Lessons from my Practicum Classroom

My practicum this semester was interesting in that I was in a middle school classroom, which I had never experienced before. I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, but I found that I actually somewhat enjoyed being in a middle school classroom.

One awesome thing about this semester was that I got to observe two teachers who were really good at co-teaching. Frequently, we hear stories of the special education teacher constantly being relegated to the one teach, one observe model or the one teach, one assist. This was not at all the case in my classroom. What I experienced were two teachers who had been working together for 10 years, were truly friends as well as coworkers, and both felt they had equally important places in the classroom. It was not clear who the special education students in the class were. The teachers frequently used team teaching. When they were not team teaching, the most prevalent co-teaching model in the classroom was one teach, one assist, but throughout a class period they would rotate multiple times between who was teaching and who was assisting. This was really great for me to see, and it made me realize that a great co-teaching relationship is possible.

From this practicum, I also noted the importance of not only using technology, but using it well. In class, we frequently talk about how iPads are a great technology for certain learners, and how they should increase accessibility and lead to better outcomes in the classroom. However, in my practicum classroom I observed two special education students who used iPads, but it did not seem to be benefiting them. The teachers were unsure of how to use the technology, and frequently did not know what the students were doing on their iPads. They were skeptical to let them use them in the class because they didn’t know how to tell is they were playing games or using it for their work. I think there were a lot of missed opportunities for incorporating this technology into various lessons, and it ended up being something that caused more tension between the teachers and those students than it did good. Therefore, I learned that it is not enough to merely have iPads in the classroom. Both teachers and students alike need to have a good understanding of how to use this technology and how it can be used to enhance learning.

Another thing that I learned from this semester’s practicum experience is the importance of playing to students’ strengths and interests. This is a concept that we frequently talk about with UDL, in terms of providing multiple means of engagement. It is also a differentiated instruction strategy to differentiate based on interest. However, I did not see much of that in my classroom this semester. For the most part, what I saw was every student doing the exact same work and the exact same assignments, regardless of what worked for them or what they might have wanted to do. Yet, the last week that we were there, students were working on a research project in which they could choose any topic they wanted to related to the Holocaust. One student was researching Oskar Schindler, another was researching genocide and was connecting the Holocaust to modern genocides, another was researching life in a concentration camp, and so on. Each student spent time choosing a topic that truly interested him or her, and what I saw was a group of students who were actually excited to do research. These students, who had been largely unmotivated all semester, were opening book after book and filling up index cards with notes. I thought it was incredible to see this transformation and to observe firsthand how big of a difference student engagement truly makes.

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Technology in Inclusive Classrooms

I really enjoyed the technology presentations and felt that I picked up a lot of good ideas from them that I otherwise would never have thought to incorporate in my classroom, but now would love to.

The first of these is Kidspiration and Inspiration. Although I used these programs all the time when I was younger, I never thought about how they could be used in my own classroom until these presentations. Personally, I am not a person that understands or works well with graphic organizers such as webs. The visual organization of them does not make sense to me, and I would much rather just have a list. I always felt this way, so I never really liked when we had to use Kidspiration, and as a result, I never thought of it as useful. However, now that I have been in a number of practicums and special education classes, I have discovered that there are a number of students who really like this type of organization, and for whom it is very helpful. Therefore, I think Kidspiration can actually be a very valuable tool for organizing thoughts and preplanning writing. What I really like about it is the writing view mode and the ability to publish to Word, because I think that can be really useful in terms of planning and then turning that into actual writing. Plus, writing view is really useful to a student like myself who much prefers that format. I would have found it much more helpful to just plan in writing view rather than making a web at all. I also love that this technology is easy to use and students pick up on it quickly. I think this is useful in an inclusive classroom because I think that there are some students who could really benefit from this software and whose writing would become much more organized because of it, but there are also those who may not need this. Therefore, students can be given the option or the ability to do what they need to do to organize their thoughts. This could benefit students with disabilities, as well as those who just tend to think graphically.

Another technology that I found really interesting was Starfall, from the reading presentation. I loved this because it is a free website that anyone can access from anywhere, and therefore it would be completely reasonable to think that I could incorporate this technology into my own classroom. A lot of other technologies would depend on the school district and what they decide to purchase, but this can be used by anyone – including students at home. I also loved Starfall because the layout of it was so fun and enticing; you feel more as though you are playing a game than learning. This would appeal to students who do not like to read, and they may actually become engaged in reading through this website. I also like that it has activities and lessons suitable for a wide range of ability levels, so students can choose the ones that are right for them. I also like that it reads to the students in the voices of real children rather than a computer-generated voice. I could see using Starfall as something that students can do at home or when they have free time in class to supplement their reading learning, and I think that it could really work for students who are struggling or not typically engaged in reading.

