‘Real Men’ Read

By Michelle George

About two years ago I was busily teaching a seventh grade English class. We were working on a writing assignment that I had every hope would be engaging, instructive, and maybe even fun. I was wrong.

One of my male students was particularly annoyed. As I was walking around the room, checking progress and encouraging my young writers, this reluctant scrivener brought me back to reality by muttering, “Real men don’t write or read.” Of course I was quick to inform him that they certainly do. In fact, many of the most famous and influential writers in the world have been men. He looked scornfully up at me and quipped, “Yeah, but they’re all dead.”

I didn’t have much to say to that, and for a good week or two afterward I kept mulling that conversation over in my mind. This future man truly believed that the written word was just “women’s work,” with no true value in his world. What to do?

After a few days of ruminating, I came up with an idea. I would assemble a group of muscle-bound, sweaty “real men” who actually do read. I knew a few … several, in fact. And I thought they might be willing to come and share their literary passion with my students. But as I looked over my class, I quickly realized that many of my students would never become that stereotypical “real man.” My class was composed of an array of fascinating characters. I had the bookish, the artistic, the athletic, the ladies’ man, the comedian … every type of boy imaginable. This reality made my search much more interesting.

Starting that year, I took the cold, gray month of February and labeled it “Real Men Read Month.” I invite all sorts of men, from all walks of life, to come into my classroom and share their passion for reading. We set aside each Wednesday of the month for classroom visits.

In January, I work with my students to write appropriate questions for the visitors and practice the seemingly archaic skills of a good audience. When the visitors come, we sit back and enjoy. So far we’ve had readers of fantasy, nonfiction fanatics, history buffs, self-taught experts, young poets, and novelists.

The best part is that, not only do my young students realize that real men do, in fact, read, but my “real men” also discover that junior high students really are rather intelligent and pleasant after all. Now that’s a great way to warm up a February.

Michelle S. George is a language arts middle school teacher in Orofino, Idaho. She has a B.A. in English and secondary certification in English, reading, and journalism. Michelle has been teaching seventh and eighth grade for 20 years, and still loves going to school—as a teacher and a student. She has published a variety of lesson plans and written several award-winning grants.

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Don’t Let Behavioral Challenges Lower Your Standards

By Dr. J. Ron Nelson

One of the greatest impediments to improving academic instruction for students with behavioral challenges is the fact that teachers tend to focus more attention on behavior management than instruction. The assumption is that instruction cannot occur unless student behavior is under control. The end result is that so much teacher attention is devoted to management of disruptive behavior that instruction is not afforded much time or careful attention by teachers.

Research has shown that teacher attention to management increases relative to the level of disruptive behavior exhibited by students. In other words, the more students exhibit disruptive behavior, the less likely they are to receive instruction from their teachers. Teachers fall into the trap of focusing too much attention on management because students with behavioral challenges are likely to display coercive interaction patterns that lead to lowered curricular demands and limited instruction.

Coercive interaction patterns are thought to develop as follows. Parents unknowingly reinforce their children’s coercive behavior (disruptive behavior used to control the behavior of others) by nagging, scolding, and yelling when their child misbehaves. This behavior initiates a coercive interaction pattern with the child. The child continues to misbehave despite the parent’s threats of punitive measures until the parent eventually reaches an exhaustion point, failing to follow through with threatened punitive measures. Because the parent backs down and fails to discipline the child adequately, children become aware that if they continue to misbehave they can shape parental (and other adult) behavior for their own benefit.

This awareness, developed in the home, is used by students to direct teachers away from instruction. The sequence of teacher instruction followed by student disruptive behavior results in teachers lowering their overall curriculum demands and limiting the amount of instruction they provide to students with challenging behavior. The end result is an overemphasis by teachers on behavior management versus instruction.

If teachers are to improve academic outcomes for students with challenging behavior, they must resist lowering their curricular demands and limiting the amount of instruction they provide to students. Teachers will find that students with challenging behavior respond best to explicit teaching, making it easier to maintain curricular demands and instruction. Students with challenging behavior exhibit more task engagement and less disruptive behavior when teachers use explicit teaching methods.

