The Window: A Glimpse Into Our Classrooms

 

It Takes a Village . . .

Many of us are familiar with the proverb that states it takes a village to raise a child. As we continue our partnership this year between school and home, I am reminded of this piece of conventional wisdom. It is so wonderful to be a part of our group of parents, teachers, and administrators working together in such concrete and constructive ways on behalf of the children we all care for and value so much. In modern times, any self-selected community of individuals who have banded together to provide mutual support and fulfillment to each other might constitute a village of the type indicated by the proverb. But a school community and arguably a progressively-minded community like ours, where the mortar is our shared commitment to celebrating who each child is, supporting him/her to develop that uniqueness, and then providing him/her with new tools to share what they learn with the world in a socially responsible way- now that is a village uniquely poised to raise its children with love and common purpose. It is not enough, however, to be a village in numbers. In other words, a child not only needs to be surrounded by many caring adults, but by a variety of adults, too, to mirror the many ways of being in the world. What a boring place our community would be if we all had the same strengths! Our job in raising our children, then, is at least in part to ensure that with our guidance they grow fully into themselves and into their own special abilities.

This week, our Window will focus in part on how we are differentiating instruction by readiness. That varying degrees of readiness exist among people is a truism as old as the mythical village of yore; however, it is perhaps more sensitive to agree that children may require different entry points into classroom material based on varying strengths and challenges than it is to agree that curriculum might need to be tailored in other ways. As we continue our focus on differentiating instruction to students, it is my hope and intention that together we can continue to develop a deep, shared knowledge and understanding of each child in our community, as well as foster ongoing, open communication. It is also my hope that this week's Window will provoke thought and invite questions about how best to meet the needs of every child. After all, it takes a village.

A Focus on Differentiating by Readiness

As one of the four general lenses in differentiating instruction, differentiating by readiness is arguably the most common technique used by schools to target the needs of individual students. Quite often, this method of differentiating involves the exploration of two important questions:

  1. How can we collect and maintain accurate information as to where a child is performing?
  2. How can we adapt what we teach to meet the meet a child's specific needs, once they have been identified?

As a matter of general practice, there is a dance between these two questions that results in ongoing assessments that drive instructional planning. A goal in this work is to be able to tailor our curriculum and instruction to each child's specific learning needs, developing in them a sense of confidence and success, while at the same time providing a challenge that encourages them to move forward with a sense of wonder and inquiry. Too much support can often lead to complacency, while too much challenge can often lead to a child shutting down.

Holding a deep respect for our students, we are invested in changing our curriculum to meet the needs of the students, and finding the right blend of support and challenge, rather than working to try to change our students to meet the demands of our curriculum. Below, I will highlight our practice in differentiating by readiness through a current progression of work in our classrooms that relates to writing/journaling. You can also learn more about this method of differentiating instruction in this video created by Carol Ann Tomlinson, an expert in this practice.

Pre-Kindergarten

As a developmentally-based program, our approach to academic skills in Pre-K is less about specific benchmarks or what skills we expect children to accomplish at a certain age. Instead, it is more about teachers having an understanding of the ways in which children acquire different literacy and mathematical skills, along with a framework in our minds of the typical developmental progression of these skills. This is why it is very unusual to walk into the Pre-K classroom and see everyone doing the same thing at the same time and more common to see the group of children working on a range of things. In other words, differentiation happens every day and in nearly every moment in the Pre-K program because each child has his or her own unique set of needs that determines what exactly it is time for them to be working on.

The way in which we approach journal activities in Pre-K can perhaps serve as a good illustration of this. At least once or twice a week, we set aside time when everyone does this activity together, but divided into small, differentiated learning groups to optimize the teacher instructional time. The basic format of the activity is simple: each child has their own “journal” (composition book) and is prompted to draw a picture and then is encouraged to “write” something about their picture. As might be expected, there is quite a range of journal entries. Some children invest a lot of time making drawings filled with elaborate details, for others, a few minutes of scribbling and experimenting with line formation, or practicing making dots and small circles is enough. Some children are at a point where they can begin to independently segment the sounds of a word and write using invented spelling. Other children are at the stage where they are just beginning to learn the names of the letters and the sounds associated with them. There are children who can readily identify and write nearly all the letters in the alphabet and others who are working on figuring out the letters in their own name.

The differentiated learning happens through an ongoing interactive feedback cycle of teachers closely observing each child’s process and then encouraging them to try the next thing. We watch and listen carefully to discern what each child is capable of doing, notice what comes easily and what presents a challenge, and then offer the right balance of stretch and support.

Kindergarten

Kindergarten students practice journaling on a regular basis. This routine activity of coming up with an idea, phonetically spelling out words, and completing an illustration supports building phonemic awareness skills. Expectations for this ongoing activity are differentiated based on each child’s abilities; for example, one child will write one word on a page, while another may be writing sentences. As skill level and confidence grow, children become increasingly independent with this work. Over time, expectations are expanded. The accompanying illustration component is valuable for fine motor practice, noticing details, and for learning to express ideas visually. Children enjoy working in their journals and feel a sense of accomplishment as they progress in their efforts.

First Grade

Journaling is one method used to differentiate by readiness in our 1st grade. In entering into this activity, a focus is placed on developing the process of writing. Students first spend time brainstorming ideas on which they would like to write with each other and with their teacher. Then, inventive spelling is used when the ideas are written on the board or a piece of chart paper at the front of the classroom. The children help by sounding out challenging words together, which serves to normalize the emphasis on the sounds, as opposed to conventional spelling (correct lettering). Focusing on sounds continues to reinforce phonetic awareness for emerging writers/spellers, which will help in turn to build to increased proficiency with correct letter placement later. More advanced writers/spellers are also encouraged to use resources around the room (e.g., word walls, dictionaries, etc.) to find accurate spelling. Following these initial conversations, the students then write independently in journals for 5-10 minutes. For those students who are transitioning to conventional spelling, our teachers will support by sounding out words with them, as well as encouraging the children to write correctly spelled words on post-it notes for later reference. As a final part of this time, and once children have written a lengthier piece of writing, students will read aloud what they wrote to their teachers, further solidifying the learning and informing us about where they currently are in this process.

Posted by Mr. Matthew Aborn on Tuesday January, 12, 2016
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Catalogue School
11701 Danville Drive North Bethesda, MD 20852
301.881.4100
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