Teaching them All

Under the guidelines of the "No Child Left Behind" Act, Baldwin County Public School system has just announced its inclusion plan calling for the elimination of gifted and special education centers and placing all students back into their base schools. Can one curriculum be differentiated to meet the needs of so many different learners? Parents and teachers at the local school level have serious reservations about the new model.

Two parents discuss the impact of the closing of the Smith Gifted Learning Center on their children.

Jim Benzinger stifled an involuntary grimace as Cheryl Ryan approached the fence, where he had been enjoying watching his son’s soccer practice in silence. He knew Cheryl wasn’t joining him for a casual conversation. There was nothing casual about her.

Cheryl’s daughter and Jim’s son were classmates at the Smith Gifted Learning Center – well, they had been classmates for the past few years. As of now all of the parents from the Center were out school shopping – literally. The Center was being closed at the end of the school year, and the children reassigned back to Flint. While Jim and his wife had decided to give the local public school a chance, it was clear that Cheryl was having a good deal of trouble making her decision.

Jim thought their conversation was over, but Cheryl continued. “Sure, this new inclusion model is great for the lower-achieving students, but what about my daughter? Aren’t you worried about your son?”

Jim sighed and rolled his eyes, grateful for the sunglasses that hid his expression. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand the dilemma – really, he did. It was just that there seemed to be something so fanatical driving Cheryl’s decision process. Did he say fanatical? Probably not the right word. A fanatic was some guy hiding out in a cave with a pile of weapons…surely not how to describe Cheryl Ryan. And yet…the woman was definitely intense.

Jim had met Cheryl and her husband at various parent functions over the years, invariably receiving an updated Ryan Prowess Report each time. He knew, for example, that Mr. Ryan was a partner at a prestigious law firm in D.C. (and that Cheryl had given up a successful marketing career to focus on their daughter); he knew that Cheryl was a pretty good golfer (more than pretty good – her handicap was a three. Jim had been sufficiently impressed); and he knew that they both had equally high expectations for their only child, Alexis. Jim shook his head. He’d hate to be Alexis if she ever brought home a B in math.

“You know, Cheryl, there really are benefits to this integration – for Alexis as well as the others,” said Jim, unwillingly taking her bait once again. “The very best way to learn a subject is to try and teach it to someone else, so if Alexis is called on by the other students – or teachers – to help out, in the long run it will really help her, too. And you know, these teachers have a lot of resources and training. As I recall, we were quite happy with Flint in kindergarten.” Jim wasn’t quite as confident as he sounded; he had his doubts about the inclusion model as well, but something about Cheryl’s tone drove him to defend the opposite position.

“Well, yes, we were, too, but they had such a specialized program at Smith Center, and now to be thrown back in with the masses…it just seems like such a step backward after all of that personalized instruction. I don’t know, maybe we should just enroll her in private school.” Cheryl finished with uncharacteristic doubt in her voice.

Jim watched a frown settle over Cheryl’s face. He understood where it came from; he and his wife had had this same discussion. The difference, he guessed, was where their discussion had led them – to the conclusion that they were all in this together, and a sort of “let’s cross our fingers and hope for the best” philosophy – which could, of course, be reevaluated as time went by.

He believed that a child’s education was a partnership between parent and educator, and had never expected someone else (even a group of highly qualified teachers) to be solely responsible for how his son turned out. They were a team. He looked over at Cheryl again, imagining her in a golf cart getting ready to attack the back nine. You had to consider that golf really wasn’t much of a team sport. Well, Cheryl would have to make her own decision, just as he’d made his.

Julie Bowers, gifted and talented specialist for Flint Hill Elementary, fields concerns from incoming parents of gifted students – including Cheryl Ryan.

The morning drive to work was always the best time of day for Julie – she was an unapologetic morning person, although she realized that not all of her colleagues were so blessed, and she did her best not to be obnoxious about it. But really, sipping coffee and watching the cherry blossoms scroll by on either side of parkway as the sun came up – it didn’t get much better! The icing on her (pink) cake was that her morning habit made it easy to arrive early for work, which really gave her a jump on the day. She was able to hit the ground running, so to speak. Ah, she was a lucky woman! She had her health, a job she loved…and cherry blossoms, too!

