Succeeding With Differentiation

iStock-875574964_masterThis post was originally published on edutopia.org


Student voice is a hot topic in education, which makes me exceedingly happy—I’ve always thought that students were an educational stakeholder group that needed to be heard.

However, as a former teacher beginning my second year as a full-time consultant working with K–12 educators on differentiating instruction, I’ve come to realize that there’s another group of stakeholders whose voices are as important as students’, if not more so: teachers.

HONORING TEACHER EXPERTISE

For several decades now, differentiation has been on many school districts’ lists of prioritized initiatives. The workshops I facilitate are typically not teachers’ first professional learning on differentiation. Yet differentiation is still an initiative in many districts, not a long-settled policy. Why?

The answer to this question is multifaceted. The traditional A-F grading system doesn’t lend itself easily to differentiation, and tracking students undermines it. However, there’s another significant roadblock to enacting successful, sustainable differentiation initiatives: the pervasive tendency of professional learning facilitators to dismiss teacher voice.

Such facilitators (whether that’s me, an administrator, an instructional coach, or a fellow teacher) are often guilty of inadvertently disregarding participants’ sentiments of struggle. We view these struggles as resistance instead of listening to what teachers say and differentiating our instruction for teachers’ needs accordingly.

In my experience, most examples of teacher resistance are about valid claims, not unfounded complaints. And sometimes the struggles teachers face are with specific practices that are cornerstones of differentiation, which presents a conundrum.

In an effort to help break the cycle of endless differentiation PD and find solutions for common differentiation obstacles, I’ve worked with many teachers to create work-arounds that accomplish the intended goal of the problematic practice and also respect teachers’ professionalism, as illustrated here with two examples.

OBSTACLE 1: PRE-ASSESSMENT

Common teacher sentiment: “Pre-assessments take too long to administer, and they frequently just show that  the majority of the class has not mastered the material.”

The plain truth: Pre-assessments can take a lot of instructional time and sometimes provide teachers with little usable data.

Intended goal of pre-assessment: Teachers can use evidence from pre-assessments to plan instruction based on student need. The pre-assessment data will show teachers (among other things) which students have already mastered the material, so teachers can provide them with enrichment, which could take the form of anchor projects co-designed by the teacher and student, or challenges that allow for students to go deeper into the learning intentions by asking more complex questions.

Solution: Differentiate the pre-assessment. Instead of giving all students a time-intensive, whole unit pre-assessment, begin by giving all students a quick formative assessment on the first topic covered in the unit of study. Data from this formative assessment immediately tell teachers which students may have already mastered the content for the entire unit.

Then, give the full unit pre-assessment only to the small group of students who have shown that they have some mastery of the unit content. The results from this pre-assessment will tell teachers if they need to offer students enrichment on all or just some parts of the unit.

For each subsequent topic in the unit, offer quick formative assessments to the students who did not show mastery on the formative assessment covering the first topic. Offer topic enrichment on these topics to students as the need appears.

OBSTACLE 2: GROUP WORK

Common teacher sentiment: “I struggle with group work and prefer direct instruction.”

The plain truth: About 10 years ago, direct instruction began to get a really bad rap. Teachers were told they needed to be “the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.” However, research indicates that direct instruction is highly effective for student learning.

Intended goal of group work: Students work collaboratively to process and deepen their understanding of content.

Solution: Use a hybrid of direct instruction and cooperative learning. Let’s begin by clarifying a couple of points.

First, direct instruction and lecture are not synonymous. John Hattie has notedthat direct instruction done correctly has a greater impact on student learning than group work done incorrectly. Direct instruction is effective when the teacher instructs in short segments, with frequent checks for understanding and opportunities for students to process, practice, and receive feedback.

Second, group work and cooperative learning are not synonymous. Group work is an ambiguous term that encompasses everything from students working on a project together to students sitting in a group but working individually. Cooperative learning is structured so that all group members have equal opportunities to engage in appropriately rigorous learning.

With these clarifications in mind, to create a hybrid of direct instruction and cooperative learning in your classroom, follow these steps:

  1. Use formative assessment evidence to determine which students have mastered the material you will cover during direct instruction.
  2. Offer any qualifying students enrichment.
  3. Continue direct instruction as planned with the remainder of your students.
  4. Build in breaks in instruction (every 7–12 minutes depending on the age of your students) to check for understanding and give students an opportunity to practice and process.
  5. Incorporate cooperative learning structures like Think-Pair-Share or gallery walks during the breaks in direct instruction.

