Differentiation: The Latest Great Debate

-by Krista Taylor

Educational pedagogy can be as faddish as the fashion industry – what is de rigueur one year, can become passé just as quickly. We are all looking for the perfect teaching methodology that works for every student, every time.

Of course, such a utopian ideal doesn’t exist, and can’t ever exist, because education is about people, and people will never fit into a one-size-fits-all model because people are messy.

Differentiation is the latest practice to run the risk of having the proverbial baby thrown out with the bathwater.differentiation sign

Recently in Education Week, James Delisle boldly titled his article, “Differentiation Doesn’t Work.” He wrote, “Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke.”[1]

Whoops . . . the bathwater and the baby!

Delisle primarily critiques differentiation on two grounds: the difficulty for teachers (or as he notes, impossibility) of implementing differentiation practices, and a concern that heterogeneous student groupings (the structure on which differentiation is based) does a disservice to all students.

There is some merit to his first claim. Effective differentiation is hard, hard work. It is true that planning differentiated lessons and assignments is like preparing multiple lessons for each class, and I agree that it may be a near impossible task for a teacher operating alone. Co-teaching and teaming structures are an important way to make the task feasible.

Differentiation is made easier in a co-teaching model. Co-teachers are able to share the extra work that comes with differentiation, and differentiation practices maximize the benefits of co-teaching. Other forms of teaming can also lighten the differentiation burden through collaboration and the sharing of lessons and materials.

I find Delisle’s second claim more worrying as it touches on fairness and equity in education. The homogenous groupings he proposes are more commonly called “tracking.” In non-education parlance, this means grouping students of similar abilities together – often identified as “honors,” “grade-level,” and “remedial” tracks. This implies that the only measure of a student’s ability is an academic one, and that students benefit when they are surrounded by others most like them in terms of academic skill.

This is backward progress. Studies have established that students placed in lower-track programs do not perform as well as students in mixed-ability settings.[2] Neuroscience has proven that the brain is malleable, that high expectations yield high outcomes, and that knowledge is developed through repeated practice and challenging content. In light of this, it is particularly concerning that lower-track classes are disproportionately composed of students of color and low-income students, while higher-tracked classes tend to be made up of predominately white or Asian, middle-class students.[3] In this way, our educational system mirrors, and reinforces, the inequity seen in our society as a whole. As educators, we are fundamentally charged with helping to level the playing field for our students, not contributing to the uphill battle. If we know that tracked programming yields poor outcomes, and potentially serves to maintain the racially-linked economic disparity so prevalent in this country, we simply must not do it. First, do no harm.

But what about the accelerated students? The argument that differentiation disservices high-functioning students holds no water. When differentiation practices are fully implemented, they are used to expand the learning of these students in the same way that they support the learning of struggling students. Sometimes this means that homogenous groupings are used within a heterogeneous classroom to allow accelerated students to work together. Sometimes it means that extension work is assigned, or that the highest level of an assignment incorporates greater amounts of complexity, or that lesson content is compacted and taught separately to this group so they can move more quickly. There is no singular differentiation strategy, but the idea that it is only effective for low-level students is an erroneous one.

However, none of this gets to the real heart of the issue. Exposing our students on a daily basis to people who are different from themselves is perhaps the greatest society-changing influence we can have. Our biggest work is to guide our students into becoming noble citizens; we must provide them with constant opportunities to see all the gifts (not just the academic ones) that each individual possesses. When looking through the Gamble Moments books, it is remarkable how many of those powerful stories involve students interacting with others who have greater challenges. It is in these moments that we see the greatest growth in our students; not having these opportunities would be a tragic loss for all students – equally detrimental to our high-achieving students as to our struggling learners.

So if we reject tracking as an acceptable mode, and, after all, “separate but equal” was thrown out as an appropriate option in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education, we are left with the conundrum of how to educate students with a disparate range of skills, abilities, and experiences within the same classroom. This is not something that is going to go away, and it is a reality in the vast majority of classrooms across the country. We must embrace differentiation as a strategy to meet the many needs of our students.

Differentiation is the means through which students with a broad-range of learning needs can benefit from a diverse classroom environment while simultaneously making academic gains. We have already established that it is not a panacea; however it is the best strategy teachers have for making instruction accessible to all.differentiation chartThere are many ways to differentiate, and, like all instructional practices, it takes time to develop expertise. Speaking from my personal experience, developing differentiation techniques was my number one professional aspiration for years. After three years of actively pushing myself in this area, I finally felt like I had achieved the goals I had set for myself in my initial vision, but, of course, by then, my goals had changed and evolved — the more work I did, the more work I saw that I had yet to do! As Carol Ann Tomlinson writes in “Differentiation Does, In Fact, Work,” “The pursuit of expertise in teaching is a career-long endeavor. They [Teachers] aren’t sprinters expecting quick success, so much as marathoners in the race for the long haul.[4]

Getting started, or doing more, with differentiation can feel like a daunting task. It is important to keep in mind that differentiation is not a goal in and of itself, rather meeting students’ needs is the goal, and differentiation is the vehicle. So begin with planning.

There are many ways to differentiate – differentiated expectations, differentiated instruction, differentiated assignments, and differentiated assessments. Add to this the ideas of differentiating based on complexity of task (vertical differentiation), and differentiation based on method of demonstrating proficiency, often called choice work or menus (horizontal differentiation), and suddenly, every lesson can begin to look like a Meyers-Briggs personality-type chart! But don’t despair – most lessons don’t require differentiation of every type, and some lessons don’t need to be differentiated at all. It’s important to start with planning.