Explicit instruction is an unambiguous and direct approach to teaching with an emphasis on providing students a clear statement about what is to be learned, proceeding in small steps with concrete and varied examples, checking for student understanding, and achieving active and successful participation of students.


J. Ron Nelson, Ph.D., is an associate research professor and codirector of the Center for At-Risk Children’s Services at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Dr. Nelson received the 2000 Distinguished Initial Career Research Award from the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) and the 1999 Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research from Arizona State University. Dr. Nelson’s instructional programs include: eMeasures for Vocabulary Growth, The Multiple Meaning Vocabulary Program, Early Vocabulary Connections, and Stepping Stones to Literacy. He was also a contributing author to LETRS for Early Childhood Educators.

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What’s So ‘Special’ About Special Education?

By Anne M. Beninghof

What does special education look like to you? Over the past several months I have had the opportunity to ask this question of educators around the country. It usually goes like this …

A group of special education teachers and administrators are seated in a conference room, facing a blank whiteboard. I am standing at the board, dry-erase marker in hand.

Me: What does special education look like? 

Group: (Silence)

Me: If you were to walk into a co-taught classroom, what would you see happening that would indicate special education was occurring? 

Group: (Silence)

Me: Think of it this way. What might the special education teacher be adding to the classroom experience that would be special?

Someone: Maybe a graphic organizer.

Someone else: Maybe working with a small group. 

Group: (Silence)

Imagine if this scenario were to play out in one of your school’s conference rooms? Would it be different? As a special education teacher and consultant, I believe that it is imperative that we are able to describe what special education looks like. If we, as a group of educators, can’t describe it, how can we be sure we are providing it?

Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, when referring to pornography, declined to define it but instead famously said, “I know it when I see it.” I feel this way sometimes about special education. But it is not enough to say, “I know it when I see it.” This too easily becomes a cop-out for providing less than “special” services to students.

The federal definition of special education provides the following guidance:

“Specially designed instruction means adapting, as appropriate to the needs of an eligible child under Part B of the IDEA, the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction to address the unique needs of the child that result from the child’s disability and to ensure access of the child to the general curriculum, so that the child can meet the educational standards within the jurisdiction of the public agency that apply to all children.” (emphasis added)

Does a graphic organizer fit this definition? It might. Does small-group instruction fall under this description? It could. But aren’t these two things fairly common in general education classrooms in the 21st century? What else should we expect to see in a co-taught classroom that would be evidence that special education is taking place? My list would include things like:

  • Detailed task analyses
  • Extensive visual cues
  • Individualized behavior management plans
  • Specific retention and study strategies
  • Intentional, thoughtful use of language for understanding
  • Multiple opportunities for accurate rehearsal
  • Format changes to pre-printed worksheets and tests
  • Tools for focusing attention
  • Adaptive technology
  • Accessible furniture and classroom environments (lighting, sound, layout)

What does special education look like to you? Take some time this year to think about what’s on your list.

Anne M. Beninghof, M.S., an internationally recognized consultant and trainer, has more than 30 years of experience working with students and teachers in a variety of public and private settings. She has been a special education teacher and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Hartford, CT, and the University of Colorado. She has published several books and videos, and has provided staff development in 49 states. Beninghof recently returned to the classroom, where she works part time with teachers and students who are struggling with the learning process. Follow her blog at www.ideasforeducators.com, or visit her on Facebook or Twitter.

Categories: Family, General Education, Positive School Climate, Special Education | 2 Comments

If I only knew… 5 Reflections on the First Years of Teaching

Guest Teacher Blogger – Winner of the 2012 Sopris Learning Blog Contest!

By Michelle George

I remember vaguely my semester before student teaching. I had recently graduated with a B.A. in English, and had returned to earn my teaching certification. I had figured, “How hard could it be?” I’d substitute taught before  my return to college, and it seemed pretty simple.

That is, until the day I took over my own classroom. That’s about when that “deer in the headlights” look entered my eyes. At that time, I didn’t have an inkling of all the things I didn’t know. Twenty years later, I’m starting to understand the depth of my ignorance. I can easily think of at least five truths I wish I knew back when I had no idea how much I didn’t know.

