Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Theory and Practice of Differentiation at Wolf Creek Public Schools: A Guide for New Teachers

Differentiated instruction is a hallmark of good teaching. It involves a deep understanding of students coupled with a backwards-design approach during the planning stage. A teacher who differentiates is able to meet the varied needs of their classroom because they are cognizant of these needs and actively seek to support their learners throughout the learning process. Tomlinson (2001) explains that, “In a differentiated classroom, the teacher proactively plans and carries out varied approaches to content, process, and product in anticipation of and response to student differences in readiness, interest, and learning needs” (p. 7). Tomlinson further describes differentiation as proactive, qualitative, rooted in assessment, student-centred, and organic.  At Wolf Creek Public Schools, differentiation is built into the policies and procedures of the school division. The WCPS Excellent Learning Environments model (Figure 1.) supports differentiation by providing teachers with a concrete framework for learning. It emphasizes proactive pre-planning based on clearly defined outcomes.  It mandates pre-assessment to understand student readiness for, experience with, and interest towards these outcomes or individualized goals. It divides learning into three stages: introduction of new knowledge, developing new knowledge, and deepening understanding of new knowledge. Finally, it promotes ongoing formative assessment, achievement tracking, and additional supports before summative assessment. This paper will highlight the key theories which supplement Tomlinson’s vision of differentiation and synthesize these concepts with Wolf Creek School Division’s educational policies and administrative procedures. This will provide new teachers with a better understanding of differentiation in practice such that they might fully integrate with WCPS instructional guidelines. 

Why Differentiate?

Tomlinson et. al (2003) identified four key reasons that the classroom teacher should differentiate instruction. First, many schools have deemphasized special needs tracking  “to promote equity for students who might be placed in low-expectation classrooms” thereby “mainstreaming students with special needs” (p. 120). This means that the focus has shifted from coding students and placing them in special needs rooms to providing them with differentiated instruction within regular classroom environments. Wolf Creek Public School has eliminated the use of pull-out classrooms in most of our schools. Logically, this also involves “reducing segregation for poor readers” (p. 120).  Increasing immigration to Canada, especially in Alberta, means that classrooms have more students who are learning English as a second language. When combined with a reduction in gifted programs, these changes present a clear problem for teachers: How can we teach such a diverse composition of students? Differentiation provides the key to success in this new educational context. In a study that compared differentiated instructional practices with typical middle-level non tiered instruction, Richards and Omdal (2007) found that, “the lower background learners as a group achieved as well as the midrange background learners within the tiered instruction and better than the control group’s median learners” (p. 449). This type of dramatic difference provides some evidence supporting differentiation. While Richards and Omdal did not find a similar bonus for high achieving students, these students performed equally as well as the high achievers in the control group. As such, differentiating instruction should provide teachers with a tool to reach the lowest achieving learners in their increasingly diverse classrooms. 

What to Differentiate?

Once a teacher has accepted that differentiation is the appropriate instructional strategy for our modern classrooms, they will need to understand the key elements that can be differentiated. Bush (2006) and many others have refined Tomlinson’s vision by providing more detail regarding the three key areas which a teacher might differentiate: content, process, and product. According to Bush, content refers to the curriculum of study, specifically the “knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values” (p. 44). She further explains that the teacher can differentiate these elements by adjusting the level of difficulty, learning requirements, and information sources. In practice, this might mean providing students with multiple texts or readings at varying reading levels. In the Wolf Creek context, teachers meet in collaborative teams to identify the essential outcomes within each curriculum. Afterwards, teachers can increase or decrease the learning load for students by deciding to what extent the student will be exposed to the non-essential outcomes. As such, the curriculum is presented as a spectrum of outcomes with some students learning only the most critical pieces and others extending their learning to secondary or tertiary outcomes. 