Finally, another piece of technology that I loved was the virtual field trips. Some of these “field trips” are really more of just a collection of pictures with text. I remember using things like this in school, and I would have worksheets with questions that I would have to answer as I “explored” the website – however, it never really felt much like exploring when I was just clicking links that took me to old-looking pictures with paragraphs describing the same thing as the textbook did. I’m not really a fan of these types of virtual field trips, but I think the social studies group showed some really cool ones. The Anne Frank house, for example, would be awesome to use in a class that was reading Anne Frank. This is a place that students would never be able to visit on their own, but understanding the layout of the house and the annex really helps students to understand more about the diary as a whole. For a lot of students, being able to see this “in-person” and take a “walk-through” tour of the annex could be really beneficial. Plus, that type of tour is engaging and actually does feel a bit like you are exploring the place where Anne Frank lives. There are some other virtual field trips that are also really cool and could be used in other subject areas, such as volcanoes or the bottom of the ocean floor. I like the idea of using virtual field trips to explore places that you would otherwise not be able to see, plus most of these are free! I think that this could be really beneficial in an inclusive classroom – or really any classroom – for students who are visual learners or who have trouble learning just from a textbook or from hearing a teacher talk. These could be students with disabilities, but I would guess that all students would gain a deeper understanding of the topic by actual being able to see it, plus it’s way more engaging that reading a book or listening to a teacher!

While none of these technologies really apply to my unit, I think that they would all be useful to incorporate in my classroom, whether it is inclusive or not. I think they are technologies that would certainly help students with special needs, but that could also help all students to learn, understand, and be engaged in the content.

Co-teaching

Co-teaching is a great idea in theory, but unfortunately it doesn’t always work out as it should in practice. Therefore, I think one of the most important points of co-teaching is the “co” part of it. This means that both teachers are important contributors to the teaching and developing of a lesson. However, this does not always happen. A lot of times with co-teaching what you see is something that looks more like a general education teacher and a (very expensive) aide. It is important to remember that this is not truly co-teaching and that students do not necessarily benefit much from this. That being said, co-teaching is very difficult to do well. It requires a good working relationship between the teachers, as well as shared planning time and administrative support. I think that as future teachers, it is important to remember that you cannot simply put two teachers in a classroom and call it co-teaching – if it is to be done, it needs to be done well.

One of the things that can help make this happen is the six different models of co-teaching. These models take advantage of the fact that with co-teaching, you essentially have two teachers in the classroom – which is awesome! If you think about it like that, you realize that you can get much more done with two teachers than you can with one. Too often in co-teaching, what we see is the one teach, one assist model, as mentioned above. However, there are a lot of other cool things you can do. For example, you can split the class into two groups and teach parallel lessons, you can have each teacher at a station, or you can pull a small group aside to do some additional work. These are all setups that would not be possible with only one teacher, and it is important if you are going to implement co-teaching that you think about and utilize all of them. You should not stick to only one model, but rather should mix it up so students receive a variety of different forms of instruction.

Finally, I think one of the most important points about co-teaching is why we do it. Co-teaching was developed as a way to get special education students into the general education classroom, being educated right alongside their peers. Putting the special education teacher in the classroom allows them the extra support they need. However, co-teaching is not just for special education students, and we are limiting ourselves if we allow the special educator to focus solely on those students. In fact, adding the special educator to the classroom means we can provide more support to all students – including students who are struggling but have not been classified, students who are ahead and are bored with the lesson, and any student who may need additional help at any point in the classroom. If we remember this benefit, the reason for co-teaching becomes clear and the special educator becomes a valuable contributor to the classroom community.

Differentiated Instruction Strategies

All of the differentiated instructional strategies that we learned about in class were very interesting, and I could see each of them having a place in my own classroom. However, there were three in particular that stuck out in my mind as being the most doable, and that I could really see myself using on a regular basis. These were tiered activities, centers, and RAFTs.