The Planning Pyramid is a good place to begin – thinking about what components of the standard all students must learn, most students must learn, and some students must learn.planning pyramid

From there, you can design instruction and assessments that will help your students achieve the expectations you have established for them. Assessments are designed based on the expectations for each group.

Many teachers will decide that this type of vertical differentiation is the most important way to implement differentiation simply because meeting the needs of struggling and accelerated learners is such a challenging task.

However, horizontal differentiation can be equally enriching to differentiating with menusa classroom environment. We know that students perform best when they enjoy the task and when they are able to exert some autonomy over it. Choice work allows for creativity and self-selection in the classroom. There are many resources available to help teachers add these components to their classrooms.

There are as many ways to differentiate as there are classrooms. There is no single right way, and it may never be perfect, but in the absence of the elusive, perfect strategy, we must embrace differentiation as a technique that is right for students.

It is not something that we can implement all at once. Begin by taking the next step. Perhaps that means planning one lesson that includes differentiated assignments, or perhaps it means designing a long-range project which includes many of the components of differentiation.

Here are some examples of differentiation that I have incorporated into my own practice. They are each a work-in-progress, and each evolved through collaboration with my co-teachers.

In today’s classrooms, differentiation is not so much an instructional option, as it is an ethical responsibility. The vast majority of classrooms represent diverse communities of learners – this is a critical component to the growth and development of students as they become conscientious citizens of the world, and yet it creates unprecedented academic challenges.

So throw out the bathwater, but keep the baby. Differentiation is very hard work, and teachers need more help in order to be able to implement it more fully. We need more co-teaching pairs, more opportunities for teaming and collaboration, more teacher training, and more resources that have valuable differentiation options embedded within them. In addition, we must push back against the message that every student should cross the same bar at the sadifferentiation cartoonme time, and replace it with the idea that every student must be pushed forward in their individual learning.

You will get no argument from me about the challenges that differentiation entails, but meeting these challenges while respecting the dignity of each learner is, in my mind, a moral imperative. No one can tackle it all at once, but we each must find a place to begin or to grow. It’s no different from what we ask of our students.

 

[1] Delisle, James R. “Differentiation Doesn’t Work.” Education Week 34.15 (2015): 28+. Print.

[2] Welner, Kevin. “The Bottom Line on Student Tracking.” The Washington Post(2013): n. pag. Print.

[3] Tomlinson, Carol Ann. “Differentiation Does, in Fact, Work.” Education Week. N.p., 27 Jan. 2015. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.

[4] Tomlinson, Carol Ann. “Differentiation Does, in Fact, Work.” Education Week. p. 26, 27 Jan. 2015. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.

 

Co-Teaching: A Story of Arranged Marriage

-by Krista Taylor

When we hear of marriage proposals, we often get misty eyed, imagining someone down on one knee, holding an expensive piece of jewelry, and eloquently making declarations of true love.

Only one of my marriage proposals has been like this. The other three were arranged marriages, and rather than occurring on the beach, or, better yet, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, these proposals took place in an administrator’s office. The most recent one sounded like this, “Next year we’ll have a new team of young teachers; since you are more experienced, I need you to join them as a co-teaching inclusionist.”

See? It definitely left something to be desired in the romance department.

Most schools include a variety of teaming structures, and there are few educators who don’t serve on at least one type of team in their building. However, co-teaching is it’s own special form of teaming relationship.

It really is a lot like an arranged marriage. Two adults are responsible for a group of children – a little bit like a family unit. Co-teachers spend a lot of time together –during the school day and in time spent planning together outside of school hours. Co-teachers share classroom living space, and co-teachers are dependent on each other to share the responsibilities of the team. Like a marriage, co-teachers must learn to work together, and to tolerate each other’s idiosyncrasies.

What Is Co-Teaching

Co-teaching is defined as two teachers who co-plan, co-instruct, and co-assess academic content provided to a single group of students at the same time. Most often, but not always, co-teaching pairs are comprised of a general education teacher and an intervention specialist (special education teacher).

In this model, co-teaching is a means of providing special education support within the general education setting. This is aligned with the goal of increasing access to rigorous curriculum, and with the provision of instruction in the Least Restrictive Environment. These are lofty goals, and the work isn’t easy.

“The biggest challenge for educators is in deciding to share the role that has traditionally been individual: to share the goals, decisions, classroom instruction, responsibility for students, assessment of student learning, problem solving, and classroom management. The teachers must begin to think of it as our class.”  (Ripley, in Cramer, 2006)

not easy

Why Co-Teach?

Like marriage, there are many benefits to co-teaching for both the adults and children involved.

The pairing of a general education teacher and a special educator brings together two critical skill sets for effective classroom functioning.

While not set in stone, typically the general educator is the content knowledge expert, has experience with whole-group classroom management, possesses knowledge of student backgrounds, and is familiar with expected pacing guideline.

The special educator tends to have expertise in knowledge of the learning process, individualization of instruction, understanding of legal issues and required paperwork, and maintains a focus on learning for mastery.

Specific benefits for students include:

  • Establishment of a respect for differences
  • Creation of a sense of belonging
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Increased attention
  • Provision of peer-models
  • Development of broader friendships

Specific benefits for teachers include:

  • Enhanced instructional knowledge base
  • Collaborative problem solving
  • Shared responsibility
  • Increased grouping options
  • Engaged Teamwork
  • Heightened creativity
  • Ability to provide individualized instruction

Models of co-teaching modelsCo-Teaching

There are six basic models of co-teaching. Each model has specific benefits and rationales for implementation. The determination of which model to use depends on the standard being taught, your goals for your lesson, and the needs of your students.