As the FM radio announcer warned of potential traffic snarls ahead, Julie made a mental list of things she needed to do at school today. First, she had to review the teacher surveys that she’d distributed last week, before the team leader meeting. She had created the survey as a way to gauge the type of resources that the teachers might need with the return of the students from the Smith Gifted Learning Center. As she turned into Flint Hill’s parking lot she remembered something else that she’d meant to do yesterday before she left: call Mrs. Ryan. She walked from her car toward the main building, reveling in the early-spring breeze, and stepped into the office with a smile.

She was greeted by school secretary Meg Matthews, who handed her a small stack of pink message slips. “Good morning Julie,” she said, smiling apologetically. “I’m sorry to bombard you with these, but I just took another message from Mrs. Ryan. She’s not one of our parents, is she?”

Julie nodded her head, not missing the hopeful note in Meg’s voice. As their eyes met she knew what they both were thinking: this one’s going to be a handful.

“It’s still up in the air, but I think she will be in the fall. Her daughter will be rejoining us from the Smith Center.”

“Oh, dear. I guess I should have known it was one of those parents after I took the fourth message.”

Julie tried to hide her grimace and decided to bring up building a sense of community at this morning’s team leader meeting. “Yep. We’re going to be one big happy family.”

She thumbed through her messages, including three more from Cheryl Ryan, as she walked to her office. Before she even had a chance to sit down and dial the number, her phone rang.

See a transcript of the phone conversation below: 

Click here to learn more about Cluster Grouping.

Julie arranges a classroom visit for Cheryl so that she can watch differentiated instruction in progress.

Veteran teacher Stacy Profitt views each student as an individual.

Julie hung up the phone and glanced at her watch; great, she still had thirty minutes before students arrived. As she stepped out of her office and into the hall she spotted Stacy Profitt struggling to manage two bags of sand. Julie grinned. Stacy was one of her favorites. Surely she must be everyone’s favorite, with her contagious enthusiasm and all-inclusive goodwill. Flint School had been lucky to have her all these years.

“My goodness, Stacy! Let me help you with that.”

Stacy gladly accepted, letting out an audible sigh as she handed one of the bags to Julie.

“Let me guess, it’s beach day down in the third grade. Can I come and play?”

Stacy chuckled and replied, “Sure, as long as you bring a pitcher of pina coladas for me!”

The two made their way towards Stacy’s classroom, where Stacy motioned for Julie to set the sand on the back table. Giving her hands and clothes a quick dust-off, Stacy said, “Actually, we’re starting a unit on archeology this week and have all kinds of fun activities planned.”

Julie looked around the room, impressed as always with all the different projects and learning centers that Stacy had organized. Hope bubbled up inside Julie. “Your room always energizes me, Stacy! You have so many wonderful projects going on in here. This classroom is a great example of what we want our parents to understand about differentiating instruction, and I was just wondering . . .”

Stacy put her hands on her hips, eying Julie with mock suspicion. Having hosted many parents in her classroom, she knew what was coming next. “Flattery will get you anywhere you want to go, Julie, as you well know. Now, how many are there and when are they coming?”

Julie reached out and impulsively hugged her. “I just love you, you know that? I knew I could count on you! It’s just one parent, but I am sure she will sing your praises to the entire gifted community. When can you do it?”

Stacy walked to the sink to wash her hands, thinking aloud as she dried them with a paper towel. “Well, we’ll be working as archaeologists on Wednesday. I guess that might be an interesting lesson to observe. How about 1:30?”

“Perfect! I owe you one, Stacy.”

Stacy threw a rueful glance toward the sand and replied, “You may decide to reconsider that once your parent watches my twenty-three budding archaeologists tossing sand at one another.”

“I’ll take my chances,” Julie countered as she exited.

Julie meets with Principal Ellen Franz and the K-5 lead teachers to discuss ways she can help teachers differentiate instruction under the new inclusion model.

Julie finished arranging the pastries on platters just as teachers began filing into the principal’s small conference room. How she hoped this morning’s meeting went well! Most of her colleagues were also her friends, but she was quite aware that not all of them were sold on the idea of inclusion. Fortunately Flint Hill’s principal, Ellen Franz, was spearheading this initiative, and her support was invaluable as Julie struggled to get the faculty’s cooperation.