Tiered activities are something that I could see being used in the classroom almost every day. This provides a way to use flexible grouping with the students so that while they are all working on the same skill or context, they are able to do it at different levels of complexity. Within the groups you are able to differentiate anything from reading materials to products, so that each student is working on something that is appropriate and doable for him or her. I think this is great because it allows you to work with each student from his or her level. This means that the students will not be struggling through reading material that is way too difficult and not getting anything out of it, and they also will not be bored with an assignment that is too easy. Yet each student is still learning the same material and working towards the same goals. I feel that this is an effective way to have students work on a lot of the material in a classroom. It allows you to tailor instruction to students who struggle with reading, for example, so that they can still grasp the key ideas. This can be done with flexible grouping, so that you do not need to come up with an individual plan for each student. Sure, it may take some time to come up with activities for multiple groups of students, but it seems much more feasible for regular classroom use than strategies such as orbital studies or entry points. Plus, I think it is well worth the effort because it ensures that each student comes away with the same key understandings while being appropriately challenged.

I see centers as a great way to have students work more with the content than what you are typically going to cover in class. You can have learning centers, which teach, reinforce, or extend a topic, or you can have interest centers, which motivate exploration of a topic. Centers can go across the curriculum and subject areas, and do not have to work together or be related. Students can visit one center or all of the centers. I think centers are a great thing to have set up in your room because it gives students something to do when there is extra time or they have finished another activity early. You should also have center time planned into your schedule, but I think it is especially helpful as a fun and interesting activity that you can resort to when you need something for students to do. Plus, centers are great because it is easy to differentiate activities within each center. Students can be provided with varying levels of work or support, they can be asked to create different products, or can work with different materials. Tiered activities can even be incorporated within a center. I think centers also tend to be very interesting for students and are a great way to get them engaged in learning about a topic. There is a lot of student choice and interest involved, which keeps students’ motivation high.

I also find RAFTs very interesting because they seem so doable within the classroom. RAFTs (which stands for role, audience, format, topic) give students a number of choices to creatively work on an activity. Rather than giving students a standard assignment such as “read these pages in the textbook and answer the questions,” RAFTs allow students to work in a number of different creative modalities that challenge them to think about a topic from a new point of view. Final products could include an interview, a sales pitch, a speech, a piece of artwork, a menu, a letter – the options are limitless. Yet the learning goals are still built into every choice. I think this is great because students are learning about the topic in new and creative ways that are bound to be more interesting for them than traditional methods. It also allows them a certain amount of choice in picking a RAFT that works with their interests and skills. There are also tons of resources available online, and you can create many RAFTs that can be reused from year to year. Therefore, I think it is a lot easier on the teacher than many of the other methods and it would certainly be possible to incorporate frequently in the classroom. I think students would not only enjoy them but learn a lot on a deeper level.

As I start to think about my unit plan, I think the three strategies I just discussed would all be great options to include. Tiered activities and RAFTs make it incredibly easy to differentiate while students work towards the same goal. Centers will be a little bit more difficult to include in our unit plan because we are only planning one unit in one subject, but certainly there could be a science center that could be set up for center time or for students to use when they have free time. As I begin thinking about my own classroom practices, I think it is important to keep all of these strategies in mind, as well as the others that we talked about in class.

Sternberg, Cohen, and Tomlinson: Implications for Summative Assessment

As Sternberg mentions in his article, typical assessments in schools test only memory and analytical abilities. And yet, there are students who have incredible creative or practical skills that simply get overlooked. These students are not considered “smart,” because they are not good at what we are assessing in schools. Each of the four abilities that Sternberg acknowledges is associated with different types of assessments that would be appropriate. His Yale study clearly demonstrates the importance of both activities and assessments that suit every student, giving each and every one the chance to be considered successful.

As teachers, it seems obvious that we do not want to be teaching to only one or two types of abilities, and that we need to find ways to incorporate all of the different types of learning. Not only that, but we want to make sure that assessments – as well as students’ grades – are based on these different types of learning rather than solely on memory and analysis. The question becomes, how do we accomplish this?

I think complex instruction provides a potential framework for this type of summative assessment. In the Tomlinson chapter, Ms. McCleary uses her complex instruction task as a summative assessment that will factor into students’ marking period grades. The activity that she chooses is definitely cumulative and requires students to have a thorough understanding of the content they have been covering. It also requires multiple types of abilities in order to succeed, and assesses students on a much deeper level than a traditional multiple-choice exam. These are important components of complex instruction – it emphasizes the fact that you need many different abilities in order to complete the task, and that each member of the group is a valuable participant who can contribute some of these abilities. This relates back to the fact that every student in the class is considered smart and is given the opportunity to use his or her abilities.

By using complex instruction as Ms. McCleary does, at the end of a unit of study, we would effectively be able to administer an assessment that takes into account student needs and individual learning differences. Summative assessments that take this form will bring out the strengths in all students, as well as requiring them to think more deeply and meaningfully about the content than they otherwise would.