The Primary 3 Models

Team Teaching

This is often the model that people picture when co-teaching is discussed. In team teaching, two teachers partner to share the same instruction for a single group of students. This model is best used when there is a clear benefit to having two people provide content – examples include: two ways to solve a math problem, instruction which is enhanced by two different perspectives, lessons involving compare and contrast, etc. While it is tempting to over-rely on this method because it is fun to teach with another adult, it should only be used when having two teachers providing the instruction enhances student learning.

Parallel Teaching

In parallel teaching, each teacher provides instruction to approximately half of the students. The resulting reduction in student:teacher ratio provides the powerful benefit of small-group instruction for all students. Additionally these groups can be carefully constructed to best facilitate differentiated instruction. There are times when parallel teaching is best done using heterogeneous groupings (an example of this is small-group discussion), and other times when it is best used for homogenous groupings (for example — new content instruction provided at different levels of complexity).

Station Teaching

Having two teachers present in the classroom enhances the benefits of station teaching. It allows for 2 teacher-led stations, or for 1 teacher to lead a station while the other teacher monitors on-task behavior and supports station transitions.

The Supporting 3 Models

Alternate Teaching:

In this model, one teacher provides instruction to the group, while the other teacher works with a smaller group to provide pre-teaching, re-teaching, or remediation. The intention of this model is that the pull-out group instruction is brief, and is carefully timed to allow for the least impact due to missed content. Once the support has been provided, the students return to the whole-group setting.

One Teach: One Collect Data

While this model may be most frequently used to prepare for special education paperwork, this does not have to be the case. There is tremendous value in all kinds of data collection – including data collection of effective teaching practices. When co-teaching partnerships are grounded in trust and collaboration, they are the perfect relationships in which to collect and analyze potentially hard truths about instructional practices.

One Teach: One Assist

This model is the most frequently used, and the least effective for student learning. While it is often the place where co-teaching teams begin their practice, it should be moved away from as soon as possible. It can be a helpful model to use while teachers learn how to blend their work, since it allows both teachers to learn each others’ teaching styles, expectations, and routines and procedures. It also provides time for the special educator to develop comfort with the instructed content, and for the general educator to learn effective strategies for working with students with disabilities.

“Ms. Taylor, you must be the smartest teacher because you teach both math and language arts.”

Those are words, spoken by a general education student, that I will treasure forever — not because of the reference to being “the smartest,” but because it so clearly demonstrated that, to my students, I am a content teacher – not someone who just helps out in the classroom, not the “IEP teacher,” or the teacher of “those students,” but, quite simply, one of the math teachers and one of the language arts teachers. Along with the acceptance of the special education teacher as just another classroom teacher, comes the mirror belief that the students who receive special education services are just regular members of the classroom community. There is no doubt in my mind that both of these pieces are the direct result of the implementation of co-teaching models in the classrooms I serve.

Getting Started with Co-Teaching

While the benefits of co-teaching are profound, there are many common pitfalls.

collaboration cartoon

Like a marriage, effective co-teaching takes time and effort. Sharing your livelihood with someone else requires the development of trust. In strong co-teaching partnerships, instruction is so fluid that teachers can often finish each others’ sentences, and an observer in the classroom might not be able to recognize which teacher carries which job title, but this ideal does not happen overnight. Co-teaching teams should expect three years of teaming before the model reaches full implementation. There are some ways to make this happen more smoothly.

  • Co-plan – I cannot state this strongly enough: It is not co-teaching, if you are not co-planning
  • Work with administration to establish common planning time for co-teaching pairs
  • Present a united front
    • Put both teachers names on the door, on assignments, and in parent communication
    • When referencing the class, identify both educators as its teachers
    • If possible, allow both teachers equal access to the electronic grade book
    • Establish shared expectations and procedures
  • Share the load. This includes:
    • Planning
    • Creating materials
    • Providing accommodations and modifications
    • Grading
    • Parent phone calls
    • Classroom set-up
  • Don’t try to go too fast
    • Start with baby steps and then challenge yourselves to extend your practice
    • When challenges present themselves, don’t give up! Problem solve and make an adjustment in practice.

Good luck! “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

“CUES Cast” Center for Urban Educational Studies

The Hamilton County Center for Urban Educational Studies explores best practices for teachers working in urban environments, especially in the greater Cincinnati / Hamilton County area.  Their mission is to provide support and resources to teachers searching to improve outcomes for their students.

Krista and I were honored to be interviewed for the UrbanESC podcast this April, where we had a chance to talk about the great work being done at Gamble Montessori every day, and to advocate for socio-emotional learning for all students as a way to equip them with the tools necessary to exhibit grit while also demonstrating grace and courtesy.

We are thankful to Paul Smith and Jason Haap for inviting us on their program, and asking thoughtful questions about the work we – and so many others – find profoundly fulfilling. We encourage you to follow this link to the podcast, then respond here: react, comment, question – we would love to hear from you.

What important questions did not get asked? What details did we leave out?

Here is the direct address of the podcast:  http://www.urbanesc.org/2016/04/04/angels-and-superheroes/

 

Lead by Helping Others Lead

-by Jack M. Jose

Getting suggestions has never been a problem for a school administrator. When I transitioned from being a teacher to being a principal, I noticed a significant change in how people started sentences when they spoke to me. Instead of offering me congratulations or encouragement, parents and friends were offering me … advice. Suddenly “You should …” became a common conversational opening. When I was a teacher I did not field many suggestions about what to do in my classroom. But now that I had completed 15 years of teaching, and my second post-Bachelor’s degree, and had been selected by a group of teachers, community members, and others to lead a school, I was clearly always in need of one more unsolicited idea. Principals, apparently, exude the impression that they are grasping for suggestions, and need input on every step, from the most mundane idea to ideas that would completely transform the nature of the school. Among suggestions I received: “You should paint that curb yellow,” “You should secretly rank your students and report that to colleges,” “You should do away with the bell schedule,” and “You should require everyone to get two credits of home economics.” Often suggestions are helpfully couched with evidence of dubious merit, usually stated “Like they did in my high school.”