Number Five: Kids don’t read the books.

I walked into the classroom with the confidence of the newly educated. A college graduate is a lot like a new convert. We are often fervent, confident, and blissfully ignorant. I was sure that all of those bright-eyed students were waiting expectantly for me to fill their yearning minds with newly minted knowledge.

Unfortunately, those yearning cherubs didn’t take any of those college classes and had no innate desire to soak up the knowledge I had ready for them. I remember my perfectly designed lesson plan on symbols. While it worked with many of the kids, I had no plan for the kid in the back who came to school mad and tired and yearning for a lot of things that were not in my lesson plan. It was tough for me to realize that my students aren’t always ready to learn.

Number Four: Research really matters.

Even though some kids aren’t in tune with the latest trends in education, research-based strategies are worth investigating. The key is to look for the meta-research: the analyses that look at several large studies and reveal consistent positive results for specific teaching strategies.

It isn’t enough to say that a veteran teacher has been diagramming sentences for 30 years. Just because it was good enough for our parents doesn’t mean it’s good teaching. Reading current literature and taking classes is a good way to learn what data has shown to be successful with the majority of students. Best practices can help us use our class time to the greatest effect for the largest number of students. 

Number Three: What you say matters.

I have a colleague who is adamant that sarcasm builds rapport with students. “They love it,” she often says. Some kids may, but others might carry the sting of your words with them for years. I recently talked to an adult friend of mine who still tears up when she recalls a casual critique of her creative ability by a respected teacher. Twenty years later, and she is still mortified. Even though we are “just teachers,” what we say can have lasting effects on our students. I consider that both exciting and terrifying.

Number Two: What you think matters.

Even more convincing is the research discussed by Marzano and others concerning teacher expectations. Coined as the “Pygmalion effect,” telling teachers that some students were more “gifted” than others changed teacher behavior and consequently changed student success. Henry Ford wasn’t kidding when he said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t … you’re right.” The key is truly believing that every student in your classroom is capable of remarkable things.

Number One: Every child is, or should be, somebody’s most precious child.

It was probably my fourth year teaching before I finally discovered this most important truth. I was nearly through the first night of parent/teacher conferences when a tall, reserved gentleman came into my room. He quietly sat down and introduced himself as Cindy’s dad.

Cindy was one of those shy, obedient students who sat in the back of the class and never made much noise. She wasn’t a stellar student, and she wasn’t a problem child. It was easy to miss when she was absent, as she demanded so little attention. That is exactly what made her father’s visit so poignant. To him, Cindy was the light of the world. She was his most precious person, and he expected the same attention for her from me. And he was right. She deserved that attention. Every child in your classroom is someone’s most precious child. It’s important when we are harried and hurried by the loudest and the brightest to remember just that.

So now, 20 years later, I can reflect on what I have learned and be grateful for the children and the mentors who have shared their wisdom with me. I’m even more intrepid to discover what more I don’t yet know in the years to come.

Michelle S. George is a language arts middle school teacher in Orofino, Idaho. She has a B.A. in English and secondary certification in English, reading, and journalism. Michelle has been teaching seventh and eighth grade for 20 years, and still loves going to school—as a teacher and a student. She has published a variety of lesson plans and written several award-winning grants.

Categories: General Education | 2 Comments

Who Wrote the Book of Love for Teens with Asperger’s?

By Dr. Steven Richfield

Opposite-sex relationships among older teens with Asperger’s syndrome present both opportunities for growth and areas of special challenge. Parents experience understandable concern about how events will unfold considering the complexities involved.

The use of social media, potential for near-constant contact through texting, and implications of physical affection raise parental angst and teenage expectation. But there are ways to provide sensitive navigational assistance to adolescents with Asperger’s.

Unabashed directness about the details of relationships plants the seeds for teens with Asperger’s to discuss issues with openness. When parents model a comfortable attitude when addressing kissing, mutual dependency, possessiveness, sex, and other awkward topics, the adolescent will find it easier to do the same. Use opportunities when watching TV and movies to label various dating behaviors. Expand upon the themes portrayed by asking questions and offering information that may lead to their questions.

