On December 2, ALPS hosted a panel discussion on Meeting the Needs of all Learners: Differentiation and the Common Core. The program, held in the Havens Library and open to all, was a follow-up on a very well-attended panel discussion held last Spring on differentiation strategies and practices.
Both last year and this year, ALPS (Advanced Learners Program Support) worked closely with District staff to develop and present a panel of PUSD educators to discuss differentiation. This year, the program focused on how the Common Core curriculum for math and English language arts creates new opportunities for differentiation at all grade levels.
The panel included: Director of Curriculum and Instruction Cheryl Wozniak; Director of Instructional Technology Stephanie Griffin; Beach teachers Claire Stephens, Tracy Broback, and Lesley Wighton; PMS teacher Michelle Kerwin; and MHS Science teacher and Tech Coordinator Sati Shah.
The panel was moderated by Piedmont parent and ALPS Co-President, Kim Fisher. Fisher explained ALPS’ objective to ensure that advanced learners are “motivated, inspired and challenged” during the school day. Fisher noted that there are learners who need support because they are struggling, and learners who need support because they are not adequately challenged, and both categories need for differentiation.
Assistant Superintendent Randall Booker welcomed the group and explained that these panel discussions provide parents with more information about what is happening in the classroom. He noted that the District continually strives to improve its service to all learners, and embraces a mindset of continuous growth and refinement.
Kindergarten teacher Claire Stephens, now in her 20th year as a teacher, talked about continuous assessment of kindergarten, first grade, and second grade students, because there is a broad range of ability in these classes. Stephens explained that every interaction with students provides teachers with an opportunity to assess and steer student to tasks and texts that are appropriate for the individual student. Nonetheless, she emphasized that students are not separated. Although students may be at a different reading levels and reading different books, the students can and do have shared conversations about their different texts. Stephens explained that, at the early elementary level, differentiation is about bringing students with a range of abilities together to engage with each other and learn from each other. She noted that social-emotional learning is critical, and promoting engagement among all students (rather than focusing on levels of cognitive development) is essential for healthy social-emotional development. Fellow Beach teacher Tracy Broback echoed the strategy of engaging all learners together so they learn from each other.
Fourth grade teacher Lesley Wighton explained how the new Common Core curriculum lends itself to differentiation in her classroom. She emphasized the importance of creating a learning environment in which it is safe for kids to ask questions, and which recognizes that students learn in a variety of ways and learn from engaging with each other. Wighton uses center-based learning, hands-on investigations, and open-ended problems. Students are expected to explain their reasoning to each other, and in the process they develop a range of skills in addition to learning lesson content.
PMS teacher Michelle Kerwin said that the new Common Core curriculum allows her to “say ‘yes’” more often to her students. For example, when teaching ancient civilizations, it used to be that there was so much content to cover that she could not expand on topics that piqued student interest. Now, she gives students a choice about which ancient civilization they want to research. Students browse books and then choose their topic. After they do their research, they share what they’ve learned. She observed how engaged students are when they can choose their own topic and become an authority on that topic.
MHS teacher Sati Shah stated that it is absolutely critical to “meet students where they are.” There is a diverse range of learners at MHS, and students are encouraged to explore their interests, investigate issues, and come to their own conclusions. He observed that this approach brings out the best in students, and they are more engaged and active thinkers as a result. Students “develop a deeper understanding of how the world works when they figure things out for themselves,” he said.
Stephanie Griffin, who is responsible for all K-12 instructional technology, commented that the District’s connected learning initiative combined with Common Core is “the best perfect storm” in education. Previously, the District could only “dabble” in using technology for differentiation. Now, Chromebooks are a powerful differentiation tool.
For example, with the wealth of education resources on the web, students in one class can access texts at various reading levels concerning the same subject. This makes it easy for a class to engage in group discussions even if students are using different source materials based on their individual reading level. The availability of Chromebooks means that classes are no longer limited by use of the computer lab and library. Access to materials stored in the cloud makes it easier to differentiate in both classwork and homework.
Griffin mentioned online resources that allow for self-paced learning, including the Hour of Code and Membean. The Hour of Code gives students at all levels an opportunity to explore computational thinking and take computer coding exercises as far as they choose. Membean gives students the ability to study vocabulary at their own pace and level.
The panel provided a range of examples of differentiation made possible or made better by the Common Core curriculum. In math, the “problem of the month” allows students to progress to their own level of rigor. Stephens noted that these are not really monthly problems — these types of multi-level math problems are in use every day in her classroom.
Shah described the “keystone project” in Science, in which students investigate and reflect on a topic for six weeks, and then write blog posts and create research poster to report their findings. Kerwin mentioned that the new 6th grade Computer Science elective includes use of Khan Academy lessons for self-paced learning. Nonetheless, it was noted that the Khan Academy lessons are an example of passive learning — the Common Core classroom is more active and interactive.
The teacher panel was just another opportunity where the school district is actively communicating not only our curriculum, but our instructional strategies to the parent community.