Lead by Helping Others Lead

Of course, I am exaggerating the nature of the suggestions and (somewhat less so) their frequency. In fact, deftly handling suggestions is an important part of the work of any leader. The best leaders involve a wide array of individuals in the act of molding all aspects of the school, and find ways to let others lead.

More than a decade ago, prior to moving to Gamble, I was involved in discussions surrounding the reorganization of a public school in Cincinnati with an eye toward creating a teacher-led school. The goal was to create a system whereby teachers would collectively make the key decisions about the school – program structure, schedule, disciplinary decisions – and the administrator would serve largely to assist in making those decisions happen using his (my newly-acquired) administrative status. (Only now does it occur to me to have been something of a backhanded compliment. On the one hand, perhaps I was seen to be collaborative; on the other hand, perhaps I was perceived as potentially a weak administrator. I choose to go with the first understanding.) I know that when I was a teacher working daily with other trusted, hard-working teachers, constantly acting with the best interests of the students in mind, this seemed a logical conclusion in the evolution of schools. Who better to make the decisions than those of us closest to the “front lines”?

Well, the pie-in-the-sky hope did not come to fruition. And since then, time and again, the structure in CPS schools – and almost everywhere else – has remained largely static and hierarchical. There is a principal, one individual making the final call on the entire range of decisions; size and budget permitting, there may be one or more assistant principals; finally, there are teacher leaders, both in name and stipend, and in energy and spirit.

Though that particular effort to create a teacher-led school was unsuccessful, the concept itself is not misguided or even ill-fated. In fact, any school can be a teacher-led school, provided the administrator is willing to let it happen. Below are suggestions for a controlled, thoughtful way that an administrator can share authority with teachers. These are all strategies that have been applied regularly, albeit imperfectly, at Gamble Montessori. The first hurdle in utilizing these suggestions is having an administrator who wishes to involve teachers directly in the process of decision-making and responsibility-taking.

Sharing responsibility and decision-making with teachers, parents, and students is not a novel concept in education. Nor is it a new thought in any business model to involve front-line employees in making the most important decisions. Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People discusses this sharing of the work and decision-making as the difference between mere management and true leadership. Benjamin and Rosamund Zander, in The Art of Possibility, call it “Leading from any Chair,” and describe this as the most important aspect of leadership. In the end, it creates not just a better product, but a shared sense of accomplishment and ownership.

Listening to suggestions:

First, a leader must find an intentional way to elicit input from others involved in the task. Listening to suggestions is best exemplified by Zander’s own example, wherein he encourages the musicians in his orchestra to provide suggestions on how the music should be played. Those who are closest to the situation are in the best position to understand the problems and the changes that need to be made to affect the best outcome.

This does not mean taking every suggestion and implementing it, or even promising to implement it. It does mean that you have to develop facility for handling suggestions in a way that ensures they get fair treatment. Sometimes this means allowing a teacher to take leadership on an initiative that they have championed, and sometimes this means referring the idea to a relevant committee that is in position to make the suggested change.

Sharing responsibility:

To be most effective, a manager must not only listen to suggestions, but must create structures to implement important ideas and changes in a regular manner. At Gamble Montessori, there are few aspects of the structure and daily running of the school that have happened without the tacit approval, and sometimes the explicit approval, of a majority of the staff. This can be accomplished anywhere with a couple simple steps.

First, create committees to achieve certain goals or accomplish work that needs to be done during the school year. Though not an exhaustive list, three examples of this at Gamble, and at many schools, are:

  • Graduation committee, created to plan and implement the annual commencement ceremony;
  • Positive school culture committee, responsible for overseeing instruction around fair implementation of the school’s rules and policies for students, and the effectiveness of a particular approach;
  • Communications committee, responsible for maintaining the school’s website and social media presence.

Second, create a governing structure where the principal is a critical component, but not the only one. An example of this is an instructional leadership team (ILT). In Cincinnati Public Schools an ILT has a defined composition and roles that require a certain percentage of teachers, parent membership, and the presence of the principal to create a quorum. Such a structure similar to an ILT at any school could be used to make a wide variety of decisions. The wider the changes they are empowered to make within boundaries, the better. These should not be minor decisions; this committee is not best used to decide when the school play should happen (that is a job for a sub-committee). The ILT should be used to make substantial decisions such as setting the focus of annual improvement efforts, and monitoring the success of teams and individuals in achieving the goals that were decided upon.

However, the simple creation of a governing structure is not the goal. A leader must commit to giving those structures the space they need to do their work effectively. That means allowing the committee to structure the work that comes out of it – including the Principal’s work. I occasionally lament that our ILT exists to create my to-do list, but it is an empty complaint. I understand that to lead by example, I have to be willing to allow the decisions of the group to become my work. I must also enforce decisions when they become the work of the group.

Establishing priorities:

One replicable way that we have become transparently teacher-led is in collectively establishing priorities for key decisions. There are many “hidden decisions” that get made in the daily process of running a school, or any business. Every phone call handled by a secretary or returned by a teacher helps set a tone for the school (ask Zappos or Wondermade Marshmallows about the importance of good customer service.) Grading decisions made daily by individual teachers have large impacts on student success and outward signs of student success like grade point averages, which in turn affect college acceptances. Even though these decisions are powerful for individuals and their sense of connection to the school, they are made away from the public eye, in the privacy of our classrooms or dining rooms. These are the kinds of actions for which there must be a framework that establishes priorities. Not everything on a teacher’s to-do list can be the most important thing.