Learning Process

Bush (2006) also discussed the “activities and strategies” which are most effective in enabling learners to understand the chosen curriculum (p. 44). Bush categorizes this as ‘process’ and states that it can be differentiated using “learning logs, graphic organizers, journals, literature circles, jigsaw, [and] mind-mapping” (p. 44). In practice, the flow of instruction in a differentiated classroom would involve a “repeated rhythm of whole-class preparation, review, and sharing, followed by opportunity for individual or small-group exploration, sense-making, extension, and production” (Tomlinson, 2001 p. 6). Much of the decision-making process would be based on the learning needs of the students and the preferred teaching style of the teachers. Wolf Creek teachers engage in significant pre-assessment before instruction so that new knowledge is presented in a manner which matches the readiness, interests, and learning profiles of the students. Differentiation is not a departure from whole-class instruction. Instead, it complements whole-class instruction with targeted differentiated learning suited to the specific groups of learners. 


Two of the Wolf Creek ELEs deal with assessing the learning of students (Figure 1). Bush (2006) stated that “in a DI model, assessment is ongoing to accommodate flexibility in guiding instruction” (p. 44). Based on the needs of the class, the teacher might provide a variety of different assessment options to students. In some Wolf Creek schools, teachers have developed alternative tests and exams which only focus on essential understandings. Other classrooms feature a variety of different assessments which the students might choose based on their learning profile. In all classrooms, teachers understand the difference between formative and summative assessment. In fact, WCPS administrative procedures clearly outline a differentiated approach to assessment and grading that is discussed in more depth later in this paper. 

How to Differentiate

Differentiation by Learner Profile

Armed with the knowledge that the avenues for differentiation are content, process, and product, the teacher must next choose how to differentiate these three elements. To do so, the teacher must look to their students. One characteristic which can guide differentiation is the students’ learner profiles. Both Gardner (1996) and Sternberg and Zhang (2005) provide useful models for understanding the ways that children learn.  Gardner promoted a theory of multiple intelligences where specific individuals might specialize in one or more domains: musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic interpersonal-intrapersonal. In practice, the teacher should aim to provide students with various learning processes or assessments which would enable them to demonstrate their knowledge of the curriculum using their preferred intelligence. In contrast, Sternberg’s (2005) theory of mental self-government posits the existence of key learning preferences. This theory accounts for students who prefer to learn alone versus in groups, or in structured activities versus open-ended projects, among other learning styles. Sternberg’s study found that “students performed better and were more positively evaluated by teachers when their styles matched” (p. 250). As such, it is important that teacher consider the specific learning styles of their students in the planning stage. Whether teachers build choice into their lessons or merely ensure that a variety of learning preferences will be able to access the classroom content, teachers should differentiate. 

Differentiation by Interest

The concept of student choice provides another opportunity for differentiation. Teachers can also plan lessons geared to the interests of their students. This can be achieved via pre-assessment or through student choice, but in both cases it serves to increase student engagement and empowerment (Tomlinson, 2001, p. 52). Gifted students, in particular, can benefit from interest-based differentiation because they can often learn and process information eight to ten times faster than students with low intelligence scores, and two to three times faster than the average class pace (Kettler and Curliss, 2003). Wolf Creek has made a concerted effort to provide learning enrichments and learning interventions through carefully planned Response to Intervention (RTI). Each school is provided with one PD day each month where teachers identify students struggling with essential outcomes. Interventions vary across the division, but most schools have a dedicated intervention block embedded in their schedule where teachers can work with small groups of students. Students who don’t need an intervention have access to enrichment projects which they choose. This serves to increase engagement with the content from their courses without streaming, tracking, or permanent ability grouping.  

Differentiation by Readiness

As mentioned above, some students are placed in interventions because they were struggling with essential understandings. These students were not ready to learn. Readiness represents the most critical student characteristic for which a teacher might differentiate. Tomlinson (2003) correlated readiness with Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development and declared that, “students should work at a level of "moderate challenge" for learning to occur” (p. 126). Once again, the key to differentiating for readiness is pre-assessment. Teachers must know whether a student has the background knowledge or skills required to learn the content. Wolf Creek Public Schools have instituted STAR Math and STAR Reading assessments as universal benchmarks for reading and math skills. When combined with classroom assessments, these tests provide good background knowledge with which teachers can make informed decisions regarding the readiness of their students. One potential method for differentiating based on student readiness is tiering. Suarez (2007) recommends three levels of tasks: Green-level tasks which meet the standard for proficiency, blue-level tasks which extend familiar skills into more complex work, and black-level challenges which are the most complex and are appropriate for highly advanced and motivated students (p. 61). Suarez advocates for students choosing their tiers, but Richards and Omdal (2007) and Pierce and Adams (2004) prefer to place students within tiers based on the preassessment. The creation of differentiated tiers is an ongoing process in Wolf Creek schools. The structural elements are already in place. Teachers already have the organized essential outcome lists which Suarez advocated for. Collaborative teams meet regularly to develop common assessments and plan interventions and enrichments. In the future, these teams could be leveraged to create differentiated assessments and lessons. 