IN THE END

All teachers want their students to succeed, and all teachers try to make this happen. That is all differentiation is. We complicate differentiation by not allowing ourselves to be provisional with how we apply the foundational pieces of differentiated instruction.

Instead, if we address these four questions in our instructional planning, differentiation will always be the result: What do my students need? How do I know? What will I do to meet their needs? How do I know if what I’m doing is working?


Questions about differentiation? Connect with Lisa here or on Twitter.  You can also check out Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps To Harmonize Learning and previous blog posts on differentiation.

3 Lessons I Learned Leading Startups That I Wish I Knew as a Principal

Having worked in leadership roles in both public education and in the edtech startup industry, there are three organizational behaviors that, should I go back to school or district leadership, I would implement on Day 1.  

#1:  Daily or Weekly Standups

What’s the best way to have a well-run organization (whether a school or an edtech company)?  Communicate!  Take ten minutes every morning and assemble your office staff.  Go through the day, discuss what is expected to happen that day, and give every person a chance to ask questions.  Not only will doing so ensure everyone is on the same page, everyone’s day will run smoother.  

Standups allow for daily communication.

Oh, and what’s with the “standup”?  Everyone stands up for the meeting.  There isn’t a more effective way to keep a meeting short and on-task than by making people stand up while it’s happening.

#2:  Chat

I am against intercoms in schools.  In my opinion, they are the most intrusive and abused devices in existence – completely disruptive to teaching and learning (or general sanity). Download Slack (or embrace the use of any messaging tool that your teachers already like) and let every teacher and staff member in your building use it to communicate. These tools are efficient and allow for regular communication.

I like Slack because users can create “channels” that your staff can follow (i.e. lunch duty, after school clubs, 5th-grade team, etc.).  Of course, your staff may think big brother is watching their conversations.  But, as long as conversations on your messaging system put students first, what’s the worry?  

#3:  Ring the Bell!

Make no mistake, right behind the intercom, bells are the most obnoxious systems in schools.  But, in the workplace, ringing a bell is not the way employees know when to stop doing “this” and start doing “that” like the way many schools use bells to determine when Math is over and PE begins.

Bells are a way to let people know something positive has happened somewhere in the organization.  Full disclosure, this is stolen from car dealerships who ring bells with every car sale.  But, at Otus, big or small, we ring the bell.  A code bug is squashed…ring!  A sale is made…ring!  And, more of a full disclosure, we literally ring the bell emoji in Slack (you already know how I feel about distractions).

Bottom line, find your bell.  Don’t literally ring a bell in your school, but do make a point to publicly celebrate successful moments with your staff.  Maybe send an email blast or a group chat message containing small victories from the day (a great PD session, a positive call from a parent, etc.). Everyone has bad days and by “ringing the bell” you are showing that despite your bad day, good moments are always happening at school.

This post is written by my former co-worker and current husband, Keith Westman.  Follow him on Twitter at @keithwestman.


About Keith: Dr. Keith Westman taught third grade, served as a K-8 technology coordinator and was a middle school principal during his ten years working in school districts.  He left public education to work with his childhood friend who had started an edtech company.  That company, Aspex Solutions (now part of Frontline Education), grew up to provide AppliTrack and K12JobSpot.com to thousands of school districts and millions of job seekers throughout the country. Keith is the COO of Otus, the makers of the Otus Student Performance Platform, based in Chicago’s popular Fulton Market neighborhood, and moonlights as an Adjunct Professor at DePaul University.

‘Bad Moms’ and Why Parents Need Professional Development, Too

parent-learning-community-graphic

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

“Organizations only improve ‘where the truth is told and brutal facts confronted.”Jim Collins: Good To Great

(This is part two of a two-part series of posts on parents. Please note, this post refers to the community where I reside, not the community where I am employed).

Last week, I wrote Teachers Make The Worst Parents which explains how I struggle being both an educator and a parent. I find it almost impossible to separate my roles when engaging with my childrens’ teachers. Well, my conflict of interest is not limited to other educators; it also extends to other (non-educator) parents, particularly PTA members.

