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Teaching in the Key of Jocelyn: Challenging One-Size-Fits-All Education

Stephen Hurley

Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman
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Like many of you, I grew up with a one-size-fits-all approach to school. I remember clearly the few teachers that allowed me to explore things on my own terms -- and, interestingly enough, these were the school experiences that had the greatest impact on me.

Our arts@newman initiative is an attempt to bring that sense of exploration into students' experience of school. Even though we have embarked on something rather creative here, there is still a great deal of room for thinking about our practice in terms of our ability to connect with students.

I had an "A-ha!" moment this month as we were putting finishing touches on a musical production. I had one more solo to assign, and the usual suspects were eager to volunteer. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that Jocelyn had put her hand up to indicate her willingness to take on the song. Jocelyn was one of those dedicated choir members that, despite her diligence, didn't display the confidence or the vocal range to take on a solo role. At least, that was my initial impression.

Jocelyn didn't want to audition for the piece in front of the others, so I asked her to come back during the afternoon recess break to try the song on for size. The problem was that no matter how hard I tried, I could not get her to reach the opening note. She knew the song but consistently started about four or five notes lower than expected. I didn't know how to tell her that we would need to wait for a song that was a better match for her vocal range.

Then it hit me: Why not transpose the piece so that it matched her range? It took only a moment or two to make the musical adjustment, and we were off and running. Suddenly this young lady was singing in perfect tune. As we rehearsed over the next week, she developed both confidence and style.

The night of the performance marked the first time she had ever sung solo in public, and it was a special evening for Jocelyn and her family. For me, it was one of those moments in which a new insight was revealed about this place we call school: The challenge of differentiated instruction is all about learning to teach in a number of different keys. It's not always about some students being able to meet the expectations, while others fall short. Instead, it's about really believing that all students can succeed, given the right context and environment.

What's your story? Do you have "A-ha!" moments that have caused you to think about your practice in a different way? Do you remember a teacher who "changed the key" so that you could experience success?

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Stephen Hurley

Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman

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Brittany Bone's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

That is an amazing story! It is inspiring and challenging to me. I just finished my 2nd year of teaching and differentiated instruction is one the most difficult areas I am experiencing. I see my need to develop more patience with my slower and more dependent students. When I was a student, I was very slow at working but detailed, signs of a true perfectionist when it comes to my studies. As I reflect upon my classroom and teaching I also observe that I need to pry open my mind a little more and be creative! Look at the skill from the student's perspective and ask myself, " How will this child get it? How will it click?" This story is also inspiring, encouraging me to know that differentiated instruction is a must and that it really helps each child be successful and confident in themselves. Thanks for sharing the story!
Brittany Bone

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I had the opportunity to allow students to choose projects for math (4th grade) that were open ended. It was fun and challenging to the students. They chose to create board games, tests, or power point slides of math fairy tales. It was so much fun watching the creativity spill out of each project. Students took the time to 'test out' their classmate's projects and gave feedback for corrections. The most important piece about this set up was that students worked in groups, collaborating.

Sabina Linden NJ's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just completed my 8th year teaching, and i must say within those 8 years I have seen a drastic change in the way I am teaching my students. For the first three years reading was taught as a whole group and nothing was differentiated. All students had the same spelling words, assessments and projects. In my fourth year my district became part of a reading first grant. We were now expected to differentiate instruction to all students depending on their reading level. There was no more whole group instruction for reading now it was small group and center based. I must say within the next two years our test scores have risen but most important, our students self esteem was greater.

Lauren Seward's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just completed my first year of teaching first grade. Every day we had a block of time for writing workshop and I was exhausted after this time every day. After a few stories that we wrote together as a class, using the writing process, it was time for my students to write all on his/her own. I was nervous to see how much they grasped from my teaching and how well they could apply what I taught. I soon found out that some had a horrible time. I had the "A-ha!" moment when I realized that how I write a story might be completely different from how a student might write a story. I observed that some students can not write down ideas and turn these ideas into sentences with a beginning, middle and end. I decided to model different ways on how to pre-write. I had some students draw a picture and then turn that picture into words. Around Halloween time, I had students decorate a pumpkin and write a story about their pumpkin. I learned that not all students can just pick up a pencil and create a story like I can. Once I allowed for students to pre-write in the way that worked well for them, I saw amazing results. Some students decided to add more details to their story after they finished illustrating a picture for their story. It brings tears to my eyes knowing that my students could write along, they just needed to write how they know how to write, not necessarily how I taught them to write.

Stefanie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

OK, my a-ha moment was in college during one of my math education courses. I was not aware of all the different strategies for teaching math concepts. I was like a kid in a toy store, not to mention it was my first exposure to math manipulatives. I came from the old school of teaching where everything was taught one way. For example, I was told to memorize "my" multiplication facts. Well, I wasn't very good at memorizing something that I didn't understand. That's right, no one had explained how multiplication worked either. This class changed my whole perspective about teaching. It didn't take long for me to realize that my students did not learn the same way, so I had to provide different ways for students to learn. Differentiated instruction is very challenging because of planning and management in the classroom. However, you better believe that my students in third grade are taught many different strategies to solve multiplication facts before I ever mention the word "memorize". It is very important that students can choose the strategy that works best for them whether it means drawing an array, using manipulatives, etc... I find that students show a greater understanding of math when they can choose their own method. It is sad that my report card says "Stefanie needs to memorize those time tables" when that was the only way I was expected to learn them. We must stop expecting all students to learn the same way. We must give them a chance to succeed by finding the best pathway.

