Friday, February 20, 2009

Meeting the Needs of All Learners

Differentiating Instruction seems to be a most topical phrase in education these days. Teachers often fear that differentiating instruction means that they have to develop individual lesson plans for each kid in their class EVERY DAY. Thankfully, this is not the case. There are many ways to differentiate instruction for all kinds of learners and learners at every imaginable level even though they are all in attendance in one classroom.

I'm sure that we all can agree that there is essential content that every child needs from a particular content area. A teacher can, of course, deliver that content in any way he or she sees as most effective. However, and given what we know about brain research , we all know (or should know by now) that we cannot continue to teach as we have always done in the past. Kids are much different learners today than we were years ago. They are digital natives and we are learning as we go along.

Differentiating instruction does not have to be a complete abandonment of the lessons teachers have carefully planned and aligned to state mandated standards; rather, differentiating instruction around those standards simply means that teachers provide students with a variety of means to demonstrate their understanding of content. In an ELA classroom (as per my background experience), the simplest way to differentiate was by product; in other words, I provided a number of equitable choices for students to demonstrate their knowledge of content and their skills in demonstrating that content knowledge. (I have many thoughts on this and lots of other examples of differentiated assignments and project choices on my wikispace; see the initial page and the Writing Assignments page). But there are other ways to differentiate; many teachers differentiate by content, process, and product according to students' readiness, interest, and learning profiles.

As an administrator, what do I look for when visiting classrooms to ensure that each child is engaged and learning at their own pace? I look for kids who are engaged in whole group instruction or discussion; I look for kids who are quietly working on things on their own; I look for kids who may be working in pairs or in cooperative groups to accomplish something meaningful; I look for kids who are working at creating a new product based on their knowledge of content. This is the essence of differentiating instruction. When teachers differentiate, they provide structure in their classrooms and attempt to manage students while they do meaningful work. Differentiating instruction involves relinquishing some control by putting content into the hands of the learners and helping them to make meaning for themselves. This is not easy for teachers because, let's face it, there is a bit of a control freak in every teacher out there. However, differentiating instruction does lead to some powerful learning for our students and it is making a difference in many classrooms.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Teaching in the Trenches Without a Contract

"We must want for others, not ourselves alone."
Eleanor Roosevelt

In these harsh and uncertain economic times, it is difficult to stay positive. Times are tough and this is especially so in the field of education. As a native Western New Yorker from historic Niagara Falls, Governor Patterson's message of doom and gloom concerning school budget cuts has us all a bit running scared. To complicate this matter, there are many school districts in my region that are also experiencing teacher contract negotiations. These two issues combined have created an atmosphere of toxicity in schools across our area. Teachers are tense, disgruntled, and feeling under appreciated. This combination defines an atmosphere of trepidation, fear, and antagonism. How do we, as school leaders, work through such toxic situations?

We look for opportunities to showcase teachers and their techniques. We provide opportunities for teachers to work together and share their expertise. We inspire teachers to get excited about teaching and learning through meaningful professional development opportunities. We take the time to tell teachers in unique ways how much we appreciate all that they do for the children of our district. And we quell rumors that run amuck.

Although my immediate focus is the quality of curriculum and instruction and securing motivational and innovative professional development for all teachers in the district, I am also the direct supervisor of the UPK (universal pre-K) and ALT (alternative high school) programs that are in the building for which I serve as principal. Although the teachers in my building are experiencing the same strain of working without a contract for the second year in a row, I am thankful that they are still positive about the profession and continue to work hard for their kids. Sadly, I cannot say this for all the other buildings in my district. Some buildings are worse than others, mind you, and a few remain just as positive as mine.

I have years 13 years of experience as a middle school and high school English teacher and as a department chair as well. I know full well what it feels like to be in "the trenches" and be without a fair teacher's contract. Two different times in those 13 years we worked a year or more without a contract and I was on the negotiations team for one of those contracts. It was not an easy place to be; and, yes, I was angry at times, but I never, and I mean NEVER, let my professionalism come in to question. Unfortunately, this is not the case in my current district. Below are some things currently taking place as a result of this toxic atmosphere:

  • Teachers are talking to students about how unfair it is to be working without a contract both inside and outside of their classrooms. In fact, some teachers have taken time out of instruction to do so. This is happening to the extent that teachers are actually telling high school students that prom will probably be cancelled because there will be no teachers willing to chaperon without a contract. That is just awful, not to mention wrong.
  • Teachers have gone to a "work to rule" stance, refusing to perform any ancillary tasks above and beyond their contracted work day regardless of whether they have performed such tasks in the past. As a result, kids are suffering. Teachers are not staying after school to provide extra help for kids who need it. Teachers are not chaperoning events that help to motivate kids or further connect them to their school. Teachers are entering and leaving the building en masse, at exactly the start and end of their contracted day, period.
  • Teachers are bullying other teachers, even those who are non-tenured, to be sure that all are following this work to rule stance. Teachers have been hollered at by colleagues and even followed out to their cars while being berated about taking work home with them.
  • Teachers are bad-mouthing the district in the press. Just see this post by a friend to understand what I'm talking about. Not only do I find it unwise to bite the hand that feeds you, so to speak, I am also deeply saddened and offended by such tactics.

Times are tough for everyone these days, but that is no excuse to behave unprofessionally. As a former teacher, I would never have thought to behave in ways that sully the profession and take away from kids. No matter how hard it is sometimes, we must always remember to remain professional; we must always remember that this profession is about kids and not ourselves. We have to remain positive for the kids and provide them with the best possible education we can because they deserve it.