Differentiation is one of those things that never seems like it can be 100% mastered. Once you have your differentiation strategies dialed in for a particular set of students… you get a new set of students! But with these new students comes a new opportunity to learn and refine your teaching approaches.
This summer, build up the differentiation strategies in your toolbox so you’ll be more equipped to meet the needs of your future students. Start with these ideas:
Every teacher knows the value of a field trip, and I love that David Cooper takes his students to the J. Paul Getty Villa every year. I have a deep love for museums, but the truth is, a museum can be a difficult place for students with special needs.
A lapse of control in the grocery store might end up breaking a jar or two and cost a few dollars. A lapse of control in the Getty Villa might put an ancient Greek Statue at risk.
I’m sure by now you’ve heard — a brilliant star went dark in the cosmos.
Dr. Stephen Hawking, British theoretical physicist who overcame ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) to publish wildly popular books probing the mysteries of the universe, died on March 14th at the age of 76.
On August 17, 2016, I was invited to meet with Dr. Hawking at Cambridge University’s Research Centre for Theoretical Cosmology to talk about community access and voice output machines. As I noted in an article for the Oregon Education Association’s quarterly magazine,
“Over the years as a special education teacher, I have had over a dozen students who use voice output devices. To inspire my students, I have shared videos of Dr. Stephen Hawking. ‘If he didn’t use his talker,’ I told one student, ‘nobody would know he was the smartest man in the world.’ Believe me when I say that Dr. Stephen Hawking is my hero.”
Inclusion practices have moved many students from special education rooms into mainstream classes, and as I’ve traveled the states as Oregon Teacher of the Year, I’ve heard one message loud and clear:
General education teachers need help adapting their classrooms and lessons for a wider range of skills.
We have classrooms with students reading at the Pre-K level sitting next to kids who read at the pre-college level.
Teachers need help.
These differences in ability are not just academic. Think of your own classrooms and the different behaviors and social skills you navigate each day. We have kids all over the place — so we teachers are going to be teaching all over the place.
Teaching Channel has invited me in to look at their amazing video lessons from inspiring teachers and imagine some adaptations that might help out your learners with IEPs (Individualized Education Programs). This is not to critique their outstanding work, but rather a special education teacher thinking about what one of my students might need to succeed — in that classroom, and with that same lesson. I want to set the tone from blog one and let these amazing teachers know how much they inspire me.
And on that note, I can’t think of a better video lesson to start with than Nick Romagnolo’s Setting the Tone from Day One. Hats off to Nick, because had I seen this video as a student teacher, I would’ve had a much better start to my career!
Making change can be challenging. It requires us to take a step back, assess our current practices in schools and classrooms, and talk honestly about whether things are working for students. This often puts us in an uncomfortable place, because the safe feeling that comes with what we know, is often more appealing than fear of all the unknowns that accompany change. So even though we may know change is necessary, it’s still difficult and filled with many growing pains. Last year, my colleagues and I embraced the challenge of changing our school’s PLC structure to a more collaborative learning space called Learning Labs. I feel so fortunate to have had the support of my administration, teachers, and the Tch community to learn so much from the experience and document the journey.
This year, I’m excited to continue learning with everyone and working through another important change in the current state and district structure — RTI. For those who are not familiar with RTI, it stands for Response to Intervention, and I discussed it a bit at the end of my reflection post from last year. For RTI, we place students in tiers based on various measures, and pull the intensive students out of class for 50 minutes of extra support each day. While I love the idea of giving students the extra support they need, I can’t get past the labeling, grouping, and removing of students from their K-5 classrooms to get that support.
Every teacher knows that “within the overall patterns of development, each child’s trajectory is unique.” In a class of 30, they will each fall in a unique place somewhere on that developmental continuum. Some students come over-prepared, and some woefully under-prepared. However, their level of development shouldn’t prescribe the kind of instruction they receive. Students who are ‘behind’ need time and support to strengthen their phonics and phonemic awareness skills in fun and engaging ways.
I work with a variety of students, many of whom are English Language Learners or have specific learning disabilities. I have found that these students often have more difficulties with auditory processing and language than other students. Luckily, when one sense is struggling, our other senses come to the rescue: these students are usually visual learners. The majority of my students are so visually acute that if I change one small thing in my room, they will walk in and say, “What did you do? The room looks completely different.” Knowing their visual perceptiveness is such a strength means I can leverage it as much as possible.
The teachers at Tahlequah High School in Tahlequah, Oklahoma are committed to making sure all of their students receive engaging and rigorous math instruction. After realizing that some of their ninth graders weren’t ready to take Algebra 1, they created an Algebra Skills class. In this class, students (many of whom are in Special Education) spend their ninth grade year working on basic algebra skills with math teacher Gary Akin and Special Education inclusion teacher Marjean Dowling. During their 10th grade year, the same students participate in a contextual Algebra 1 class.
Teaching through the arts can be a great entry point into content. Through engaging, arts-rich instruction, students are hooked into learning. But even more than just an entry point, arts-integration can provide a scaffold for helping students tackle increasingly complex cognitive tasks.
Lindsay Young, a High School teacher at Verdugo Hills High School in Tujunga, California, does an amazing job using the arts to scaffold important reading skills. Lindsay teaches an English Language Development class for long-term English Language Learners who are in Special Education. Close reading, a key reading skill, can be hard to master, but Lindsay helps her students develop their abilities by close reading portraits the way that they would a text.