Angela C.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Kottler, Zehm, and Kottler (2005) suggest that "Although it takes time to know your students and analyze the learning styles of the students, if you do, you will be rewarded with the relationships you build with your students and their accomplishments" (p. 33). As I enter my third year of teaching, I truly believe that each child is special and each child has the ability to learn. While it is true that each individual student does not learn in the same way, I deem that all children have the ability to grasp knowledge, and apply their understanding. As an educator, one must be dedicated to attaining and utilizing the teaching skills to meet the needs of each individual by differentiating instruction and by making the various concepts and strategies more relevant and meaningful.
Educational professionals are consistently working with a diverse group of students varying in learning style preferences and educational levels. A teacher must be devoted to customizing lessons and differentiating instruction according to students' distinct abilities. It is crucial that one recognizes and addresses the importance of this diversity, keeping in mind Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences. Through the application of multiple instructional strategies, an educator truly provides one's students with the resources they need to become successful and independent learners as they transfer and apply their knowledge and understanding.
Egalitarianism is truly important in a classroom, therefore it is vital that an educator identify the importance of adapting the curriculum to the students' levels of understanding, giving all student access to the curriculum and treating each child fairly. Teachers should aspire to set high standards, allowing each child to work from his/her individual levels, and commit oneself in doing everything in one's power to enable him/her to attain those standards. By treating each child as an individual throughout one's everyday actions, thoughts, and words, one is truly showing compassion and genuine care for one's students' learning. Through varied assessment, delivery of instruction, and practice, each child is given the opportunity to grow and develop in responsible and flourishing life long learners. Not only will a teacher increase his/her effectiveness, but one will assist one's students in building self efficacy and self confidence, valuing one's uniqueness and appreciating one's classmates' individualities.

Kottler, J.A., Zehm, S.T., Kottler, E. (2005). On being a teacher: The human dimension (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press.

Kimberly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my first full year of teaching. I started teaching a multiple disabilities class in January of 2008. I had my "A-ha" moment last week. One of my students was having behavioral problems; I couldn't pin point what was causing them. On Wednesday, I took my students to the library and asked each student to pick a book out. One of my students found his book first; therefore, I sat him down to read his book to him. He opened the book and started reading! I was amazed because his IEP (Indivual Educational Plan) had him matching and identifying letters. Nothing on it said he could read! If he was able to read this meant his IEP goals were to low for him. I came to the conclusion his work was to easy for him and this was why he was acting out because he was frustrated with the level of his work. Another observation I made is that this boy is a kinetic learner, which means he has to be moving while learning. I have three aides in my classroom which helps me to be able to meet this child's needs. I tend to work with more visuals in my classroom since most of my students are visual learners. Therefore, I had to change my method of teaching for this one student so he would gain more information from the material I presented to him. Just changing how I presented the information to this student helped 100% in his learning and behaviors!

The teacher who adapted the material for me when I was a student was Mrs. Sinkovick. She was one of my elementary teachers. She helped me to become successful in my school work! I was a hands-on, visual learner, which wasn't what the other teachers used to teach their material at the time. They used books, worksheets, and lectured to us daily. Mrs. Sinkovich opened so many doors for me! She taught me spelling words by letting me write in shaving cream and sand. She used hands-on materials to teach me my adding and subtracting facts and she taught me to use a highlighter to highlight important information on worksheets. I still use this technique to this day!

Christian 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my first full year of teaching and believe it or not I have had several "A-ha!" moments already. However, there is one "A-ha!" moment that just recently happened this week and it was amazing! I have one student in my multiple disabilities classroom that has several behaviors that constantly are displayed and his behaviors are pretty extreme which disrupts the entire classroom. I was becoming really frustrated with myself because I could not figure out what was triggering these behaviors and why this student was constantly going off.
One of my instructional aides was absent one day this past week and I decided to place the substitute aide with this student. My thinking was that maybe this would be something different and it would give me time to observe this student to see what the trigger might be. To my surprise it worked and I did find what the problem was. This student needs constant attention and that was the reason why the behaviors were being presented. As soon as the student was left to do something independent the behaviors triggered. I also figured out that when I wanted the student to work with me I needed to say something like we are going to play a game together instead of we are going to work now. This made a world of difference and it was like the light bulb finally shined down upon the entire room.
The next day my instructional aide was still absent and there was another subsitute and I thought immediately oh man here we go again because it is another change and I was sure that the behaviors would be presented as any other day. However, I made my mind up and I continued to do the same thing I did with the student yesterday and sure enough having the adult right next to him constantly leaving his side only for short amounts of time actually worked. He was able to do his work and had no incidents. I am hoping that this will work for next week however; I think it might because I was able to observe the situation and the "A-ha!" moment finally happened for me.

Matt's picture

I agree, growing up attending catholic school was not a great fit to my learning style. Learning for me is a hands on experience, I am not an audio or visual learner. During college, I had a great educational experience.

judyd123's picture

There are many A-ha moments in teaching. I have found out not to assume anything. Your students are all so individual you can cannot assume they have had any "one common experience".

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