Another example of hidden decision-making comes when we schedule students. With only 7 classes in a school day, over two semesters, a course choice in high school has ripple effects for everything that happens afterward. I became aware of this early on, when the school was small enough that I did the scheduling by hand each July. Where a class fell in the school day impacted the ability of the student to take (or not take) other elective classes, or determined whether a team could have common planning time during the day. Several years ago I listed the factors that drove course selection and decision-making during scheduling, and I challenged our ILT to prioritize these factors. Earlier this year we revisited the process.

We used our leadership structure to involve everyone in determining our scheduling priorities by defining key terms, and taking an initial list back to our constituencies. We came back together with questions and suggestions for all of the scheduling factors. An example of the items that might run up against each other during scheduling, are “expanded elective choices,” “reduce class sizes,” and “access to remediation.” We then decided on a voting structure, created ballots, and voted as a staff, creating a final prioritized list. This list will guide those of us who schedule students as we make decisions, allowing us to do it independently and in a way that is consistent with the wishes of the school.

This process is time-consuming. It took us a couple of weeks. However, the result is well worth it. Ultimately everyone got to weigh in on our school’s scheduling priorities, and collectively we made a decision that will guide many behind-the-scenes decisions made by administrative staff while scheduling individual students and classes.

When you become a leader, you are going to get suggestions. Creating a shared responsibility system for handling suggestions is going to help everyone feel empowered and supported in making everyday decisions, and it will determine whether you are successful.

Collaboration: The Tale of a Team

-by Krista Taylor

 

Late one summer night, my teaching partner and I were working frantically at my dining room table. The school year was long over, but as part of my summer work, I had agreed to restructure a major assignment. I had four days to go from a big idea to a finalized document.

I called Beau seeking sympathy. His response was priceless: “Let me help you with that. We have different strengths; it’s what we do. We’re a team.”

Beau had no obligation to assist me, but we are a team, and that’s a powerful concept.

collaboration

Collaboration is a critical component of the successful functioning of modern education. Teaching in isolation behind a closed classroom door is no longer an effective model. The demands of accountability, increased rigor, and meeting the needs of each student, require teachers to work together.

Collaboration is not just a buzzword. Documented gains result from well-conducted collaboration.

“The low-income districts and schools that have demonstrated the greatest improvement in student outcomes are generally characterized by deep collaboration between administrators and teachers.”  (Anrig, Greg. “Why Collaboration is Vital to Creating Effective Schools.” The Washington Post. May 2, 2013.)

While there are many forms of collaboration, the longest term, and perhaps most impactful, collaboration comes through teaming.

Gamble is a “team-based school.” We have all kinds of teams: departmental teams, vertical teams, co-teaching teams, building leadership teams, grade-level teams, and community teams that share a common group of students.

And while two (or more) heads are better than one, effective teaming is neither a simple nor an easy process. Simply being part of a team is not the same as collaborating. True collaboration, true teaming, is working together to effect change.

Bruce Tuckman identified a common process that teams cycle through as they become highly functional. It is important to note that these stages are not a linear progression; rather, teams can regularly revisit any of the stages, often triggered by a change or disruption.

Stage 1: Forming.

This is often thought of as a honeymoon period. Individuals are just getting to know each other, and there is little conflict.

When Beau, Kim, and I first became a team, the beginning was easy. Since I was the most experienced member of the team, they mostly just agreed with me. I had to remember to push them to share their ideas and opinions.

 Stage 2: Storming.

Stress increases, arguments arise, and things become more difficult.

My team experienced this when we revamped our grading policy. What began as a philosophical conversation, rapidly developed into a significant conflict. Kim wanted a complete overhaul. Beau was resistant. I served as a mediator between the two. At one point, the conversation grew so hot that Beau had to take a walk to cool off. We ended our discussion that day with no resolution.  The next morning, each of them had drafted a conciliatory plan based on the other person’s perspective. The argument continued, but they had both shifted to arguing for the very thing that they had been against! As soon as I pointed this out, we laughed, and got down to the business of over-hauling our policy.

 Stage 3: Norming. In this stage, cooperation and a focus on task and purpose is apparent.

Once we got rolling as a team, we met weekly to hash out the details of the upcoming week –where each person would be each bell, with which group of students, what content was being taught, and who was responsible for what.  This became routine – a norm. We couldn’t function without it, but with this process in place, we were a well-oiled machine.

 Stage 4: Performing.  This is the optimal level of functioning, and occurs when teams utilize each member’s strengths to work toward shared goals. The above example of Beau’s selflessness in assisting with my summer work was a powerful example of performing. We were a team – we looked out for, and depended on, each other.

 Collaboration is not easy, and, contrary to common belief, it doesn’t save time. Functional teaming takes significant time and energy; however, when teams are willing to work together, the results are better than when individuals work alone, and, as noted in The Washington Post, it is critical to tackling our most challenging issues in education.

 

 

 

The Long Game

-by Jack M. Jose

It was the end of the second Monday in March, the time of year when we are all so focused on spring break and just getting through, that we forget about the “long game” of creating confident, competent students. The Teacher:Teacher mentoring meeting had just begun. The plan is for veteran teachers to light the way with enthusiasm and optimism so new teachers feel supported. Today I looked around the table and I felt sympathy for George Washington examining his troops at Valley Forge. My teachers – ESPECIALLY the veterans – looked defeated and lost.

I made a critical error. I asked, “How’s it going?”

washington-valley-forge-granger

It was early March. March presents several consecutive 5-day weeks of warmer weather, with the prospect of spring break looming, making teaching all but impossible. In short, the less we ask “How’s it going?” the better we all get along. You’re much better off greeting someone by saying, “It’s nearly Friday!” or “Only 48 days left!” Like Washington’s soldiers, my teachers needed sleep, food, and possibly even a warm blanket.

