“One size fits all.”
We have heard that phrase so many times in so many ways, but in today’s classroom, that phrase is simply not true. Most of us have over 20 students who learn in 20 different ways. Classrooms of today paint a very different picture than those of just 20 years ago. Most of our students are the same children we encounter year after year, but the ability level with which they are entering our classrooms changes on a yearly basis. Students are interacting with each other through video games, video chatting with relatives and utilizing cell phones in ways that some adults still are learning how to do.
We as teachers are faced with the daily task of providing a rich and rigorous curriculum to all students. But how are we making sure that all students are being reached? From the visual learner to the hands-on learner to the student with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or a 504, making sure that are our lessons are designed to reach each and every child becomes a priority. But for some teachers, planning lessons that reach all learners can become an overwhelming challenge.
First let’s look at our students who might have an IEP or a 504, and require differentiation in the way they receive instruction. One element in the general education classroom that has changed in recent years is the incorporation of an inclusion teacher. We want all students – whether or not they’re diagnosed as having a learning disability – to be able to participate in all aspects of the classroom.
An inclusion teacher, working in conjunction with the general education teacher, plays a vital role not only for the student with an IEP, but all students in that classroom. The challenge for some teachers, now in the position of co-teaching, is deciding who should do what and when. In our school, some teachers describe this relationship as a marriage. There will be ups and downs, things that will work and things that will not. The key to “making it work” is communication. Strong communication between the two teachers is vital to the success of every student in that classroom.
The first conversation between co-teachers should involve figuring out what role each teacher in that classroom plays. While one teacher is doing one thing, the other must be doing something else. For example: If a teacher is facilitating one small group, the other teacher might be facilitating another. If one teacher is providing a whole group lesson, then the other teacher might be jotting down notes on the white board or chart paper, and circulating the classroom making sure the students understand the lesson. This is also a crucial time when the inclusion teacher can restate the directions, assist with the modeling of the skill being taught, and allow the students to “take brain breaks to help the processing of information.” This is also a great time for teachers to provide one-on-one instruction as they circulate the classroom. When one teacher is passing out materials, the other teacher can begin providing directions or modeling the first step in the assignment – always keeping in mind that both the general education and the inclusion teacher play a vital role in providing classroom instruction.
The second conversation between co-teachers should focus on lesson planning. Making sure that there is common plan time between the inclusion teacher and the general education teacher allows for the proper modifying for and accommodating of specific students. What some teachers may not realize is that these modifications and accommodations not only reach our inclusion students, but also can assist with and build the learning of our lower-level students who might be struggling with grade-level content.
This is where Differentiated Instruction comes into play. According to Tomlinson and Imbeau (2010), differentiation is creating a balance between academic content and students’ individual needs. They suggest teachers can achieve this balance by modifying the content, process, product and affect of the lessons. In my district, our teachers are fortunate enough to have differentiated strategies outlined in their curriculum guides. These strategies allow them to assist in differentiating their lessons. Some strategies focus on allowing for extra time, repeating of directions, providing short tasks for students, utilizing small group instruction, providing brief and concrete directions and using assistive technology such as a computer, an interactive white board, a tape recorder and a spell checker. Strategies also might include specific websites and apps that support classroom learning.
There are also other strategies many teachers already use that aid in differentiating lessons for all students. These include use of anchor charts, highlighters and post-it notes, visuals to support vocabulary, short video clips, manipulatives, hands-on materials, hand movements and lower-level texts that are geared toward the topic being learned. Use of leveled texts to support the varied reading levels within the classroom is essential to the comprehension of the students. Resources, such as informational and narrative articles, are available at ReadWorks.org and NewsELA.com. These sites allow for articles with the same title and graphics to be utilized in the classroom. What the students don’t realize is that the level of the text is different and on-level for the variety of reading levels in any given classroom.
As our classroom dynamics change and the standards that our students are expected to achieve become more rigorous, we need to change with them. On a daily basis we are working vigorously to instill respect among our students and teach them character education. The inclusion teacher requires that same level of respect in order to feel “at home” in another teacher’s classroom. Gone are the days when we would close our doors and teach in isolation. Today we are working together to make sure that all students are guaranteed an education that will allow them to be successful in all aspects of life.