“You know we volunteer to be team leaders just for the pastries, Ellen,” Stacy Profitt, third grade team leader said as she helped herself to a chocolate croissant and settled into her seat.

“Well, thank you. And to think that if you all were kids I’d be able to buy you off with a bunch of stickers!” Ellen laughed and then got straight down to business. “During our last several meetings we have been focusing on the role of the specialists under the inclusion model. Julie surveyed all teachers to get an understanding of how the faculty sees the gifted resource teacher’s role in supporting instruction.” She turned towards Julie. “Can you give us a quick overview of the survey results and maybe talk to some of the common concerns?”

See sample surveys below: 

“Sure,” said Julie, jumping right in. “The surveys gave me some great ideas for collaborating with teachers in the classroom. It seems like there are still quite a few, however, who have concerns about grading and management issues with differentiation. I have made a few copies of some management strategies for differentiating instruction and I’d be happy to work with individual teachers on developing these strategies.”

“Now that you mentioned this, Julie,” interrupted Gina Hart. “The fifth grade team has some real concerns about grading and assessment in a differentiated classroom. Are we grading the students on their ability to master the learning standards set by the state or are we measuring the individual progress of each student?” She leaned back in her chair and looked around the table for approval. “I don’t want my teachers taking the blame when students don’t do well on year-end tests because they were so busy differentiating instruction for gifted students that they didn’t have time for the basics.”

“I’m glad that you brought that up,” said Julie, reminding herself that this was an opportunity to educate. “We all know that year-end tests matter, but differentiation will support that, raising everyone’s achievement level, challenging every learner. We just need to pre-assess the level of understanding of each child before every new unit of study.”

“Whoa!” said first grade team leader John Lopez. “’Just’ pre-assess every child? Before eachunit of study?”

Julie’s smiled faded as she realized how daunting this must sound.

John continued. “Do you know what that means in first grade? What am I supposed to do with the other twenty while I’m testing each child individually?”

Julie attempted another smile. “I don’t mean that you have to formally assess each child. Believe me, I do know what that would mean – I taught kindergarten before getting my gifted certification,” she gave a fake shudder at the thought, and then continued. “But pre-assessment can be as simple as holding up blocks to see who can identify shapes before starting a unit on geometry or asking the children to write about a topic in their journals so that you can sense of where they are, what they know.” She looked around the table. “I can gather some strategies on pre-assessment as well as formative and summative assessment.”

John did not reply, and his face remained grim.

Click here for definitions of pre-assessment, formative, and summative assessment.

Ellen nodded. “Okay, so Julie will pull together some information on assessment for us. Now, Julie, how do you see yourself as a resource to teachers in the classroom next fall?”

“I can come into the classroom and work with small of groups of students,” she suggested. “Or model higher level thinking and creative problem solving skills for the entire class. There are a lot of creative ways for me to support effective instruction not only for gifted students but for all students.”

“I’m not sure that an occasional visit to teach a few thinking strategies is going to be enough,” said Gina, slowly shaking her head and directing her words to the principal. “In the upper grades we are going to need a great deal of support from Julie to keep these children interested and engaged. Will we be given access to higher level curriculum? I know from experience that boredom leads to behavior problems.”

“If I may?” Stacy glanced around at each teacher assembled. “Believe me, I understand how easy it is to be overwhelmed by these changes. But having gifted students in the classroom can be beneficial – they really add a spark of energy and enthusiasm to the group.”

Julie gave Stacy a grateful smile. Really, what would she do without her? “I can help, show you ways to ratchet up your activities to meet the needs of these higher level learners. And Stacy is a model teacher, if you want to observe differentiated instruction in action.”

Ellen glanced at the clock and added a final comment. “We need to keep our minds open to the possibilities of all of our students. Remember, we’re all on the same team. Working together, we can teach them all.”

Julie left the meeting feeling a bit like Pollyanna in a daze. Between ratcheting up assignments, modeling lessons, and working with small groups, she felt hopelessly overextended. It seemed like some of the teachers were relying solely on her services as a resource teacher to make the inclusion model work. Was it too much to expect them to master new instructional techniques? She sighed heavily. She couldn’t teach them all – students and teachers, she realized. It was going to take a team effort.

Stacy struggles to live up to Julie’s image of her.

