for a minute. Go back to what it was that used to make science magic for you. Think about what it used to feel ike to do science. Then assume the kids you teach will only have your class to learn about sciene. It's their only science class-ever. What do you need to teach them so they will love science? Thnink about that for a minute. Then change one part of what I just asked you to do. Assume you only have three kids to teach: your own three children. And assume that at the end of the year, you will die. What would you teach them about science in that year?"

OK, so that's a little dramatic, but it gets at the heart of the matter. The best learning we have experienced in life has us filled with a sense of wonder and discovery. How do we create those types of experiences for our children every day? Quite a challnge!

Saturday, April 02, 2005

The hope of research based practices

This article by Debora Stipek, dean of the Stanford University school of education provides some excellent recommendations and cautions about the potential benefits and pitfalls of pursuing research-based educational practices. Here are some samplings:
They (US Department of Education) recommend, for example, research that is embedded in practice and that involves collaborations between researchers and practitioners. Unlike the traditional linear model of “research-into-practice,” their view of productive research and development involves moving back and forth between research and practice. Innovations are developed by researchers collaborating with practitioners. They are tried out in classrooms, refined or developed by practitioners in their schools and classrooms, and then systematically studied by researchers. The link between research and practice is assumed to be complex, reciprocal, and dynamic.

Wouldn't it be great to have a partnership with a local university school of education that is keen on working with us here at Halecrest to develop and study promising practices. All we need are a few more Chilis retreats and we can get this one rolling. :)

Practitioners’ decisions are based primarily on their own intuitions and experience and occasionally on advice from colleagues, principals, or workshop leaders. The idea of basing decisions on research findings or even data collected at the local level is not part of the culture of teaching. New technology and the push for data-based decisionmaking and evidence-based practice are beginning to change the situation, but basing decisions on research and data is a new concept. Both the desire to consult research and the skills to interpret it will need to be developed within the teaching community.

I think this paints a good picture of the educational community. There exists a slowly growing trend to pursue research-based practices but on a superficial basis, I'm afraid. We need time to study programs and interventions in order to make reasonable and informed decisions. Generally, I think the "Accountability Movement" for lack of a better term, has been very good for education, however the one downside are unrealistic timelines for improvement and change that lead to hasty and faulty implementations.

As a consequence, teachers need to have a deep understanding of the innovative methods and programs they are asked to implement. This requires far more time out of the classroom than they have available during the workday, and more training and support than most schools are organized to provide. Without these, however, the instruction that is actually implemented may bear little resemblance to the instruction that research demonstrated as effective.

Here's another plug for more time for collaboration. This is priority number one!

Although educational practices are hugely influenced by products developed in the private sector, objective evidence on the effects of these products on student learning is rare. Until recently, there have been no incentives for carefully designed studies because buyers haven’t asked for evidence, and no outside agency has monitored the quality or even the existence of evidence.

This is very true. Our recent decisions to invest in Tungsten and Successmaker are based mostly on word of mouth testimony and data compiled by the companies themselves. Independent research would add credibilty and confidence to schools who are making such substantial commitments. Until that happens, it behoves us to design sound evaluations of these programs to document success or failure.