I should have known better than to ask, really. Recent comprehensive studies show that new teacher attrition is an alarming 17% after 5 years[1].  We know that involving new teachers in communication and decision-making is empowering, and helps to keep teachers in the profession[2]. Support is why we created a mentoring program. The mentors probably knew better than to ask “How’s it going?” in March, a question designed to make young teachers pine for a job waiting tables at Denny’s.

A veteran teacher, Julia Bauer*, spoke up. She quietly offered a litany of woe and exhaustion: restless students, insufficient time for curriculum, field experiences, state testing and more, the details of which echo in all teachers’ experiences. Raised eyebrows and meaningful eye contact around the now-silent table spoke clearly: they all felt the same way.

It is times like these that we have to intentionally work to focus on the “long game.” This term, often applied to politics, applies to any endeavor when a larger goal can only be accomplished after a series of strategic maneuvers and even tactical losses. Education is the ultimate long game. We meet students as children, in mind and body, and, 6 years later, send them into the world as adults. In between, there is a lot of important work to be done. It is hard work, and it can be messy.

I was upset that a mentor was the one to express this note of doom; I should have been thankful. She was articulating what the younger teachers were thinking, and allowing us to feel this way out loud and together. The teaching career is a hard one. Teaching is much like parenting, and March is much like a week of lost nights’ sleep with a colicky infant. One could easily look at March and decide it is not all worth it, because, honestly, if it was March all year long, it might be unbearable.

We are playing the long game. Each discipline conference and corrected assignment is a step toward Commencement. Now we meet parents to discuss grades, and later we will embrace them and talk about college choices. There are disagreements and setbacks, but there will be celebration. It was always going to be hard work; we knew that from the beginning. And it is always going to be worth it in the end.

The mentors probably knew better than to ask “How’s it going?” in March, a question designed to make young teachers pine for a job waiting tables at Denny’s.

I possess an old invitation to an event I missed. Leslee McElrath, a student of mine a decade earlier, was receiving her doctorate in medicine. I was shocked by the invitation to the ceremony, and the reminder about the “long game”. One year I pushed her to write her portfolio, and explicate Shakespeare. Later I checked up on her to verify that she was meeting her potential. When her college was inundated by Hurricane Katrina, other teachers and I sent her a replacement computer. Somewhere in there, by pushing her academically, and supporting her personally, and doing what I considered my job, I left an indelible impression. And she repaid the favor with a simple invitation that profoundly reminded me all the effort was worthwhile.

It’s messy. There will be bad days, sometimes in bunches, for teachers and for students. Perseverance, cooperation, and working together to support each other will guarantee that we will be okay. We are playing a long game.

[1] Gray, Lucinda, and Soheyla Taie. “Public School Teacher Attrition and Mobility in the First Five Years: Results From the First Through Fifth Waves of the 2007–08 Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study.” Public School Teacher Attrition and Mobility in the First Five Years: Results From the First Through Fifth Waves of the 2007–08 Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study (n.d.): n. pag. 1 Apr. 2015. Web. 19 Mar. 2016.

[2] Teacher Retention: Why do Beginning Teachers Remain in the Profession?; Inman, Duane; Marlow, Leslie. Education124.4 (Summer 2004): 605-614.

*All names used with permission.

Make the Most of Spring Break

-by Jack M. Jose

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Spring break is right around the corner, and parents are looking to find the balance between structuring every moment, and losing the entire week to sleeping in and video games. Because it is just a week, there is no worry about losing skills like with “summer slide”, so spring break should be a time for extra rest, reading for pleasure, and practicing skills. Here is a guide to a great week.

If your children are going to be home alone for much of the week, help them set up a schedule for each day, with check boxes for each item (here’s a Google search to useful article and checklists.) Be sure to leave them instructions for calling for help if something goes wrong, and when they should or should not call you at work. Each day should contain one or more of the following:

  • chores that can be accomplished independently, like those described here, with lists by age;
  • instructions for a meal to be prepared independently, based on the skills and responsibility of your child;
  • scheduled “screen” time – video game / t.v. / Youtube, etc. – with a time limit;
  • reading time – with a Saturday trip to the library in preparation*;
  • time to practice a hobby – writing, playing an instrument, knitting/sewing, drawing. These should be done with a plan to accomplish a larger work over the course of the week, like writing a short story, learning a new song, perfecting a certain shot or working on a particular throw.

If you are fortunate enough to be home with your family during the week, and/or can spend time together on the weekends, here is a plan of attack for a successful spring break.

Thursday night: plan your week.

  • Look at the weather forecast and pick at least one “indoor” day and one “outdoor” day
  • Ask your child/children what they would like to do and find a place for it in the schedule

Friday night: welcome to Spring Break! Plan a family / family + friends night to kick off spring break in style.

Indoor days: Here are some great ways to spend time together on a day when the weather is uncooperative.

  • Art museum, (In Cincinnati we are blessed with great affordable arts. The Cincinnati Art Museum has free admission every day, and $4 parking, or take the Metro, route #1);
  • History museum, (The Natural History Museum, Cincinnati History Museum and Children’s Museum are under the same roof);
  • Local Water Works often offer free tours and fascinating exposure to how we provide clean drinking water to a community;
  • Volunteer for a local charity, preparing meals, serving food, sorting clothing and more;
  • Factory tours;
  • Aquarium (discount tickets to the Newport Aquarium can be purchased at Kroger stores.)

