One Size Fits Few

When Margaret Thompson shares her carefully designed unit with the second grade teaching team, she's hoping to impress her new colleagues. Their lukewarm response mirrors that of her students, and she's forced to reconsider how she teaches. An observation of her colleagues' reading workshop gives her insight into how differentiating instruction might lead to better student engagement.

Margaret works hard on her unit plan, but the teachers on her team are less than enthusiastic about the results.

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The second grade team seems concerned about Margaret’s plans.

When Mark lost his job last September we immediately went into high-stress mode, imagining he’d be out of work for months. We figured my salary could pay the mortgage but not much else. But he found a new job pretty quickly—800 miles away. I had to resign mid-year and pack up the house myself. I guess I’m lucky; I found a new teaching position when a second-grade teacher went out on maternity leave and then decided to stay home for the rest of the year with her baby.

I like teaching here. Everyone seems committed and professional. It’s inspiring—and a bit intimidating, too. During my interview, the head of school, Alexis Gilchrist, mentioned the wetlands adjacent to the campus and I went on and on about hands-on learning opportunities. That seemed to impress her; she offered me the job that day. And the wetlands have been great. We’ve found all kinds of critters out there, and the kids have picked different topics to explore, from water quality to bug counting. Ask my kids about Fibonacci numbers and they can give you examples from the swamp! I’m really proud of my little mathematicians and scientists.

A Fibonacci resource Margaret consults

Language arts is more of a challenge, so I’ve been focusing on that for my professional development. Since I started mid-year, I jumped in without a lot of planning, just reusing materials from my old school. For my next unit I’ve spent a lot of time (I hate to calculate the number of hours) developing a biography study that I think provides the structure and focus my children need to build their reading and writing skills.

This morning, I’m presenting my unit to Linda and Lois, the other second grade teachers. They’ve worked together for years—and it shows. Even though they have separate rooms, they frequently combine classes and plan jointly. While they’re always nice enough, I definitely feel left out. Maybe when they see this unit they’ll treat me more like we’re on the same team.

Margaret asks Linda and Lois for advice when her biography unit does not go as planned.

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Chloe finds reading time frustrating.

This morning, sweet little Chloe threw down her biography of Harriet Tubman and refused even to try to read it. I’ve been a little worried about her reading since I started; her skills are low for a second-grader, but I figured that with a lot of one-on-one help she could handle the book. I’ve read most of it aloud to her, and while she’s learning a lot about “Moses” Tubman, she isn’t learning anything about how to decode. So she’s got two chapters left to go—and then there’s Emma, who took home the “hard” biography and finished it the first night! I’ve got kids all over the place and it looks like my careful planning is for nothing.

To top it off, Alexis stopped by my classroom yesterday and said something that made me feel worse. Her exact words: “I want you to spend more time with Lois and Linda. Learn what you can about differentiating instruction. Especially in language arts.”

I’ve been mulling over her words ever since. I do differentiate, don’t I? I trudge down the hall to find out what Lois and Linda have to offer.

Margaret blocks out time to watch Linda and Lois lead a reading workshop.

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Children buddy read.

Alexis gladly agreed to watch my class so that I could see how Linda and Lois run a reading workshop. I left detailed lesson plans—with lots of differentiation—and headed down the hall. I read up on the workshop approach over the weekend, and, honestly, it sounds a little pie-in-the-sky-ish to me. When I was in second grade we read Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little as a class. The fact that I still remember those books underscores for me the importance of whole class activities. I don’t see how you can have the same experience if everyone is reading different books all the time.

I wave to Linda and head to the back of the room to watch as Lois gets the children settled and begins. I take a quick look at the lesson plans she’d emailed me. It seems a little loose, but I figure experienced teachers don’t plan quite so much—and a workshop doesn’t need that much planning.

I’m a bit surprised about how tightly the lesson goes. It really doesn’t seem that different from a traditional lesson. I guess that’s reassuring. I can “do” a traditional lesson pretty well at this point, but what’s so revolutionary about this?

The children jump up to choose books. Some pick a title right away and settle down to read. The last boy to choose, Jason, starts at the “high” end of the bins and moves his way down, barely looking at any titles until he reaches the lowest level bin, chatting with friends the whole time. He pulls out one book, puts it back, moves up three levels, and then returns to the lowest level bin. I get the feeling he’s stalling for time. Eventually he picks a book and starts reading, but he doesn’t get very far before he gets distracted by two kids working in the halls.

Lois and Linda are already meeting with students and letting the others “do their own thing.” It really is amazing to me that most kids are reading quietly within five minutes. I watch to see how individual conferences and reading instruction take place.

I can’t help thinking about Chloe. Maybe if she had a friend to read with, one who could also guide her through the text, she’d be more willing to try. Then again, maybe the book is just too hard for her. Or maybe she isn’t that interested in Harriet Tubman.

Linda pulls out a little notebook and heads over to a boy whose book choice shows he reads at a much higher level.

It’s great that each teacher is able to meet with students—and the other kids keep reading! I don’t know if they’ve got better classroom management skills than I or if it’s just that kids are more deeply engaged with their books, but I cannot imagine my class focusing as long.

I check my watch; the forty-five minutes of workshop time has flown by. Lois calls the class together. She has to remind kids several times to stop reading; some are truly reluctant to close their books. As we gather in the classroom, I join the kids on the carpet to hear their responses.

When I return to my own classroom, Chloe hops up from her small group to tell me how Jack fell out of his chair. He holds up his icepack proudly to show me the bruised spot.

On her way out the door, Alexis asks me what I think of reading workshops now. I start to speak, but before I can get anything out, she interrupts, “I know. It’s a lot to take in. Let’s talk after school, okay?”

I agree to stop by her office and wonder what I’ll say.