Keep in mind that teens are likely unaware of what they don’t know, and therefore don’t know what questions to ask. By explaining how, as with most things in life, there is much to learn about dating, the discussion can flow like an educational exercise rather than a judgmental one.

Emphasize the importance of building a “firm friendship foundation” that can support the heavy emotions that can be triggered within opposite-sex relationships. Provide a specific timetable, such as a few months, for such a foundation to build and give examples of how opportunities to display trust and reliability are all part of that period. Following through on plans, showing kindness, expressing interest, and positively dealing with disappointment are some of the “foundation tests” upon which to elaborate.

Pinpoint the pitfalls to watch out for, especially as they relate to Asperger’s syndrome. The tendency to become overly preoccupied, misunderstand meanings, and jump to negative conclusions can easily be triggered within the emotionally charged interactions of dating. Reassure the teen that, by being on watch for these developments, he or she can prevent them from causing unnecessary pain or disappointment. Emphasize the need to suspend a reaction when these or other dating challenges are activated.

Stress the need for teens with Asperger’s to select a “dating coach,” preferably a parent, whom they are willing to turn to in order to review relevant details within their relationship. Explain that the purpose is to ensure that circumstances remain on an emotionally healthy and socially appropriate course. Use these discussions to deepen the teen’s knowledge about the importance of balance, role of give-and-take, degrees of self-disclosure, and levels of trust and intimacy. Tie these factors to situations that arise so that the teen develops his or her own relationship compass.


Dr. Steven Richfield is an author and psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA. He has developed a child-friendly, self-control/social skills-building program called Parent Coaching Cards. He can be contacted at director@parentcoachcards.com or 610-238-4450. To learn more, visit www.parentcoachcards.com

Categories: Family, Positive School Climate | 1 Comment

Who Will Be The Next Edview360 Blogger? You Decide. We’re Counting on Your Vote!

The presidential election is over, but there’s one more important vote for you to cast this year. We need your help to choose the winner of our 2012 Sopris Learning EdView360 Blog Contest.

Please review the Top 3 blog post entries by December 21, 2012, and decide which one speaks to you. You’ll hear more from the winning entrant next year as a paid blogger for Sopris Learning’s EdView360 blog. To vote go to www.soprislearningcontests.com.

Happy blogging, and good luck!

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A Case for Teaching Social Skills at an Early Age

By Susan L. Mulkey

Many teachers (including parents) witness children who lack social competence, which includes critical, life-enriching friendship skills. As a result, these students often not only have difficulty establishing and maintaining friendships, but are poorly accepted by their peers, and may later engage in more serious and violent acts when their discourteous and disrespectful behaviors persist over time. Furthermore, social competence opens doors for academic success.

The following and similar examples support the premise of the importance of social competence in everyone’s life, both young and old:

  • “She just ignored me and looked away when I asked her to put her things away.”
  • “He walked right by me and didn’t respond when I said hello to him this morning.”
  • “Every time they want something, they just say, ‘gimme this’ or ‘gimme that.’ ”
  • “The words, please and thank you must not be in their speaking vocabulary!”
  • “I have students that refuse to work together when I put them in pairs.”
  • “It’s hard to get their attention when they are texting all the time.”
  • “Their idea of sharing materials is grabbing and pushing.”

The levels to which children learn to develop, establish, and maintain appropriate interpersonal relationships represent the core of social competence. Unfortunately, many children are not being taught these important skills in the home environment, and many established social skills programs in schools do not deliver the needed long-term results.

Social competence includes skills such as giving and accepting compliments, taking turns, including others, making friends, accepting “no,” cooling down when upset, apologizing, disagreeing, and problem solving. Other skills include:

  • Greeting—e.g., saying “Hello” or “Hi” to friends and familiar adults
  • Looking and listening—e.g., making eye contact when others are speaking directly to you and then acknowledging that you heard the speaker’s message by saying, “Yes, I see,” or “Yes, I understand”
  • Following directions—e.g., saying, “Okay” or “Sure, I will”
  • Making polite requests—e.g., saying “May I …,” or “Please”

Often, with many of these skills, children and frequently adults do not have the language for using social skills competently. These skills must be directly modeled, practiced, and reinforced.