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Outdoor days:

  • Unscheduled outdoor play in the yard, (this can be penciled in your calendar almost daily, but should not be the sole plan for spring break week);
  • Outdoor play at a neighborhood park or sports field further from home with supervision as appropriate;
  • Visit a seasonal fruit farm, and pick ingredients for a cooking project, (better for locales further south than Cincinnati);
  • Hike a local trail, or walk between a couple of local historical sites, (find lists at CincinnatiUSA.com or a local tourism board);
  • Visit a local college to introduce the idea of going to college and forming preferences. This can be incorporated into family travel plans as well.
  • Zoo, (Cincinnati Zoo discounted tickets can be purchased at Kroger stores).

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And at night:

  • Game nights are always a hit at my household. We can play a game for four, or invite family members or other friends for a great group experience. Choose your family favorites, or try one of ours:
  • Movie night is a great way to relax after a long day of activity. MovieMom can help pick developmentally appropriate movies while providing thought-provoking discussion questions.

A good mix of structured and unstructured time helps everyone feel rested and fulfilled over spring break. No promises about whether your child will be ready to return to school!

*while these examples are specific to Cincinnati, most towns and cities have similar offerings.

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Neuroscience – Or How Teachers Become Tigers

-by Krista Taylor

Saber-Tooth-TigerIt’s first bell Monday morning, and one of my students seems to have forgotten the procedures. Typically students enter my classroom, quickly settle, and begin working on the posted assignment, but on this day, Jason was out of his seat talking loudly with a peer.

“Jason, please have a seat and get started on the warm-up.”

“WHY YOU ALWAYS GOT SOMETHIN’ TO SAY TO ME?!?!”

Whoa. What just happened? I thought I was issuing a firm but respectful redirection, but Jason’s brain just perceived me as a saber-toothed tiger in the wilderness.

Humans are remarkable specimens of evolution. While our highly developed, pre-frontal cortex is uniquely human, our brains also retain the vestigial remains of our evolutionary ancestors, which have helped us to survive as a species.

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We are necessarily pre-disposed to scan our environment for threats – in essence, to seek out problems. This not only causes us to focus on the negative, it also requires us to determine whether to address concerns through the rational thought of the pre-frontal cortex, or through the “flight-or-fight” response of the reptilian brain. This determination is the job of the amygdala.

The problem is that the amygdala cannot always differentiate between imminent threats to life and limb — like a saber-toothed tiger, and modern day streScreen Shot 2016-02-21 at 8.46.38 PMssors — like tight deadlines, traffic jams, or teacher redirection. A stressed brain is flooded with chemicals in order to be physiologically and psychologically prepared for “fight or flight.”

People experiencing chronic stress have essentially had their brains hijacked. The increase in stress essentially places the brain on high-alert, causing it to potentially over-react to every concern. (Learn more here)

Unfortunately, chronic stress is far too common for many students in urban school settings. As educators, we must keep in mind that some of our students don’t know where they’re going to sleep that night, or how they are getting their next me#5al. They may rarely get enough rest due to caring for younger siblings, or simply being afraid to go to sleep at night. They may experience anxiety about not having appropriate school supplies, or the “right” clothes to wear. We often never know what it takes for our students to show up at school each day.

It is little wonder that chronically stressed children may respond to a simple redirection by shutting down or becoming disrespectful, disruptive, or even aggressive.  Their brains are flooded with stress hormones, which cause the unwitting teacher to suddenly become the saber-toothed tiger in the forest.

However, there are few situations in our modern-world where fleeing a situation, or responding to it with aggression, is in our best interest. Calming the amygdala is critical to the brain’s ability to resume executive functioning. A relaxed amygdala directs information to the pre-frontal cortex, so we can think clearly and make good decisions. This is true for adults and students alike. A calm classroom environment is essential for pre-disposing the brain for learning. The suggestions below can be helpful for establishing a classroom climate, which helps mitigate the impact of a stressed-out brain.

  • Be clear and explicit in what you want students to do
  • Use positive framing to correct behavior
  • Depersonalize correction, using anonymous, group correction wherever possible
  • Keep individual correction private
  • Regularly provide precise praise
    • Praise releases dopamine which improves learning and memory; conversely, criticism makes it harder to focus and learn
    • Use DLP – Describe what the student did, Label the action (helpful, generous, patient, industrious, etc), then provide Praise
    • Repeated praise reinforces positive behavior by strengthening neural pathways (In this same way, repeated criticism reinforces negative behavior)
  • Teach optimism, and provide regular opportunities to help students note what is going well
  • Provide instruction in mindfulness strategies
    • Taking a few deep breaths
    • Mental counting
    • Focusing on an image or a meaningful phrase
    • Practicing meditation
  • Don’t take student misbehavior personally; this will help you to stay calm and objective

These techniques help students to get their brains in the best possible state for learning to occur. Without them, all the time and energy a teacher spends crafting beautiful lesson plans may be wasted – no one can learn when there is a perceived saber-toothed tiger in the classroom!

Real-World Experiences: Solving Problems

-by Jack M. Jose

As the high school English teacher my first year at Gamble Montessori, I was able to put together a memorable and educational field experience

Recording in the "GarageBand" studio - a computer lab.
Recording in the “GarageBand” studio – a computer lab.

with the help of my co-teacher, Tracy Glick. This happened through perseverance and planning, and high student tolerance of changes as we adapted to obstacles.

This was a real-life experience in which students used the recording program GarageBand to create a song that met certain technical qualifications: it had to be 3 to 5 minutes in length, it had to use at least one original sound captured with a microphone, one sound played on an instrument, and one edited loop (pre-recorded sound available in GarageBand.) While some of the students were excited to record a song, several students admitted they joined my intersession because it was the only one they could afford.

