It started with a conversation about a couple of highly vulnerable learners whom we felt we could do better by. It led to a year of exploration that has not only sustained itself, but propelled us into another year of learning and celebration as we see the impact it has had, not only on the students, but also on the participating teachers.
In the 2015-2016 school year, I facilitated a Case Study Inquiry project for teacher teams (consisting of one learning services teacher and one classroom teacher) from each of our district’s eight schools. Supporting the project was myself, as District Principal of Learning Services, our SET-BC (Special Education Technology – British Columbia) District Partner (a learning services teacher who helps coordinate referrals and services from SET-BC), and our Technology Education Resource Teacher. A SET-BC Consultant also helped us to facilitate some of the training sessions.
The Case Study project had two goals:
• To put an extra lens of care toward highly vulnerable kids to increase their success with academic learning and improve their overall social-emotional well-being
• To engage the teachers in developing strategies that would benefit all of the learners they support.
Over the course of the year, teachers participated in ongoing collaboration, anchored by four structured sessions, where they explored whole-class instructional approaches as well as ways to personalize learning for individual learning tasks. We began in late October with an information session where we outlined the goals of the project and the expectations of participants. Four additional half-days were scheduled for November, February, April and May.
The evolution of the individual teams was really interesting to watch. Over the course of the year, the emphasis of the conversation shifted from a focus on what the students couldn’t do, to a celebration of their strengths and knowledge of themselves as learners. (See Figure 1.) There was never a moment where we “decided” to change our lens. A strength-based approach just grew.
What was responsible for this shift? How did these teams grow to know their learners so deeply, and move them so far, over the course of a single school year?
Charting a course
The conversation in our initial gathering was challenging. The planning team noticed that most of the data focused on poor student engagement and the challenges the teachers were having to adapt the curriculum in a way that met their students’ needs. We had very little data describing areas of strength that we could use as a springboard for further work. At the same time, it was clear that the teachers had chosen their focus students because they were actively seeking new ideas and strategies. These were hard kids to figure out, and their teachers were concerned about them. Helping the teams find a way to engage these vulnerable learners and include them in the classroom community became the most important place to start.
Teaching to ALL
For our first full afternoon together, the Case Study team explored the ideas of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and differentiated instruction. Our district had been working with Shelley Moore,1 a consultant who is passionate about inclusion. Shelley talks about beginning at a place where everyone can access the learning, rather than teaching to the middle and adapting from there.
Using some of Shelley’s templates, as well as our own model, we introduced the concept of “all, most and some” in developing unit and lesson plans. Jolin Olson, Case Study participant and classroom teacher in a multi-age (8-10) program, explains:
“Planning in a multi-age classroom was almost overwhelming in the beginning, however if I structure my lessons according to Shelly Moore’s idea of “all, some and few,” the teaching becomes very fluid and all of the students feel involved and successful.”
Our goal was to provide whole-class instruction in a way that included all students, not in an adapted or “sit-with-an-education-assistant-at-the-back” kind of way, but in a “we-picked-a-starting-point-everyone-can-launch-from” kind of way. (See Figure 2.)
When we checked in with teachers a few weeks after our initial planning meeting, they reported that they were more aware of ways to include all students in lessons, but that they needed some tools to be able to do this in a seamless and sustained way. When we met in January, we split into three groups, and each facilitator modelled a whole-class lesson using the differentiated planning templates in combination with instructional strategies and technology tools. Our goal was to demonstrate how whole-class lessons could be moved into individual student work in an inclusive way. Strategies and resources were selected based on the feedback and questions we’d received after the first session. One group focused on reading response, a second on intermediate mathematics, and a third on secondary mathematics.
Three weeks later, the teams completed a survey to identify which tools were being used successfully and which needed more support or adjustment. The facilitators then joined planning conversations and visited the classrooms of the individual teams, to provide additional coaching.
The mid-year blues
Like most long-term projects, we hit a bump in the road. As we approached our April session, several teams were concerned they would have little good news to share. Some of the students had started off well, but had not sustained their high levels of engagement or success. The teams had jumped in enthusiastically with their initial changes, but we were working with structures and strategies that were new, and lessons hadn’t always worked as successfully as they’d envisioned.
Fortunately, these dedicated, empathetic educators weren’t stepping away from a challenge. We offered additional training and support, and the teachers tweaked and adjusted their approaches.
Our conversations continued through the spring, and for our final session in May, the facilitators moved from a focus on whole-class lessons to a focus on personalizing the tools for individual students. Participants were looking for ways to add additional layers and options for their classes. They were once again excited to share the progress made by their focus students. We had come through the period of frustration and worry, and now had much to celebrate.
Participant Janis Proctor, a Grade 6/7 teacher, describes how things shifted for her:
“I have seen students become more in charge of their own learning… We introduced new tools to ALL of the students without suggesting which students should use which tool. We let them decide what would help them the most. There were so many ways that students accessed these tools, and this changed depending on what the assignment/task was. This is such an important step in them becoming more reflective about their own learning. It put them in the driver’s seat!”
Each session was designed to address the questions or concerns raised by the participating teams. At each gathering, we engaged in reflection and problem solving, and prompted participants to consider specific questions in terms of identifying students’ strengths and lagging skills. We explored teaching strategies and resources to support their focus students, and encouraged teams to work together.
Learning Services Teacher Julie Whynacht summarized her experience this way:
“There were many students that this case study project benefitted in our school. In fact, students who were not even on our “radar” use the tools that we introduced on a daily basis. These tools have supported both their academic growth and their overall self-confidence in their own learning. It helped to create a voice for each student – as each student learned something about themselves as learners.”
Personalizing learning for the adults allowed them to personalize it for their students. For me, this is the true benefit of this project. We began with a conversation about meeting the needs of a highly vulnerable group of individual students. Today, we continue to celebrate and deepen our capacity to provide personalized, differentiated learning for all.
For more information about the EdCan Network’s Educator Well-Being: A Key To Student Success Symposium
First published in Education Canada, September 2017
1Shelley Moore, Blogsomemoore: Teaching and Empowering all students. https://blogsomemoore.com