Stacy squirmed in her seat when she heard Julie’s praise. Really, she found it hard to live up to the image of “model teacher.” She did her best, of course, and loved her job, no doubt about it. But it was hard day after day to come up with differentiated lesson plans. She’d taken a course over at the university a few years back and it had inspired her to modify the way she taught. Usually, she managed to differentiate her lesson in ways big or small. But some days she just couldn’t pull it together.

This archeology unit, for instance, was one of her favorites. She’d taught it before and had vowed last year to revise it while the experience of teaching it was still fresh. She’d gotten as far as jotting down ideas on a few sticky notes last spring, which had been of little help when she pulled out the file two weeks ago to use the unit with this year’s crop of students. She’d had good intentions, but progress reports were due, and those took all of her free time for a solid week. There just hadn’t been time to meet her goal of differentiating all the lessons for this unit.

She thought back on yesterday’s lesson.

See Stacy’s lesson plan below:

It had gone well enough, she guessed. The kids enjoyed presenting their mystery artifacts and had worked steadily on their drawings. But it certainly hadn’t been a differentiated lesson. Poor Carlos had managed a presentable drawing, but she wasn’t at all sure he understood charting artifacts on grids. Meanwhile, Thomas forged ahead, easily grasping concepts other students struggled with. At least she’d gotten him started on a research project, and he’d worked on that while the other students finished the regular assignment.

See Carlos’ drawing in his journal below: 

See Thomas’ drawing in his journal below: 

She was going have to kick it into high gear if Julie was relying on her to show other teachers – and this parent who wanted to observe – just how great differentiation really was. Maybe this was just the nudge she needed to get moving again.

Cheryl Ryan observes a differentiated lesson at Flint Hill.

The Archaeology lesson offers different activities for the different levels of learners in Stacy’s class.

Cheryl Ryan entered the main doors of Flint Hill School promptly at 1:25. She couldn’t help but reminisce about the day she’d walked her daughter through these same doors into kindergarten, more than two and a half years earlier. She had been a bit anxious then, just as she was now, but her fears had turned out to be needless; Alexis had had a wonderful start at Flint Hill. Many things had changed since then, though, as Cheryl was well aware. First among these changes was the county’s redistricting intiative, which had resulted in significant shifts in the school’s population. She remembered reading that the ESOL population had tripled in just two years!

She walked down the hall to room 116, hesitated a moment, and then knocked firmly on the door. A tall woman opened it. “You must be Mrs. Ryan,” she smiled. “I’m Stacy Profitt. Come in and have a seat.” She handed Cheryl a copy of her lesson plan and pointed to the back of the room. “We’re just finishing up our research presentations.”

Research presentations? Cheryl was impressed. “Is this something the whole class is working on?”

Stacy shook her head. “No, these projects were done by some of my students who wanted to learn more about archaeology on their own.” She raised her voice so the whole class could hear. “Okay, Thomas, whenever you’re ready, I’m ready.”

Cheryl was pleasantly surprised to see the advanced level of the boy’s research; he must’ve received a great deal of support to complete this project. She wondered how much of it had been at home.

“Thank you, Thomas! And to all of you. Your presentations were terrific,” said Stacy as she moved to the center of the classroom. “Now it’s time to move on to our next activity.”

Cheryl glanced down at the papers in her hand and quickly scanned them. Boy, she thought. I wonder if she plans each and every lesson out this thoroughly!

See an overview of the lesson that Cheryl observes below: 

The lesson closed with groups of students summarizing their research findings to the class. Cheryl mouthed a thank you to Stacy and tiptoed out the door, her mind abuzz. She was pleased with what she’d observed. Stacy appeared to be a master teacher; higher-level learners had worked busily on their grids while other students completed different tasks. Everyone seemed interested and challenged.

Still, she hesitated. She’d only seen one lesson, after all, and she doubted that any teacher – even Stacy – could plan out every moment of every day to meet the needs of all learners. This differentiated instruction, to use the buzz word she’d heard over and over lately, was only as good as the teacher delivering it. True, Stacy Profitt was better than any teachers she’d seen at the private schools, but what if Alexis didn’t get Stacy as her teacher? Cheryl doubted the rest of the third grade team was as talented. Alexis was truly gifted; she needed – she deserved – the best. Cheryl sighed. She just wasn’t sold – yet – on the one solution Flint Hill had proposed.