Differentiated Assessment

Wolf Creek’s assessment procedures were mentioned earlier in this paper. Administrative Procedure 362 (2009) identifies a variety of assessment and grading policies which align closely with Rick Wormeli’s (2006) vision for differentiated assessment. Most WCPS policies are standard fare for school divisions across Alberta. Students should be “assessed on the basis of the learner outcomes,” formative assessment should be assessed differently than summative assessment, and students should not be graded “in reference to how they are progressing relative to their peers” (WCPS, 2009, p. 1). In addition, there are several critical assessment policies of which a teacher new to Wolf Creek should be aware.
First, WCPS believes that “a student’s achievement relative to the learning outcome is the basis for grading; therefore it is not appropriate for work submitted late to be graded downward and then factored into the final grade” (p. 1). This aligns with Wormeli (2006) who believes that “we need to teach and grade in ways that garner hope for students” (p. 18) and “a grade is supposed to provide an accurate, undiluted indicator of a student’s mastery of learning standards (p. 19). Wormeli advocates for the exclusion of all behavioural elements from a grade because “If the grade is distorted by weaving in a student’s personal behavior, character, and work habits, it cannot be used to successfully provide feedback, document progress, or inform our instructional decisions regarding that student” (p. 19). Wormeli’s beliefs are duplicated in WCPS policy: “We believe that a student’s reported learning has to be in reference to the learning outcome; therefore it is not appropriate for ‘behaviour factors’ (effort, participation, etc) to have an impact on a grade reflecting academic achievement; unless they are specifically set out in the program of studies as a learning outcome” (p. 2). Thus WCPS policy aligns with Wormeli’s doctrine: grades should be indicators of academic performance - not signals of behavioural transgressions.

What if a student fails to hand in an assignment at all? In some school divisions, the teacher might assign a zero in an effort to teach the student responsibility. Wolf Creek School Division believes that, “the use of zeros is not appropriate given their ‘distorting’ ability relative to reporting the student’s mastery of the learning outcome” (p. 2). Wormeli (2006) confirms that, “the grade must remain accurate in order to be useful, and it’s not accurate when it is mixed with non-academic factors” (p. 22). This means that it would be inappropriate to assign a zero grade for an assignment simply because a student has not handed it in or completes it more slowly than their peers. The teacher is required to differentiate and accurately assess what the student actually knows. WCPS schools send parents a behavioural rubric to report on each student’s behavioural characteristics. Separating these two elements promotes a grading system which is more accurate and fair.


Teaching classes with increasingly varied student composition is not easy. Traditional whole-class approaches to instruction will not have the same success within academically, behaviourally, and culturally heterogeneous classrooms. To overcome differentiated classrooms, teachers will need differentiated instruction. Teachers will assess students before they begin learning to better understand each student’s learner profile, interests, and academic readiness. Then, teachers will adapt the content, process, and product within their classrooms based on the characteristics of the students whom they are teaching. This approach should not only improve the academic success of struggling students, but also provide motivation and engagement for all students. 



Bush, G. (2006). Key words in instruction: differentiated instruction. School Library Media Activities Monthly, 23(3), 43-45.

Gardner, H. (1996). Probing more deeply into the theory of multiple intelligences. NASSP Bulletin, 80(583), 1-7

Kettler, T., & Curliss, M. (2003). Mathematical acceleration in a mixed-ability classroom. Gifted Child Today, 26(1), 52.

Pierce, R. L., & Adams, C. A. (2004). Tiered lessons: one way to differentiate mathematics instruction. Gifted Child Today, 27(2), 58-65.

Richards, M. R. E., & Omdal, S. N. (2007). Effects of tiered instruction on academic performance in a secondary science course. Journal of Advanced Academics, 18(3), 424-453.