There are few programs in this area that are developed specifically for preschool, kindergarten, and first grade students. It is crucial that all students (not just those with special needs) are taught these important life skills beginning at a young age. Early intervention pays big dividends in the long run. Furthermore, when generalization strategies are incorporated in the teaching process, students are more likely to maintain the social skills over time and use them across multiple settings throughout their school and postschool careers.

SMART Kids is one program that was clearly designed for teaching social competence to young children (preK-grade 1). SMART is an acronym that stands for Social Grace, Manners, And Respectful Talk. Embedded evidence-based practices help teach social skills as well as techniques for assisting students in maintaining and generalizing these crucial life skills across different settings.

It makes sense to focus on social stories beginning with a context and describing a sequence of positive steps and simple commonsense gestures that young children can understand, follow, and learn. Descriptive positive feedback, along with dignified and gentle corrective feedback, is also a crucial element in teaching social competence.

SMART social skills are taught within the context of the daily curriculum so that students have the opportunity to learn these skills during a calm, neutral, and relaxed time. The skills include verbal and nonverbal communication skills:

  • Verbal skills include being able to determine the appropriate thing to say at the appropriate time, being able to communicate and talk in ways that are engaging, having a range in one’s vocal tone and quality, and being able to speak in an understandable manner
  • Nonverbal behavior is estimated to convey up to 38% of a person’s communicative intent; behaviors such as eye contact, use of gestures, facial expressions, good posture, leaning toward the person being spoken to, and smiling constitute good nonverbal social skills when used appropriately (while taking into consideration cultural and regional differences)

These vital behaviors must be taught when children are still young and learning how to interact with other people and the events that occur around them. In a sense, effective social skills are judged by what we say, when we say it, and how we say it.

Susan L. Mulkey is an author and trainer in social skills, behavior management, effective instructional practices, reading strategies, classroom coaching, and collaborative teaching. She has more than 30 years of experience across several educational settings, including elementary, middle, and high school. Susan spent six years conducting training for Department of Defense schools in Germany, Japan, and Korea. Her works include: SMART Kids; Teach All, Reach All (Elementary and Secondary); TGIF: But What Will I do on Monday?; TGIF: Making It Work on Monday; Cool Kids: A Proactive Approach to Social Responsibility; and Working Together: Tools for Collaborative Teaching.

Categories: Family, General Education, Positive School Climate | Leave a comment

Helping Children with Autism Find Social Acceptance

By Dr. Steven Richfield

Parents of children with autism often confront the daunting task of determining how much to expose their child to the everyday behaviors and activities of non-autistic peers. Part of the problem entails wondering how peers will respond and whether the outcome will be beneficial or harmful to their child’s growth.

While many autistic children want to do what their peers are doing at any given time, their approach to becoming included is often fraught with confusion and lack of knowledge about social customs. If this situation is familiar, read on for coaching tips to help the autistic child find greater peer acceptance:

Use and reinforce the mantra: “Find the friendly path.” This expression refers to the various factors that combine during encounters with others that make for the flow of friendly feelings back and forth. When explaining  to the child, use pictures, video clips, and role playing to highlight facial expression, eye contact, tone of voice, questions of interest, and sustained listening. These five factors are emphasized as “the way we start and stay upon the friendly path,” and watch if the other person “is interested in joining us on the path.” Use the same factors to depict which message the other person is sending about their interest in continuing the play or discussion.

Be mindful of the beginnings and endings that are so critical to social interaction. Since autism pulls a child into what appears as a self-centered world, it is habit for them to initially relate to others based upon requests rather than friendly greetings. Parents can shape the alternate habit of giving a friendly greeting at the beginning of the encounter, just as it’s appropriate to say something nice when entering someone’s home. Similarly, when leaving an encounter, the child can be coached in ways to express kind appreciation for being included and positive feelings about the next encounter. Upon approaching someone, the parent can provide a gentle reminder, “remember entrances and exits,” to cue the child to this importance.