How was this a “real life” experience? First, students worked directly with the tools that recording artists use on the computer and at the studio, and used the language of professionals. Second, except for some requirements to explore the functions in GarageBand, I outlined few restrictions on their final product; the final songs were as varied as the individual students. Third, they problem-solved with each other, co-creating, sharing music, teaching each other how to layer and clip sounds, edit and create loops, and more. “Real life” is just that – organic learning and sharing in an environment built to foster a specific activity, often resulting in a larger final product. Each student received a copy of a CD with all of the completed songs, and a cover collage of the artwork they produced to accompany their song.

Ten full days, fifteen students and four locations presented the typical obstacles that arise in planning any experience. Ultimately, we are only limited by our imagination, planning, and effort to make the best possible field experience for students. Well, and the obstacles, of course, some of which are legitimately insurmountable. In that case, we are only limited by our capacity to respond to the situation with optimism, and our willingness to realize that the old plan was a bad idea anyway, and our new idea is much better. Put simply: move on and accept it.

We encountered many obstacles that were particular to our songwriting intersession. Carey’s song disappeared from his computer, despite the automatic backup feature. He had to start over (luckily it was early in the intersession!) One song developed a randomly occurring static sound that Le’a and I were unable to eliminate (we decided it fit the theme of her song: you have to cherish each moment because unexpected events happen.)

Jynn, blessed with a beautiful voice, found herself overcome with nerves and unable to sing in front of her peers (so we arranged for her to record vocals in a separate room, and she recorded a song I still sometimes pull out to hear again.)

One day we were entirely on each others’ nerves and we took a break at a park. An “inside” joke that developed there emerged in one of our “skits” – short unscripted moments at the studio that we included in the album.

In the computer lab, students created their own songs. At the studio, they attended to the serious business of experimenting with the instruments, and interacting with each through the headphones. From the chaos and inexperience, students, only one of whom walked in with any recording experience, created an album of original songs and skits that exceeded the expectations. They were recording artists!

After I had copied the CDs, I gave them to my intersession students as they entered my class. Delron did a double take when I handed him the album. “Wait, I did this? This is me?”

That is the moment we are seeking – genuine pride in a new accomplishment.

Teachers at Gamble Montessori and elsewhere have found many ways to solve the problems that are part and parcel with creating a valuable experience. This attachment lists common obstacles and proposed solutions: Problem-Solving Field Experiences

We know this is not an exhaustive list of problems or suggestions, and we encourage you to list a problem and/or solution not listed above!

Erdkinder – The Fall Camping Experience

 

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-by Krista Taylor

Every year, in the middle of September, I fall a little bit in love with each of my students, while simultaneously experiencing some of the greatest stress and fatigue of the entire school year. Our annual fall camping trip is intense – and it yields profound results.

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Let me be honest. I really don’t like camping . . . at all.  And yet I have camped with my students each September for the past six years. It certainly isn’t “glamping.” It is rustic. And dirty. And stressful. And exhausting.

However, I am certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this annual experience is critical to my students . . . and to me.

At Gamble, every fall, our 7th and 8th grade communities spend 4 days and 3 nights (rain or shine) tent camping, without the benefit of electricity or other creature comforts. We cook all our meals, do all our dishes, and manage all our needs together at the campsite – not a small feat for 55-65 individuals.

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The best way I have to explain the power of this Erdkinder experience is simply to share with you glimpses – in stories and photographs — of this trip. These glimpses provide insight about my students that I never would have gained inside the classroom. The stories below are from different trips with different students – in fact the photos are intentionally of different students than those discussed in the stories, because year after year, this trip seems to draw the same positive qualities out of each group of students.   The powerful moments in each trip seem to be universal experiences.

Almost all of these stories feature students who often struggle with expectations at school, and that is what defines the power of this trip — the opportunity to see students in a different light, one that allows them to shine.

So imagine, if you will . . .

One evening, I was helping a student with significant disabilities on his work packet. I looked up to find William, a rather challenging student, standing beside me.

“Do you want me to work with him, Ms. Taylor?”

“Do you know the difference between biotic and abiotic factors?”

“Yeah. Biotic means living, and abiotic means non-living. I got this, Ms. Taylor!”

The two of them spent the next half hour working quietly side-by-side, on a picnic bench at the edge of the woods.

Joell and Katherine

 

When students were able to choose their own partner for the final leg of the canoe trip, Malik, a popular, 8th grade student chose to wait to pick a partner in order to see who wasn’t getting chosen. Ultimately, he selected an unpopular 7th grade girl, admitting to a teacher later that he did this because, “No one was picking her, and I didn’t want her to feel left out.”

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My tent was next to the tent of a group of girls who were nature-phobic. Over and over again, I was summoned with screeches of, “Ms. Taylor! There’s a spider on our tent!” “Ms. Taylor, Come get this caterpillar!!” “OMG there’s a bug!” The final morning of camp, things had shifted.

Same girls. Same screech, “Ms. Taylor!!”

Then it became different.

“Come see!! We caught a toad!”

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On the way to the bathhouse one morning, a boy with Down Syndrome silently reached up to hold the hand of another male student. Despite a jeering look from a peer, this 6’2″ 8th grader didn’t say a word, and the two walked all the way down the path holding hands.

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The initiation ceremony is the culminating celebration of the trip, and it is entirely planned by returning students to welcome the new students. Each year, the speeches the students write serve to remind me of the importance of “what we do here.”

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It is the ownership of creating a place where everyone belongs that makes the stress, the exhaustion, and even the dirt, of this non-glamping experience, all worth it.

All real-world experiences provide powerful learning, but there is something about Fall Camp that is unique. In the confluence of the hard work, the time spent outdoors, and the opportunity to intensely build community, lies the magic upon which the rest of the year is built.