Sternberg, R. J., & Zhang, L. (2005). Styles of thinking as a basis of differentiated instruction. Theory Into Practice, 44(3), 245–253.

Tomlinson, C.A. (2001). How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Tomlinson, C., Brighton, C., Hertberg, H., Callahan, C. M., Moon, T. R., Brimijoin, K., Conover, L.A., & Reynolds T (2003). Differentiating instruction in response to student readiness, interest and learning profile in academically diverse classrooms: a review of literature. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 27(2/3), 119-145.

Wolf Creek Public Schools. (2009). Administrative procedure 362: student assessment, grading, and reporting guidelines. Administrative Procedures Manual. Retrieved from:

Wormeli, Rick. (2006). Accountability: teaching through assessment and feedback, not grading. American Secondary Education. 34 (3), 14-27.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Boys Adrift: Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated and Underachieving Boys

This book arrived at my door earlier this week. I started reading it before supper and didn't put it down until I finished it before bed. The author, Dr. Leonard Sax, is an American psychologist and a practicing family physician. It really resonated with me and my experiences working with boys. It also challenged some of my assumptions - particularly those regarding video games. In the text, he identifies the symptoms of males' lack of motivation and attempts to diagnose the causes. 

The First Factor: Changes at School

Dr. Sax sees several changes at school as particularly negative for boys. First, the kindergarten experience has shifted away from play-based activities towards early literacy skills. Boys thereby begin school with a deficit because of the nature of early childhood language development for males. Second, in an effort to increase scores on various assessments, school curricula has shifted from experience to knowledge, or from kenntnis to wissenschaft. This shift away from experiential learning is particularly demotivating to boys, whose brains can struggle to learn by listening or watching. Third, the teaching of reading has shifted away from finding stories to inspire the mind, towards developing phonics and reading strategies.  What this means is that while boys in fourth grade have better reading skills than they used to, boys by twelfth grade have often stopped reading altogether. Fourth, forms of competition - long successful for motivating boys - have been largely eliminated from the modern classroom. In particular, Dr. Sax advocates for team-based competition within the classroom. The problem with this is that girls don't always respond as positively to competition as boys. 

The Second Factor: Video Games
Next, Dr. Sax identities a variety of problems with video games. First, they provide boys with an easy form of power and control that can often supplant the motivation for power in real life. Second, they are far easier than the sports and activities of real life. This is particularly damaging when you consider the ubiquitous availability of digital pornography. In tandem with video games, pornography offers boys a substitute form of power and substitute form sex - often leading to disengagement from the real world.  

The Third Factor: ADHD Medication
Boys are often put on medication very early in their academic career - largely because they struggle to sit still and listen when they enter school. After taking the medication the boys are often more focused in school, so parents think that the ADHD diagnosis was correct. The problem, according to Sax, is that most people would be more focused if taking ADHD medications. Improved focus while medicated does not confirm an ADHD diagnosis. Dr. Sax found that boys who take this medication show few short term side-effects, but over multiple years these stimulants damage the nucleus accumbens, the part of the brain responsible for translating motivation into action. Strangely enough, this same area of the brain is affected by playing video games. 

The Fourth Factor: Endocrine Disruptors

In 2006, male fish were found with eggs instead of sperm. The water they were drawn from had high levels of endocrine disruptors: substances which mimic the actions of female hormones.  Then, doctors found alligators in Florida with shrivelled testicles and high levels of female hormones. Dr. Sax identifies plastics as the culprit, particularly PET, which leach phthalate. This could not only account for problems with boys, but also also for girls who have begun entering puberty years too early. For boys, the affects of phthalates could lead to delayed puberty.  Moreover, mothers with high levels of phthalates while pregnant often gave birth to boys with incomplete masculinization. 

The Fifth Factor: The Loss of Positive Male Role Models

Dr. Sax also argues that there are very few male spaces where boys can learn from older men. This transition to adulthood is largely forgotten in our culture. In addition, modern depictions of fathers have suffered from the Homer Simpson effect, where dads are portrayed as bumbling, lazy fools. What does it mean to be a man? How will boys receive this message of adult masculinity?

What does Dr. Sax Recommend?