I used to think my feelings toward PTA members stemmed from a subconscious jealousy (sure, I would love to volunteer for one of your events or be a room mom, but they all seem to be between 8AM and 3PM and I have a job which happens to be educating children).

Or, I thought because I am an educator, I was more aware of how the PTA doesn’t seem to gather or use feedback from parents, teachers, and students to operate. Rather, they employ a top-down (and usually inefficient) approach to attempt to engage the community (as always, we will be selling pizzas to raise money to buy graduation tshirts for students who cannot afford them).

But, then, I saw last summer’s sleeper hit comedy “Bad Moms” which parodies a suburban PTA chapter and it’s members. Scott Mendelson from Forbes Magazine said: “movies like “Bad Moms” don’t get to $100m+ from a $23.8m opening unless the people who saw it liked it and talked about it with their friends.” And, all of a sudden, I realized other parents, whether they are educators or not, also felt disenchanted with the PTA.

In particular, this scene resonated as a crowd-favorite:

Gwendolyn: Now, I called this emergency PTA meeting to address an issue that radically affects the safety of our children. The bake sale.

Amy: Is this a joke?

Gwendolyn: Now, this is a list of the toxic ingredients that are absolutely banned from the bake sale. No BPA, no MSG, no BHA, no BHT. Plus no soy, no sesame, and, of course, no nuts or eggs or milk or butter or salt or sugar or wheat. Okay?

I have friends who are active in the PTA. I understand the importance of food safety. I also understand that the truth is said in jest and if “Bad Moms” is the current or perceived reality of parent teacher organizations, this partnership is in trouble.

“A little perspective, like a little humor, goes a long way.”Allen Klein

Being able to see other perspectives is a powerful communication and leadership skill and undoubtedly also one of the hardest concepts for people to master. Unless humans make a conscious effort to see things from another person’s point of view, the path of least resistance is to point fingers and make the other party “wrong.”

In fact, that is exactly what I did when I initially drafted this post. I did not have trouble rattling off all of the outdated and irrelevant activities my local PTA continues to promote. I did not struggle to list examples of how the PTA has marginalized working and minority families, and I certainly did not have a difficult time citing ways some PTA members use their roles for personal gain rather than to support the PTA’s mission: to advocate for all children. (pta.org)

But, I couldn’t seem to publish that draft. Something didn’t feel right, and that something was the hypocritical nature of the post. While I am deeply disappointed to live in a community where many PTA members are so lacking in perspective that it gives Hollywood fodder for movies, I also recognized I hadn’t considered the PTA’s point-of-view.

So, I attempted to remove emotion and intellectually consider the other side’s perspective. In doing so, my parent/educator conflict once again got in the way. This happened because I am privy to information and experiences that non-educator parents are not. I know that there is a vast difference between the “school” I experienced as a student and the “school” I experience as a professional educator. And, this I believe, is precisely the problem: because all parents are former students, they mistakenly feel as if their experiences with school give them a level of educational expertise.

Look Back To Move Forward
The PTA was created in 1897 to be a “voice for all children, a relevant resource for families and communities, and a strong advocate for public education.” Throughout history, the national chapter of the PTA has been responsible for instrumental changes to the landscape of public education like the creation of kindergarten classes and healthy lunch programs.

But, what, if any, learning specific to the field of education have members had since 1897? What level of understanding do chapters have about district initiatives? If the PTA is truly a partnership between parents and teachers to benefit all students, don’t parents need relevant professional development as well?

As an instructional coach, I am very proud to see more and more school districts implementing the most effective form of professional development for teachers: job-embedded instructional coaching (read more about coaching here). In contrast, parents are usually informed of changes rather than involved with the change.  This severely limits parents potential for true understanding. Parents are educators’ partners, and we need to ensure that we include parents on our journey and not just tell them about our trip.

What is the solution? A new type of PLC.
Educational PLCs (professional learning communities) use a systems approach to allow for teacher autonomy while working collaboratively on teams to achieve common goals with shared accountability. In the book, On Common Ground: The Power of Professional Learning Communities, contributing author Richard DuFour highlights the three big ideas of effective PLCs:

  1. Ensuring that students learn- shift from focus on teaching to focus on learning

  2. A culture of collaboration- create and use structures to promote working together

  3. A focus on results: establish a goal, work together to achieve goal, and provide periodic evidence of progress

I believe three similar big ideas could also be the operating system for parent-teacher organizations also called PLCs (parent learning communities):

  1. Ensure students are the beneficiaries- shift from focus on what parents want (or what has been done historically) to focus on student interests and needs

  2. Promote an inclusive culture: create and use structures to guarantee the diverse perspectives and needs of all community members are heard and considered

  3. Focus on results: establish a goal, cooperate to achieve goal, and provide periodic evidence of progress

The infographic accompanying this post provides suggested guidelines for parent learning communities. This new take on PLCs coupled with professional development would provide parents greater learning opportunities and a way to implement their learning. If resources allow, instructional coaches should be considered a primary form of PD using a team coaching approach.