Recognize that certain social customs will not follow literally from what the child has been taught to expect in the past. For example, the reminder to “use your words” may now come with the expectation that doing so will lead peers to grant their requests. Some habits, such as unusual sounds or movements, have been verbally monitored by parents and teachers to remind the child to refrain from them. Instead of making this request, peers will distance themselves from the autistic child due to their own discomfort with the habits. Parents can make their autistic child aware of how important it is for them to try their hardest “habit control” when in the company of peers and, if necessary, offer inconspicuous substitute habits.

Consider a child-friendly explanation to peers that helps demystify autism. Potential playmates can greatly benefit from understanding that certain autistic behaviors, though unusual, are ways that children calm themselves and/or explore their surroundings. Provide peers with clear and direct language that they can use to communicate friendly interest to the autistic child. Peers’ success with opening up channels of play and communication will greatly relieve their anxiety or discomfort.

Dr. Steven Richfield is a clinical psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA. He has developed a child-friendly, self-control/social skills-building program called Parent Coaching Cards and is coauthor of The Parent Coach book. He can be contacted at director@parentcoachcards.com or 610-238-4450. To learn more, visit www.parentcoachcards.com.

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How to Succeed at Differentiated Reading Instruction, Part II

 By Jill Jackson    

And they say teaching is easy. Whoever said that needs to be … talked to!

While teaching is by no means easy, we do need to focus on simplifying our practices down to what really matters and what really gets results. If you know me, you know I’m pretty bare bones in terms of what we need in order to make our students successful. And simplifying differentiated instruction practices is a great place to start!

In Part I of this blog post, we analyzed how to have immediate, massive, widespread success with differentiated instruction—without losing our marbles!  We looked at the Three Ps as a way to organize and execute our differentiated instruction plans:

1.       Placement

2.       Planning

3.       Performance


Refer back to last week’s blog for the nitty gritty of Placement.

Now, onward and upward—into Planning for differentiated instruction.

Once we have the right criteria to determine who needs to go into what group, we have to establish a purpose for the instruction in that group.

And here’s where we often get off track: we go too big! We have lofty goals like “increase fluency” or “build comprehension” or “increase vocabulary.” Well, I don’t know about you, but I want to do this for all kids, so what makes this group different? Plus, if you are attempting to do something so broad, how on earth will you measure whether you’ve been successful? How will you know what’s working and what needs to be altered … or dumped?

To cut through the differentiated instruction noise, you must get specific. Like, really, really specific. More specific than you think you need to be. In fact, think about what you want to accomplish and chop it in half. Then chop it in half again.

Let me give you an example:

Instead of “This group needs to improve comprehension,” my focus would be: “The kids in this group need to focus on retelling the who/what/when/where/why of new text after a first read. We will focus on stopping at the end of each chunk of text (narrative and informational) and retell the most important parts. By the end of four weeks, these students will be able to read a new piece of narrative text and informational text and correctly retell the most important parts.”

See how focused that is? I could get lost in wanting to “improve comprehension.” I could bring out 100 different story maps and 100 different games for asking questions, and 100 different reading techniques. But if, at the end of it all, the students haven’t learned how to do something specific, I have to question whether their time in my targeted small group was valuable to them.

Let me give you another example:

Instead of “This group needs to improve vocabulary knowledge,” my focus would be: “I will work with students to preview new text (narrative and informational) to look for unknown words. We will organize those words in a ‘need to tell’ list (where I will teach directly those words and their meanings) and a ‘need to figure out’ list, where we will use context clues. I will model how to use context clues for new words on two words every day, and then they will practice with at least two words after that.”

So … super focused is the name of the game! At the end of six weeks in that small group, I should be able to give kids a previously unseen piece of text at or about grade level, and they should be able to use context clues to uncover the meanings of those words. With anything less focused than that, I have no idea what we’ve accomplished—and that ends up biting me in the end.