Hillsborough Middle School Practicum Schedule

Period

Time

Cooperating Teacher

Classroom

Type of Class

1

9:12-9:52

Leigh Anne Johnson

D-23

In-class support for literacy

2

9:55-10:35

Leigh Anne Johnson

D-23

In-class support for literacy

3

 

10:38-11:18

Leigh Anne Johnson

D-23

Pull-out support

4

 

11:21-12:01

Nicole Arrone

D-8

Pull-out support

 

Similarities and differences between Universal Design for Learning and Differentiated Instruction

UDL and differentiated instruction are, without a doubt, similar concepts that share many of the same goals, ideas about learning, and even classroom practices. However, that is not to say that they are synonymous. The two differ in a few key aspects of their guiding principles, although I believe that they can work together and complement one another in a successful classroom.

Both approaches share a common end goal: to help all students to learn and achieve the most they possibly can. Both UDL and differentiated instruction believe that students should not all be forced to fit into the mold of a single, inflexible curriculum. Rather, they believe that instruction should be adjusted in order to accommodate all students. They have high expectations for all students and embrace student differences. Therefore, the learning environments in both approaches include a lot of support and appropriate amounts of scaffolding. In addition, they both place an emphasis on the fact that individual students learn in different ways, and that each student needs to be given the opportunities to learn in ways that work best for him/her and are at an appropriate level.

However, the two approaches differ a bit in the ways in which they go about achieving this. Differentiated instruction places a lot of emphasis on formative assessments, which make the basis for many instructional decisions. The key here is to be constantly assessing students, determining what they need, and then adjusting instruction in order to meet those needs. As a result, teachers are constantly making changes as they go in response to student needs. UDL looks at this adjusting of instruction in a different way. When an architect is designing a building, he/she does not wait for someone in a wheelchair to try to access the building before installing a ramp. Rather, the architect anticipates that someone in a wheelchair will need to access the building and includes the ramp in the original design. Universal design works the same way in the classroom – rather than make adjustments as problems arise in the lesson, the teacher anticipates these problems and incorporates modifications into the curriculum from the outset.

That is not to say that one approach is better than the other; in fact, I think it makes sense to include both in the classroom. Teachers should be anticipating student differences and planning for them from the start. However, they should also be monitoring student progress and implementing adjustments that need to be made as they go. I think the two approaches work very well together. The three key UDL principles – providing multiple means of representation, multiple means of action and expression, and multiple means of engagement – can actually be accomplished by altering the process, product, and content of the work, thereby incorporating three key elements of differentiated instruction. Many of the learning centers and differentiated small group activities that seem to be such an important part of differentiated instruction can actually be a great way to provide the range of options for which UDL calls. Therefore, I think the two approaches really complement each other nicely in classroom practice.

“Educating children in age-based groups and holding them accountable to grade-level standards means we cannot address individual differences.”

Without a doubt, there are some inherent problems with our current practices of age-graded schools and grade-level standards. As both Tomlinson and Cuban point out, students of the same age all have varying levels of background knowledge and abilities, and may learn at completely different paces. Therefore, it does not quite make sense to put them all in the same classroom and teach them all the same material at the same time. The inevitable result of this is that some students will fall behind while others are bored with work that is too easy for them. And yet, this is precisely the approach that grade-level standards seem to suggest – that all students of the same age should be learning the same things at the same time.

It seems incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile the teaching of these standards with the knowledge about intelligence discussed in Tomlinson’s chapter. We know that in order for students to learn best, they each need to do so differently and need to be given the opportunity to create a personal meaning out of information. This certainly sounds like it requires the type of individualized instruction that would not be given in a class in which the teacher was trying to simply meet the standards and prepare students for standardized testing.

However, I would like to argue that the two are not mutually exclusive – that you actually can teach children in age-based groups, meet the standards, and provide individualized instruction. In fact, I do not think it is possible for every student in a class to appropriately reach the standards without paying attention to individual differences. Some students will naturally learn what they need to know very quickly, and they can be given additional activities to further and deepen their knowledge beyond the scope of the standard. On the other hand, there will be students who will require a lot of additional time and support just to meet a particular standard. Sure, it is possible to teach the same lessons to every student, and it might even be possible to get them all to pass a test. However, this method would not result in each student having deep or thorough understanding of the topics in each standard, and therefore would truly be doing each and every one of them a disservice. While it is certainly not easy, I do think there is a compromise that can be reached and a balance that can be struck in which each student is held accountable for the same standards and yet is also given instruction based on individual differences.

Self Portrait

Self Portrait

This is the drawing of myself that I created in class on 1/22/2013.