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Teachers Tweak Instruction to Engage Students at All Learning Levels

Discovery Elementary School’s first-grade classrooms were bustling with activity. In one room, students read parts in the play “The City Mouse and The Country Mouse.” In another, teacher Carla Schuch pointed to the words “deer” and “dear” as a student shouted, “That one’s the animal!” when she pointed at the first. In yet anotherroom, Zakiyah Turpeau sounded out one letter at a time: “mmm–a–t … mat!”

All Discovery students are expected to enter second grade having learned the first-grade course of study. But their school day, or at least portions of it, focuses on where they most need attention — not after school with tutors, but during the time allotted for each subject.

Gone is the old model of “teaching to the middle” in hopes that the majority of students will grasp the lesson. In today’s classrooms, educators say responding to the individual needs of all students is necessary.

“This is one of the most exciting changes that has happened in education,” said Discovery Principal Deb McNally. “It has really moved our learners; it’s created energy with the teachers. … It’s a real team and it is great.”

The Differentiation Difference

  • Breaks students into small groups
  • Uses different avenues to reach each student
  • Zeroes in on individual needs
  • Allows students to explain their problem-solving method
  • Teachers modify instruction “on the fly” using technology to receive immediate feedback

Today’s classrooms indeed look different from a decade ago, and that’s due to a common buzzword circling education and teachers’ training: differentiation. It involves delivering instruction in ways that all learners can respond to. Teachers are using different avenues to grab students’ attention and make things “click.”

“It’s the most challenging change, but it’s so exciting when you see it happening,” said Teresa McDougall, instructional coach for Grandville Public Schools and consultant for Kent ISD. She said new methods of differentiation are being used as early as prekindergarten.

“Teachers get excited about the way students are thinking and solving problems, and you never heard that before at that level,” McDougall said. “We are finally filling in the gaps that students have in their own learning.

“Before, we were building that foundation brick by brick. Now, we are going back in and filling in that foundation with cement mortar.”

Various Forms of Adapting Teaching

Differentiation means meeting each student at his or her own level while taking into account various learning styles, such as visual, verbal or physical. Teachers analyze data from tests and assignments down to every last child, regularly re-evaluate their needs and tweak their teaching accordingly.

At Discovery, all students involved in the reading groups were first-graders. All must take the same standardized tests including M-STEP, which is replacing the MEAP this spring; Standard Reading Inventory (SRI) tests; and DIBELS, which assesses early literacy skills.

“This is one of the most exciting changes that has happened in education.” — Kentwood Principal Deb McNally

A teacher works on reading with a student
A teacher works on reading with a student

That’s an important point: Schools today are faced with the challenge of meeting standards, and standardized testing is the meter widely used to measure how well schools are performing. But if students learn at different levels, ranging from special education and English-languagelearners to gifted and talented, how do you adapt teaching around those expected standards for all students?

“In order to be able to take kids from where they are to where they need to go, you need to know where each individual child is at in the classroom,” McNally said. “What (previously) was a focus on content is a shift to a focus on who’s the learner. We’ve seen this trend in education more and more: Focus on the learner.”

Differentiation also ties in well with Common Core, the national set of academic goals focused on having students understand concepts, McDougall said. Overwhelmed teachers worried about the volume of content they need to teach can be trained to “layer” instruction, reaching various levels of students all at once.

More opportunities for doing so are becoming available. While teachers have always improvised, now they are able to get immediate feedback — and sometimes tweak instruction on the fly. Classrooms where each student has a laptop or tablet allow students to focus more on some areas than others, and teachers and students can work together on programs like Google Docs. McNally called it “on-the-spot differentiation.”

Math Techniques Helping Comprehension

In Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, second-grade teacher Heather Vernon began implementing a math differentiation strategy last year after attending a professional development program led by Kassia Omohundro-Wedekind, author of “Math Exchanges.” Vernon works with small classroom groups on activities like addition and subtraction problems, but with differences. Some groups might use large two-digit numbers, others under 10.

Some students work with small objects for counting, to visualize the problem. Others are ready for mental math strategies. Each group has ample time to think and write about how they completed the problem.

“When they are all done they go and explain to each other what they did, so they can learn from each other,” Vernon said. “If they hear it from other kids it might make more sense to them, and it’s more student-driven. It’s letting them take risks.”

The approach enhances students’ learning at all levels, she said: “It’s not just a set of memorized facts. It’s going to be more practical in the real world.

“I think some of my kids who struggle the most in math shine the most with this, because they can visualize it more,” she added. “It actually makes them think, explain and show what they did.”

“Some of my kids who struggle the most in math shine the most with this.” — Godfrey-Lee teacher Heather Vernon

Students read different parts in the play
Students read different parts in the play

A Wide Range of Learners

In Kentwood, Discovery Elementary is a picture of diversity spanning a spectrum of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Inside its walls, 53 percent of students represent various minority groups and a quarter are English-language learners. About half qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Test scores are high, with 91.3 percent of third-graders scoring proficient in reading last year and 60.6 percent in math, well above the respective state averages of 70 percent and 38.5 percent. The school made a 21 percent leap in overall student growth.

Teachers, the principal, interventionists, special education and English-language learner teachers and paraprofessionals meet four times a year for “Data Dialogues” concerning students’ performance. Teachers use information from those sessions to determine who is grasping concepts, who isn’t and how to address each child’s needs.

Discovery has used the differentiation model since it opened 10 years ago, but it’s gotten much more sophisticated, McNally said.

The school’s reading program takes a lot of work and a large staff. For example, 13 staff members including paraprofessionals and interventionists work with 75 first-graders. So at times during the school day, there’s an average student-teacher ratio of about six to one for first grade.

Students are divided into groups based on their reading or math level. High-level learners, in larger groups, read together with a staff member, playing parts in a play or reading a book advanced for their grade level.

Those who need extra help meet in smaller groups of about five for reading instruction. Students struggling the most meet in pairs with the classroom teacher.

But McDougall said other forms of differentiation work between one teacher and a classroom filled with students. A math teacher can teach a lesson on fractions, for example, pinpoint where each student excels and then have them teach each other.

“A lot of it is getting students to critique the thinking of others and explain their own thinking with others,” she said.


Column on Differentiation

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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