There is nothing more gratifying, in my opinion than watching people work together to achieve a common goal. In a previous post, I shared how members of the 4th-grade team at Red Cliffs Elementary School in the Juab School district collaborated to create a personalized experience that combined choice and data to differentiate. I was so empowered by what I saw that I captured the story of both teachers. My point was to illustrate an exceptional practice that benefitted all learners and how this might have never come to pass had they not embraced the spirit of collaboration. It goes without saying that together we are all better, and leveraging others' collective intelligence will only strengthen both individual practices and school culture.
It is rare for me actually to see differentiation during my school visits. Now, this is not to say that it's not happening, but in over thousands of different classroom visits, I have only seen it a handful of times. The week following my work with the Juab School District in Utah, I traveled to Elmhurst Community School District 205 in Illinois. My week-long visit there was a follow-up from 2019, where hundreds of classroom walk-throughs were conducted with a focus on improving digital pedagogy. Extensive feedback was provided to district and building leadership, and a plan was developed to begin implemented specific strategies for growth over a period of time. It was during the return trip that I once again saw differentiation firmly in part of a personalized learning experience.
Upon entering the second-grade classroom, students were observed either completing their list of must-do activities or if they finished a choice board. Activities were differentiated, consisting of slight alterations in choice board activities, based on proficiency data. The teacher, Lauren Joyce, was observed providing targeted instruction for a few remote learners. Some kids were already at mastery and were able to move forward along their own path. I also noticed Katie Murphy, the instructional coach, playing an active role in the classroom. This was a fantastic lesson that genuinely personalized the experience for all kids where they got what they needed when and where they needed it.
Naturally, I wanted to capture Lauren and Katie's story, which you can read below.
Teaching during this past year has definitely challenged me, Lauren, to view things a little bit differently and has forced me out of my comfort zone in many ways. Teachers have had no choice but to instruct online, and students have had no choice but to sit on the other side of a computer screen for hours on end. I have had to adapt and think outside the box since I had never taught this way before. Because of the pandemic, this year has been unpredictable and has constantly been changing. Our students have been in school in three formats; all remote, hybrid, and now entirely in-person. I was hesitant at the start of the year about starting small group instruction given the circumstances. I had trouble envisioning what small group instruction would like in a remote and/or hybrid setting.
District 205 has given us the opportunity to have an instructional coach at each elementary building. For the past four years, Katie and I have worked closely together on different classroom instructional strategies. This year, I knew I would need her support more than ever, especially in leveraging the best instructional strategies using technology. One of my biggest goals this year was to provide purposeful and engaging differentiation in math to meet all learners' needs in my classroom. I had somewhat of a vision about what I wanted this to look like but wasn't sure where or how to start. I often see things as "big picture" or what I want my end goal to be. Katie helped me utilize student data to bring my vision to life. Together, we looked at student data and decided which students demonstrated mastery of math standards and wanted to create more rigorous learning opportunities for these students. This is how Katie helped my big picture vision begin to come to life. A classroom environment was created that integrated the following structures and routines:
- Collaborative conversations
- Choice (must do may do)
This year has really taught me that we can teach with resilience and still allow for learning to be fun. Katie and I want to make sure learning is engaging and effective. We think with this approach to teaching; we are seeing the students thrive in any setting. They are excited about math as it is personalized through voice and choice while also emphasizing critical thinking and problem-solving. Collaborative conversations with groups help to create the expectations for speaking and listening for them to follow as they work together. Below is a description of what Eric saw during his visit.
- Goal was to differentiate math based on pre-assessment data based on proficiency of standards while providing students choice along with teacher instruction
- Collaborative groups and structures were established where students could work together
- Opportunities to follow a unique path to meet or exceed the standard were developed
- Resources were made available in Google Classroom, such as anchor charts, the daily agenda, and a Google Form for students to communicate with a teacher around their learning.
One thing Lauren emphasized to me through email was the importance and influence instructional coaching has had on her instructional practice while also improving the classroom environment. She has significantly benefited from Katie's help, guidance, and feedback over the course of their time working together. Katie is the person she goes to immediately with any and every idea she has; her support has genuinely made Lauren a better teacher.
I don't think I would be willing to try some of these things if it weren't for her giving me a gentle nudge and supporting me every step of the way. Additionally, the students view Katie as a member of our classroom community. She has even been given the title "Class Celebrity."
Lauren and Katie exemplify the power of collaboration and the positive impact on both kids and school culture. The moral of the story here is to work smarter, not harder, and great things will happen. Be sure to leverage all the resources you have available, the greatest of which are the colleagues in your school.