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April 2017 | Volume 74 | Number 7
Differences, Not Disabilities
In a flexible classroom, learning differences become assets.
When I work with groups of teachers, I often ask, "What are the most challenging aspects of your job? What makes it hard to teach and reach all students?" It amazes me how similar the answers are regardless of the school, geographic location, or access to technology. Teachers consistently report that lack of time, the wide range of skills in a class, and poor student engagement are the biggest hurdles they face.
This doesn't surprise me. These are exactly the same challenges I face in my own classroom. For most of my career, I've taught 9th and 10th grade English. My classes are composed of 27–30 students with a spectrum of learning abilities and disabilities, language proficiencies, literacy skills, and social and emotional issues. Designing lessons for such a diverse group presents significant challenges, but I've embraced three specific strategies to manage my workload and better meet my students' needs.
First, whenever I'm tempted to stand up and talk at my students, I record a video of myself teaching the material instead. Real-time lectures are often too long, and the information presented is often too dense for students to mentally unpack while the teacher talks.
Of course, teachers do have to explain concepts and model processes. When 9th graders enter my class, many of them have no idea how to annotate a text, write a thesis statement, or cite sources. They need me to teach them these important aspects of reading and writing. But if I explain a concept or model a process in real time for the whole class, they only have one chance to "get it."
In contrast, by recording a video and publishing it online, I put the students in control of the pace of learning. Students who process information more slowly or speak English as a second language can pause the video, discuss the content with a peer, or look up a word and continue the video when they're ready to move forward. Students who struggle to remember information can watch the video as many times as they need to throughout the year because it's available online.
By embracing the power of video to move away from a lock-step approach to disseminating information, teachers can better support a variety of learning needs.
The physical design of most classrooms exacerbates learning differences. Each student learns differently, yet most classrooms look eerily similar. Most schools still purchase furniture in bulk with little consideration for the individual needs of the teacher or learners. As a result, students have no control over the space where they're expected to learn. It shouldn't surprise anyone that students struggle to stay focused when they're asked to sit in a hard plastic chair for most of the day, with few opportunities to move.
This year, one of my goals was to create a learner-friendly space where students are encouraged to move the furniture to create the best learning environment for the work they're doing at a given moment. Because I had no funding for this from my school district, I wrote a Donors Choose proposal for flexible furniture and received a donation from MeTEOR Education—a company that believes in aligning pedagogy and classroom design. Now, my classroom has colorful stackable stools, easy-to-move soft seating and floor cushions, and tables with wheels for easy movement. My students even built their own ottomans out of milk crates in our makerspace!
In this more-flexible learning environment, I've been amazed by the difference in my students' ability to focus and their willingness to engage. My students move freely around the room, using the space as needed to accomplish various tasks. I have several students with Attention Deficit Disorder who are thriving in my classroom because they can move around our space. They often stand with their devices perched atop a bookshelf instead of sitting at a desk. Standing spaces and wobble stools that allow movement are perfect for students who need to move to think.
Teachers commonly do the vast majority of the work in our classrooms—which is why most of us are exhausted and feel we can't possibly customize learning for our diverse group of learners.
This year, I decided that whenever I asked myself, "How will I ___?" I would try turning it around and asking "How can students ___?" This simple shift in perspective has been game changing. Instead of designing elaborate, step-by-step directions for assignments and projects, I articulate the goal of the learning and let my students determine the path they want to take to get there.
For example, during our mental health unit, I asked students to research a mental health condition and share what they learned using a medium of their choice. Their final projects had to be published online and presented at our exposition for parents and community members. Students controlled the planning and execution of their projects. They chose the condition they wanted to research; whether they wanted to work in teams, pairs, or individually; and the creative medium they wanted to use to share what they learned. The results were impressive. One group built a full-scale model of the human body to show the impact of stress and anxiety. Other students produced videos, wrote children's books, recorded podcasts, created art installations, and designed virtual reality experiences.
Students are incredibly creative, with a wide range of interests and talents. Too often, that creativity is stifled and those talents are ignored because the teacher decides how students will complete an assignment or project.
When we allow students to control the pace, space, and path, we have more time and energy to support all students. The more teachers relinquish control, the more likely we are to see learning differences as assets, adding variety to a class instead of creating barriers.
Catlin Tucker is a teacher, international trainer, speaker, and bestselling author. Her most recent books are Blended Learning in Action (Corwin, 2016) and Creatively Teach the Common Core Literacy Standards with Technology (Corwin, 2015). She blogs at Catlintucker.com. Follow her on Twitter.
Copyright © 2017 by ASCD
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