  • Enroll your boy in school a year late.
  • If your boy is really struggling, enroll him in an all-boys school
  • Consider the content, time played, and activities displaced by video games and test them yourself. 
  • Avoid using ADHD medications unless ADHD is diagnosed independently
  • Avoid plastic pacifiers, toys, bottles
  • Avoid heating plastic in the microwave

In a Nutshell

As I said, this book resonated with me. In some ways, members of my own family could be grouped within the Failure to Launch generation. I found this to be an interesting read, and I look forward to learning more about this topic as my own boys grow up. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Vaccinating Against Discrimination

Jane Elliot is an internationally renowned educator because of her work to eliminate discrimination. This video outlines her exercise. Basically, she repeatedly demonstrates that one arbitrary group (blue eye or brown eyes) is superior to another. The superior group is provided with perks and benefits, while the inferior group suffers from exclusion and ridicule.

This lesson was developed for her grade 2 class after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Her goal was to allow her students to truly experience racism, if only for a moment. Some of her methods seem cruel, especially for a group of young students - but wouldn't an authentic discriminatory experience need to be cruel?

Her findings were surprising. Obviously, the students being discriminated against felt bad. They got into fights over it, and they felt negative emotions. More disturbing, however, is the fact that most of the "superior" students improved their scores on spelling tests, while the "inferior" students' scores dropped. The implications of this are far-reaching, especially for teachers.

Ms. Elliot eventually takes her show on the road. She performs the same exercise with adults, albeit in a slightly different manner. Adults, she found, tend to quietly accept discrimination so long as they are not the focus of abuse. This also raises an interesting point for educators. Perhaps the best way to eliminate racism is to teach young people how to stand up against it.

My favourite moment in the video is around 17:70, when the students throw away their discriminatory collars. They are happy, not because of any kind of perk or incentive, but because they are free and equal. The look in their eyes reflects a profound sense of joy that the world will no longer separate and hurt them. Perhaps we could all learn a lesson from them.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Teen Rights and Reasonable Assimilation

Maclean's recently published an article titled "As teens learn their rights, they’re defending them—and winning" which describes a phenomena which has increased significantly in recent years: young individuals demanding that their society accommodate them. In many ways this is a positive thing. Students have developed the requisite communication skills and are advocating for themselves. They are challenging authority using Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They are also becoming active, contributing members of their society. The examples provided in the article include:

  • Toronto students fighting against the use of a breathalyzer at their prom (Unreasonable search and seizure)
  • A 17-year old gaining an exemption from religion classes (Freedom of Religion)
  • One family demanding that transgendered students not "choose their own bathroom" (Privacy)
  • Teens suspected of selling drugs fighting against a search of their person (Unreasonable search)
Most of these examples are relatively benign, but they point to a growing attitude in Canadian society. I noticed it most when I returned home from a one-year teaching assignment in South Korea. I immediately saw how much more independent we are as Canadian citizens. Most of our choices are based on our individual needs, or the needs of our close friends and family. When we vote, we tend to vote for the candidate who will help us directly. In contrast, Koreans tend to consider the needs of the collective when they make decisions. They view themselves of part of a whole, and are willing to adapt in order to assimilate into a stronger society. (Their reason for this might be the fact that they are surrounded by China, Russia, North Korea, and Japan).
I worry that as our World War survivors die, Canadians are becoming less thoughtful about the implications of their actions. Those who lived through the World Wars gave up many of their "rights" in order to benefit society. Rather than ask, "What's in it for me?" they operated as part of a collective that was made stronger by their decisions. I am not advocating for wholesale acceptance of authority, but only for reasonable assimilation. It is reasonable to expect that students will not attend a dance when they are drunk. If a pattern of student drinking is evident, then it is reasonable to test their breath. If you don't want to take a religious class, then it is reasonable to expect that you would not enroll in a religious school. If there is reasonable suspicion that you are selling drugs, then it is reasonable for you to be searched while you are a minor in a public school (although that search should be conducted by police - not school officials). 
The principal of Northern Secondary School in Toronto was being reasonable. Alcohol use was rampant at his school's dances. After police delivered an ineffective school-wide presentation on safe partying, and after cancelling all senior dances except the prom, this principal decided to implement a breath test to prom goers. Rather than cancel cultural events, he asked students to submit to a simple test to see if they were following the school rules. The students saw this as an invasion of their individual rights. 
Educators operate in loco parentis while students are at school. Increasingly, as parents act more like friends and less like parents, teachers have been asked to fulfill a greater social responsibility. This is obvious by the need for a breath test. Either the parents did not teach their children to follow the rules, or they are unable to manage their children's behaviour. Instead, the principal must address this problem at the public level. Perhaps the principal should call the police for each one of these students and they could be charged with public intoxication instead. 
It is not surprising to me that young people rebel against authority. This is not new. Plato attributes the following quotation to Socrates:
“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”
This was almost 2500 years ago. It  is interesting to note that Socrates was speaking about a period of unparalleled political freedom. What followed was the subjugation of Athens by Sparta, then Alexander of Macedon, and finally Rome. Socrates foresaw the end of independent politics in Athens if the citizens did not cooperate with one another to create and maintain a strong society. How will Canada be changed by these young Canadians who fight authority? Time will tell.  