As with any change, altering the way parent-teacher organizations function will take time. I am a strong believer in evolutionary change rather than revolutionary change so long as we take steps to get there. What do you suggest is the best first step?

Questions or comments about this post?  Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

 

Do as I say, not as I do. 

In-house professional development (otherwise known as instructional coaching) is gaining popularity in the field of education. There is quite a bit of buzz as to what constitutes quality PD leading to systemic and lasting change.  Last week EdSurge published a thorough and provocative report that identifies the top five requirements for effective PD according to teachers and administrators. This list includes the following: personalized learning, interactive activities, learning that is sustained over time, and respect for participants.

What a great list!

Does reading this list cause you to have the same realization as me? The realization that regardless of age, all learners want to learn in similar ways. The human brain physiologically needs to receive information that is relevant. Additionally, humans crave hands-on experiences, need spaced practice to fully understand new material, and want to be treated with respect.

However, something about this realization is really bugging me. As adult professionals, we treat other adults with respect. We practice confidentiality, act discretely in sensitive situations, and focus on our colleagues’ strengths rather than weaknesses. For many schools this courtesy extends to students.  However, I have visited some schools where this is not the case. Specifically, I am referring to punitive public behavior systems that take on a variety of forms: stoplight charts, red/green cards, and magnetized boards with movable student names indicative of how individual students are behaving at any given point in time.  Thinking about this classroom management practice got me thinking…

What if we used a card change system for adult professional development?

Let’s pretend we are at a PD session.  For ease, I will make myself the presenter.  Mrs. Jones walks in late to my session.  So, I move her to yellow. Mr. Smith and Mr. Anderson continue to be on their phones even after I said, “no phones”. So, they each go to yellow, and then, to the dreaded RED. But, the other 15 participants comply with my rules, so the system is working!  Right?

Wrong.

The card change didn’t affect Mrs. Jones. She left my session early. It turns out she had a family emergency. Mr. Smith wasn’t too concerned about his red card and continued to use his phone.  Turns out he didn’t care because he had nowhere to go but down.  I did feel kind of bad for Mr. Anderson….turns out he was on his phone so he could tweet comments that resonated with him.  That is until I gave him a card change and he was forced to stop sharing.

In this fictional scenario, consider the negative implications for staff morale and school climate. We can probably all agree that nobody would want to work in this environment.

The human brain is only able to receive new information when it feels safe. This ridiculously exaggerated account of a punitive behavior system with adults illustrates how asinine it is to use this type of system with students.  These systems do not make anyone feel safe.

At best, public shaming systems encourage compliance amongst those students who can easily comply. The “good” students.  These systems do not take into account that “bad” students may have difficulty complying.  Perhaps, a student has ADHD and can’t control certain behaviors. Or, maybe a student is savvy and questions something his teacher said in front of others. These behaviors would typically result in a color change. The “bad” students are “punished” and the message is that they are not accepted for who they are. These students need to change to be more like the “good” students.  Interestingly enough, public behavior systems do not benefit the “good” students either.  These systems simply show a level of compliance. Compliance is not an indicator of learning.  Compliance is an indicator of fear.

Moreover, what are we doing to the student versions of Mrs. Jones, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Anderson? Is a constant public display of their inability to stay at green helping them to change? Or, is it giving them a self-fulfilling prophecy that will stick with them throughout their career as a student?

When public shaming systems are used for classroom management, educators are missing out on an opportunity to build authentic, trusting relationships with students. Educators can use the “less than desirable behaviors” to engage in meaningful conversations to help both parties uncover what the other wants and work together to produce a healthy learning environment.

maslow-quote


Looking for a proactive alternative to card change systems? Visit the “Put me in, Coach” archives and read this post on tracking student behavior using PBIS.