Think you’re done? Not so fast! We’ve got to focus on the #1 thing that we have full control of and that has huge impact: Performance.

And I’m not talking about the students’ performance; I’m talking about yours/mine/ours!

I find that many times we are so focused on what kids are doing that we forget to plan for, execute, and reflect on our performance. Here is a short list of the items you need to consider during differentiated instruction:

·         Have I created a motivation system that keeps kids engaged and interested?

·         Do I have a solid small-group management and behavior system?

·         If someone were watching me, would they say that I have a swift pace that keeps kids interested?

·         Am I well-prepared and not wasting even a second of instructional time on teacher-prep tasks?

·         Am I confident in my content?

·         Do I enjoy the content? After all, excitement and enjoyment are contagious!

·         Do I finish the lessons in the time that I allotted, or am I chronically taking longer/shorter than planned?

·         Am I a great motivator of kids? Do they enjoy coming to my group?


The bottom line? Our performance is directly related to theirs!

The final analysis of how to massively improve performance during differentiated instruction? It’s all about getting the right kids in the right place (Placement). Then we’ve got to prepare the proper lessons to teach (Planning). Then our responsibility to our students is to analyze our own teaching (Performance).

Your homework? Why not video-tape your small-group instruction? OK, calm down; it’s for your eyes only! Then watch the video and analyze the above bulleted list to see if you can start by improving your performance. In fact, you don’t need anything else to get started on strengthening that area.

Jill Jackson is owner and managing director of Jackson Consulting, a full-service literacy consulting and school improvement company serving the nation’s lowest performing/high-poverty school districts. Come grab Jill’s free tools at www.jackson-consulting.com, send her a tweet at www.twitter.com/TheJillJackson, or post on her wall at www.facebook.com/jacksonconsulting.



Categories: Family, General Education, Literacy | 4 Comments

How to Succeed at Differentiated Reading Instruction, Part 1

By Jill Jackson

It’s funny. I travel all over the country with my team, and we often hear from educators, “You know, things are different around here …”

They will share a story or a sticky spot, or a reason why something isn’t working. The real deal? The story, sticky spot, or reason is typically the same as the one we heard the week before in a totally different region!

What you are struggling with is probably very similar to what others are struggling with. We have spent a lot of time in recent years perfecting the art and science of implementing core reading programs in elementary schools and systematic, explicit interventions in K-12. Folks have done a fantastic job, and many who have never seen great success with struggling students are experiencing unprecedented results.

The really cool thing? Nothing has changed, except for the teaching. And that change has made all the difference in the world for students.

But where so many continue to struggle is when the instruction goes “off script.” In other words, when we have delivered the grade-level material, and students still need a leg up into or beyond that grade-level content. This “off script” teaching is differentiated instruction. We are diagnosing the needs of all kids (even the benchmark and advanced kids who get lost in the shuffle) and prescribing and delivering instruction in ways that a scripted program is limited.

Core instruction is made more powerful by daily differentiated instruction. We don’t lose our minds and get away from explicit instruction, but we do open our minds and look at what students need skill-wise, right here and right now.

Differentiated instruction is where our professional judgment and expertise come into play—big time. It takes highly skilled teachers to effectively prescribe and deliver small-group instruction that makes a difference in getting students up to benchmark.

So, let’s step back for a minute and look at where differentiated instruction typically gets off track. This helps us get on the right track!

It’s common that differentiated instruction that’s not working so well is suffering from a lack of focus in planning. The teacher is winging lessons or focusing on “teachable moments.” The time in the group is never-ending (I call this the “life sentence of small groups”—it’s never going to end!), and there is little to no monitoring of individual lessons and weekly check-outs to make sure that students are actually learning what the teacher is delivering. Just because kids are in a small group doesn’t mean that they’re learning the right stuff. Attendance doesn’t equal mastery. If it did, I wouldn’t need to write this blog post.