Monday, April 20, 2015

What is Literacy?

My staff discussed "literacy" during our Friday PD session last week. One of our tasks was to write six beliefs about literacy. My beliefs are outlined below:

1. I believe that literacy is a basic term referring to the ability of an individual to use letters to communicate. 

The impetus for our discussion was a collection of articles that Alberta Education has been using to create their own definition of literacy. Currently, the Alberta Ed (2010) definition reads as the following:
"Literacy is acquiring, creating, connecting and communicating meaning in a wide variety of contexts". 

This definition is different from the Government of Alberta vision in 2009:

"Literacy is more than the ability to read and write. It involves the knowledge, skills and abilities—the competencies—that enable individuals to think critically, communicate effectively, deal with change and solve problems in a variety of contexts to achieve their personal goals, develop their knowledge and potential, and participate fully in society."
Both definitions stray from a classical perception of literacy. The root word of literacy comes from Latin word littera/litera meaning "letter." Quite literally, a literate person was "one who knows the letters." I am a bit of a traditionalist with language. I don't like when words are misused. If literacy is co-opted to this new meaning, how will we describe a literate person? What words will we use to identify a person who can read or write?

2. I believe that literacy has become a metaphor for an individual's knowledge of language and cultures. 

The 2009 definition speaks to this new metaphor; literacy is everything. The ability to do anything requires "literacy". The definition is describing intelligence or aptitude - not literacy. I am not saying that various "new literacies" such as technology literacy and art literacy are not important and valued skills for students to develop. Rather, I don't like using a misnomer like "literacy" to describe what the human mind does when it engages with a new tool or attempts to understand artistic impression.

This new concept of literacy has gained credence thanks to philosophers like Paulo Friere who argue against dichotomizing reading and writing from knowing (2005).  Of course, Friere's approach to knowledge was very much that of a counter-culturalist attacking a system which he perceived (rightly) to subjugate large groups of people. My problem with his work is not that he is incorrect, but that he, ironically, has "named" the wrong tool for education: literacy.

3. I believe that Alberta Education's definition of literacy is too broad to be effectively developed in my classroom.

4. I believe that literacy can be improved by identifying its constituent components and teaching these skills - not by promoting "literacy" as some kind of holistic skill.

Most language arts educators are familiar with the whole language-phonics debate. On one side we have education philosophers (like Friere) who argue that language cannot be reduced to parts and must be viewed holistically. On the other, we have language teachers who argue it is more effective to teach students specific concepts. Basically, it is a battle between top-down constructivists and bottom up behaviourists. This topic is worthy of a lengthy discussion, but suffice to say it is easier to teach behaviourally even though we naturally learn constructively. The classroom is not a natural learning environment; it is an artificial construct designed by the teacher. Behaviourist approaches are generally more successful in this type of space. The library or lab is a better space for constructive inquiry.

A similar debate has been fought over math instruction. A new "inquiry" approach to math has promoted critical thinking and problem solving over rote drill and math practice. This has been great for the brightest students in each class, but has led to a whole generation of students who must use a calculator to solve basic facts.

