Differentiated Instruction: We Wanted to Improve Learning for our Students and Improved Teacher P. D. in the Process!

Good differentiated instructional practices for students transfer to good professional development for teachers.

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The same components for good differentiated instruction (D.I.) for students also bring great rewards for teacher professional development. Know and build upon a person’s:

    • interests
    • learning profiles or learning styles
    • readiness levels for what is to be learned

As part of our school’s self-study for re-accreditation, our teachers decided that one of the big systemic changes we needed to tackle was to “explore, refine and update our approaches for teaching a wide range of academically diverse learners, students facing learning challenges as well as those in need of academic enrichment.”

Using the design thinking process, a teacher-led task force began asking all teachers, “How might we more successfully differentiate our instruction?” The responses we received surprised us. As a faculty, we didn’t know enough about D.I. to be able to articulate what we were doing well or how we could improve things. So, we decided to send inquiries to other schools to see if they could recommend teachers or programs that were exemplary in the area of D.I. Through that process, we came across the name of a consultant who had helped other schools in the specific area of differentiated instruction, Amy Symons Burke.

Our teacher task force invited Amy to visit our school in May 2015. (She lives a couple of hours away.) We wanted to see if her skills would be a good match for the needs of our teachers and school. The answer was yes. Amy collaborated with our teacher task force to come up with a plan for faculty professional development which included the following components:

      1. A full faculty workshop in the fall of 2015 to cover D.I. basics and to introduce two methodologies that we would all focus on for the year.
      2. Assist the teacher task force in scheduling visits to schools where teachers were doing D.I. well, also planned for the fall of 2015.

And then Amy proposed something that we hadn’t anticipated. She asked if any of our teachers might be interested in working with her one-on-one over the summer, before we launched our fall workshop and school visits. She said she had experienced success in coaching individual teachers during their summer “down time” and thought it was a good model to consider. We sent an email to the whole faculty to inquire about interest and were pleasantly surprised to get responses from seven of our twenty eight teachers.

Amy returned to our school at the beginning of the summer to have face-to-face meetings with each of the seven teachers. She wanted to build relationships, find out their interests, inquire about their learning styles, and determine their readiness levels for differentiated instruction by asking them what they were already doing. The remaining sessions were done in one hour blocks using Google Hangouts or Skype. These continued through the summer and into the new school year. Each teacher decided the timeline that would work best for them.

The results were phenomenal. All seven teachers were extremely pleased with this form of professional development.

      1. It was specifically tailored to their unique interests, learning styles, and readiness levels.
      2. They could be in the comfort of their own homes while “meeting” virtually with Amy.
      3. The topics they tackled covered a wide range of interests
        • preassessment of students
        • grouping students for different needs
        • offering varied levels of work to reach all students in the class
        • providing menus of options for projects
        • exploring the 3P assessment model
        • addressing the learning needs of boys vs. girls. (See video at the beginning.)

What Amy had done, was used good D.I. practices and methodologies to provide differentiated professional development for our teachers. The model was so successful that we are offering the same opportunity to other teachers this coming summer. 

AND, in the meantime, the "original seven" are gearing up to mentor their colleagues this year in the area of D.I., doing for other teachers what Amy modeled with them


Bank Street Teacher's College in New York Comes to Santa Rosa, California

In a similar model, we contracted with someone from New York’s renowned Bank Street Teacher’s College, Susie Rolander. She lives in New York and teaches a graduate course in Early Literacy at Bank Street. Susie travels to Santa Rosa every couple of months on personal business. In an effort to bolster our K-2 language arts program, we hired her to meet with six of our primary teachers for full day sessions, once a quarter; a total of four times a year. We are currently in our second year. We meet on a Monday and hire subs to release teachers for the day. Through email and Google Hangouts, we connect with her virtually in between sessions when needed. Her level of expertise, the ongoing professional development sessions, and the small group size, allows us to individualize the trainings for each teacher and grade level. The positive differences we have observed in student learning and teacher development have been amazing.

Teachers working with Bank Street College professor, Susie Rolander

Again, the idea of differentiating for the needs of individuals or small groups of teachers has so many benefits. But what seems to transform it into sustainable change, is that the learning is not a “one and done” model. Instead, there are ongoing sessions to help each teacher at their own level of readiness, building on their strengths and learning styles. And technology allows us to connect with experts who may not be in our own backyards. Attending large conferences and workshops can be beneficial at times, but rarely do they meet the needs of individual teachers and/or their unique school environments. Differentiated professional learning has been an excellent model for us.

Amy, Melissa, Molly, and Patti - on behalf of Sonoma Country Day School :)  

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Photo of John Faig

Whenever I'm in charge of PD, I treat my time with teachers as if I'm running a class at an interview. I make it interactive and differentiated. I do little lecturing and instead do projects, design thinking, museum walks, etc. Oh, and I ask for teacher input before the PD day.

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