By Dr. Kim Ehrhardt, Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment
During the past several years we have been talking more intentionally in the district about focusing more explicit efforts toward increasing academic rigor. We want more students taking advanced placement courses, adhering to college prep curricula, enrolling in more math and science classes, and being career and college ready. Moreover, students, their teachers, and school leaders are having their collective feet held to the fire of high stakes accountability.
We know that traditional remediation efforts that impose interventions after students have failed and are not very productive; however, more productive efforts occur when we anticipate areas of difficulty before students approach new material. Part of that anticipation includes teachers’ awareness of their students by knowing which students have identified learning disabilities, which have limited English proficiency, or how students have previously performed in class. Teachers should also be aware of which concepts and ideas have been difficult for classes in the past to master and where student misperceptions or confusion have been particularly strong. This is the premise behind the Universal Design for Learning framework we have been recently promoting.
Struggling students often need help organizing information in a coherent fashion to show how different parts relate to the whole and other kinds of relationships and connections. Graphic organizers can help, provided that teachers don’t use them like worksheets—they need to be instructional in nature. The point of the graphic organizer is to show kids how the facts are connected so they can organize them in their heads. Organizing information into a mental model or framework is the first stage of rigorous learning, and if we don’t get that part right, it’s a lot harder to go further with rigor. Ultimately, the goal is to get kids spontaneously creating their own graphic organizers—not on paper, but in their heads.
A graphic organizer used in advance of a lesson to give students a heads up about key vocabulary, concepts, and skills that they will encounter in a unit of study is what makes this strategy so powerful for kids. Also, effective use of this tool helps students become familiar with the relationships of upcoming information they will encounter and foreshadows future expectations for student learning. For teachers, this practice helps us to clarify in our own minds what kind of work that is necessary to activate students’ prior knowledge in given area and to fill gaps for other students. This pre-teaching strategy is a “must have” that many high performing teachers have routinely employed in our district.
During a lesson, teachers should be constantly collecting information about students’ learning through observations and other formative assessments, assignments, quizzes, tests, class participation, curriculum-based assessments and other behavioral cues. The important quality of a master teacher understanding what needs attention. The feedback we collect along the way from students gives us valuable “real time” information about how kids are progressing with the learning and where they are struggling. A common mistake we sometimes make is that we see every struggling student as needing the same intervention without making the distinction between a productive struggle and a destructive struggle.