The problem with promoting literacy as this educational catch-all term is that it is too complex to be taught in a classroom. Certainly, language is learned holistically. The brain adds bits here and bits there, eventually forming knowledge. Equally certain, is that a teacher cannot teach in this manner. Teachers need identifiable "skills" that they can focus on. Without this chunking, I worry that language teachers may be heading down the same rabbit hole that their math counterparts fell into several years ago.

5. I believe that students must learn how to read and write in a variety of contexts.

6. I believe that basic reading and writing skills (such as capitalization, sentence building, grammar, and punctuation) must be practised and assessed in all classes - not just Language Arts class.

I agree with Alberta Education's cross-curricular approach to literacy. In an ideal world, all core curriculum would include outcomes related to reading and writing for that particular subject. Outcome-driven assessment has forced most science and math educators to abandon any type of assessment based on the quality of a student's written work. This must be stopped. Students must see and understand that the rules of language are present in all classrooms. This could be accomplished in a variety of ways. Our school could create a list of acceptable standards for written work which could be posted in every room (eg: All sentences must begin with a capital letter. All sentences require end punctuation.) Or, each department could sit down and identify the key literacy outcomes that they will assess in the classrooms, immediately giving these outcomes "currency" in the minds of (some of) their students. Even better, Alberta Education could mandate these competencies. The key is that students must begin to understand that language is everywhere, but that each context uses it somewhat differently.


Alberta Education (2010). Literacy First: A Plan for Action

Freire, P. (2005). FIRST LETTER: Reading the World/reading the word. (pp. 31-47) Perseus Books, LLC.

Government of Alberta. (2009). Living Literacy: A Literacy Framework for Alberta’s Next Generation Economy.

Monday, March 9, 2015

A String of Pearls: Reforming Enrichment Block at ELJHS

As I have discussed in earlier posts, my school has undergone a significant reform this school year. We have, among other things, implemented a school-wide Intervention/Enrichment program. Some students are placed in interventions and the remainder select from available enrichments. To prepare for this, we met as grade-level subject groups (ie: Math 9, ELA 7) last year to identify essential outcomes, scope and sequence, and develop common assessments. We approached this complex task with a Ready-Fire-Aim mindset, since we did not know what our final product should look like.

As humanities teachers we struggled with this, much as we had previously struggled with creating common course outlines and common exams. We naturally resist attempts to standardize our teaching practice, as that tends to take the humanity out of humanities. Moreover, the ELA curriculum is not designed to utilize a common scope and sequence. It is primarily skill-based, and does not lend itself to easy unit-based teaching. Structurally, we met as grade-level subject groups but we now place students in interventions as one large "humanities" group. This means that much of our work last year, while a valuable analysis of our essential outcomes, has not been used to select and develop our interventions and enrichments. Finally, we did not know how many interventions we would be running, so we did not know how many common assessments to develop. All of this has led to a situation this year where we wish we could go back and plan for our tutorial time again.

As we contemplate the way forward, I think it is beneficial to start with a clearer plan of what we hope to accomplish. Last year we did not know what kind of sandbox we would be playing in; now we do. Rather than Ready-Fire-Aim, it is time for a Ready-Aim-Fire approach. In his recent essay, Noam Chomsky (2014) described two models of education:

"One image of education was that it should be like a vessel that is filled with, say, water. That’s what we call these days “teaching to test”: you pour water into the vessel and then the vessel returns the water. But it’s a pretty leaky vessel, as all of us who went through school experienced, since you could memorize something for an exam that you had no interest in to pass an exam and a week later you forgot what the course was about. The vessel model these days is called “no child left behind,” “teaching to test,” “race to top,” whatever the name may be, and similar things in universities. Enlightenment thinkers opposed that model."

"The other model was described as laying out a string along which the student progresses in his or her own way under his or her own initiative, maybe moving the string, maybe deciding to go somewhere else, maybe raising questions. Laying out the string means imposing some degree of structure. So an educational program, whatever it may be, a course on physics or something, isn’t going to be just anything goes; it has a certain structure. But the goal of it is for the student to acquire the capacity to inquire, to create, to innovate, to challenge—that’s education."