It’s common that differentiated instruction that’s not working so well is suffering from a lack of oomph. The teacher is struggling to gain and maintain behavior control or is having trouble keeping positive and highly motivating to kids. I understand that when you’re working with the most struggling kids, they often come with a host of (learned or masking) behaviors that can get in the way of instruction. And I get that they take lots of patience. But I also know that without oomph or verve or whatever adjective you want to use to describe a fun, swiftly moving lesson, kids lose interest—and the lessons flop. And then we sometimes start to blame the kids, which is not going to fix the problem … ever.

It’s common that differentiated instruction that’s not working so well is focused so much on filling a gap with a supplemental program that we forget it’s our jobs to teach the kids, not just teach the program. Those who know me know that I am a huge supporter of explicitly taught, research-based core and supplemental programs in reading. BUT one thing I can’t support is blind teaching of those programs. What does this look like/sound like? It sounds like this: “Well, I taught it, so I’m not quite sure why they didn’t learn it. It was all delivered right to them!” The real deal? It doesn’t matter what we’re teaching if they’re not picking it up. The effectiveness of our teaching in small groups is not accomplished by what we delivered, but by what they mastered. So this “I delivered it” thinking has to be altered.

So, how do we make sure that our differentiated instruction is first-class instruction, focused on what kids really need and resulting in kids hitting the benchmark at record rates?

It all comes down to the Three Ps:

1.       Placement

2.       Planning

3.       Performance

Let’s talk Placement first.

In a grade level or department, you must first establish what criteria you will use to determine who goes in what group. For example, will you use unit tests, diagnostic tests, weekly tests, or progress monitoring tests and benchmarks to determine who will go where? Will you use a combination of all of these data points? The criteria are essential in ensuring that we’re not grouping kids based on gut-checks.  When criteria are not set or are set teacher by teacher, kids are put into groups based on behaviors (issues or nonissues) and past performance (“She is a low student” or “Oh, no, he does not need to be in the low group; he’s higher than this test is showing”), rather than actual need right at this moment.

So, once we sort kids according to the criteria, we know that when we’re talking about “the strategic group,” for example, we’re talking about the same kids. This helps with planning and reflecting on the lesson and sorting the data in the end. We can get stuck on this process of sorting students into skill-need groups, but the party hasn’t even started! We’ve got to get on to designing the instruction!

When you place kids in a group by common criteria, you then have to make a decision about how long you want to keep them in that group before making any adjustments. I typically look at 4 to 6 weeks (not necessarily scientific, but a pretty reasonable, realistic period of time) as the length of time that students will for sure stay in that group before we analyze the data for re-sorting purposes.

I find that when we’re too eager to move kids, we end up moving them out of the group or up into another group based on one data point rather than looking at the trend of data for that student. Students will often end up back where they started because we didn’t build in time for skill maintenance.

I also encourage you to focus not only on growth, but also maintenance of growth and benchmark status. If the instruction is working, let it do its work and don’t rush students out of the group until the instruction has “stuck.” However, if you find that it’s taking all year for instruction to “stick,” then we’ve got another problem (refer back to the beginning of this blog!).

Once we have sorted our kids by the common criteria and chosen a re-sorting date so that they don’t get life sentences in small groups, we’re well on our way!

I really do recommend that you look at the setup to differentiated instruction before you look at what you’re teaching during that time; so much of the cleanup of our practices can be done in the Placement area. It’s a quick fix-up typically!

Your homework?

  • Meet with your grade-level/department colleagues and walk through your current criteria for small-group placement
  • Analyze if your criteria is teacher-by-teacher or if you have a common standard for who goes where
  • Start to look at all of your data points and analyze what data you currently have (and I’m sure you have PLENTY!) that will help you make future small-group instructional decisions

Up next for us? Join me next week as we uncover Step 2 (Planning) and Step 3 (Performance). We’re on our way to massively transforming our practice!

Jill Jackson is owner and managing director of Jackson Consulting, a full-service literacy consulting and school improvement company serving the nation’s lowest performing/high-poverty school districts. Come grab Jill’s free tools at www.jackson-consulting.com, send her a tweet at www.twitter.com/TheJillJackson, or post on her wall at www.facebook.com/jacksonconsulting.

Categories: Literacy, Professional Developement | 1 Comment

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