I would like to implement an approach that is much closer to the second method described by Chomsky. Basically, our humanities group would sit down and decide upon seven common assessments which would assess the essential outcomes of language arts using social studies content (when possible). Based on the results of this assessment, students would be placed in interventions or select an enrichment. Every student in would complete these keystone assessments, and they would become the cornerstones of our gradebooks. This allows for an element of standardization without sacrificing the unique learning experiences being offered in each humanities classroom.

This could happen in a variety of ways. I have provided one possible method describing how this might work in the image below:

The common assessments are represented by the white circles, the interventions are the lower boxes, and the enrichments could be the upper boxes. This means that a student would have a variety of options at their grade level. If they do not show success through the common assessment then they would be placed in the corresponding intervention. If they demonstrated satisfactory skills in the assessment and would like to complete an enriched project using these skills, then they might sign up for the corresponding enrichment project. If they would prefer to have more time to complete their classwork, they might sign up for grade-level guided help.

Essentially, each common assessment would represent one pearl on the string. This pearl would evaluate a collection of essential outcomes grouped together in a single cross-curricular project. Success with each pearl could be the criteria for placement in interventions, enrichments, or guided help.

Even with this possible plan, I still have several questions:
  • Where does Social Studies assessment come into play here? Will we utilize our common assessments in Social Studies as well, since many of them will be driven by social studies concepts?
  • How will we meet the needs of students whose skills are so low that they will not benefit from the grade-level intervention?
  • How might we promote enrichment opportunities as enjoyable projects rather than extra work?
  • How might we promote our interventions as positive, when the lack of student choice for them will lead to students thinking of them in a negative manner?
  • Would a "Student Convention" at the start of the year be a good way to introduce students to the various types of interventions, enrichments, and guided help options?

Chomsky, N. (2014). How America's Great University System Is Being Destroyed. Alternet.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Organize Your Units

One of the speakers at the Advancing Adolescent Reading Initiative passed along this little gem of an idea which has really served to anchor ideas for my students: the Unit Organizer. I've used the concept extensively on my course website. It marked a shift in my unit planning. Where previously I might spend a few days planning a unit and then never really look at my plan, now I refer back to my plan daily because the plan was created for the right audience - my students!

The concept of a unit organizer originates from the USA. The goal is to organize your unit so that a student can make sense of it. My organizers have five sections. Section A serves to explain the scope of the unit within my year plan. Which unit came before? Which unit comes after? What big question guides the entire course?

Section B provides a general schedule for the unit. I have found this to be most effective for providing students with advance warning of tests and quizzes as well as the duration of class time available for projects. (ie: the Position Paper in this unit will comprise 4 class periods).

Section C lists the unit questions outlined in the curriculum. I adjust these questions somewhat to make them student-friendly. I also add questions which I feel are critical cognitive steps to learning the skills or knowledge of the unit. 

Section D provides hyperlinks to the major assignments for the unit. I include both formative and summative assessments in this location. Students can preview future assignments or even get started early if they want. We write a position paper at the end of each unit, so many students check out the topic and then begin collecting research over the course of the unit. 

Section E is where the magic happens. When the unit begins, this section is blank (except for the grey bubble in the centre). We spend 5-10 minutes recording our prior knowledge in the space provided. Typically, this involves attempting to answer each one of the unit questions but sometimes I might poll the students for specific information. (In this unit, I asked the students to write down the names of all Canadian political parties). When we review for tests, we create a concept map with all of the critical information we need to know. At the beginning of the year, I lead the class and they copy my template into their own organizers. Midway through the year, I provide them with boxes and stems which they fill out on their own or in pods. The goal is that by May/June the students will be crafting their own organizers and using them as a studying tool. It's always interesting when the students look back at their prior knowledge and contemplate just how much they have learned...

The digital document is a Google Drawing, which allows students to easily move the pieces of the organizer around. I have also printed the pages out and had the students write with pencil - but the final product suffers and is less portable (many students read the organizer on their phones when they study). I have created a companion page for myself called a Unit Planner which lists the information that is really valuable for me - differentiation strategies, lesson breakdowns, etc. Like my unit plans of old, I seldom refer back to it until next year.

The unit organizer is a great tool. It is a piece of planning which you can refer to regularly, and which really helps students organize the important concepts in their heads. Want to try it out? Make a copy of my blank Unit Organizer and try it with your own class.