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Working with Diverse Students

Diversity is a broad term that includes students who are at-risk, students who are culturally and/or linguistically diverse, students identified for special education services, and students receiving gifted education services. I have enjoyed working with the broad range of students in my diverse student teaching classroom.

The elementary school where I student teach has a student body in which 53% of students receive free or reduced lunch. Thirteen percent of the student body receive special education services, and 1% are identified as talented and gifted. The most common ethnicities are African-American (53%), Caucasian (29%), Hispanic (9%), and Asian/Pacific Islander (4%). The school division did not provide schoolwide data on the number of students who speak English as a Second Language, but English is a second language for two out of 22 of the students in the classroom where I student teach.

The demographics in my student teaching classroom are somewhat different than in the school at large. Our classroom has three students who receive talented and gifted services, two students who receive speech services, and one student who is in the process of being evaluated for special education services. (Another student receives some additional interventions beyond the regular classroom instruction, but since he has responded well to the interventions he is not currently being evaluated for special education services.) Our classroom is roughly half African-American and half Caucasian, with two students who identify as Asian/Pacific Islander and one student who identifies as Hispanic. The free and reduced lunch data is kept confidential so I am not certain of the socioeconomic demographics within the classroom. Many of the students in our classroom and in the school have parents who serve in the military, and in general our students seem to have a high degree of support and structure at home, with most students attending school regularly and turning in their homework regularly.

Differentiation is important in the classroom where I student teach, not only because of the students' diversity but also because it is a K-1 multiage classroom in which half the students are kindergarteners and the other half are first graders. This means that there is a wide range of abilities, from a kindergartener with special needs to a gifted first grader who reads at a third-grade level. This means that in all my lessons I must think about how to differentiate so that the needs of weaker and stronger students are met in addition to the needs of the mid-range students. In reading, the use of small reading groups organized by ability level allows a high degree of differentiation and personal attention. In the other three content areas (math, science, and social studies), I differentiate by planning three sets of questions ahead of time -- one set for mid-level students, one set for weaker students, and one set for advanced students. I also often provide additional help to struggling students during their independent work. I sometimes put students in mixed-ability groups during group activities so that stronger students can act as mentors to students who need extra help. I find that one of the benefits of a multi-age class is that the first graders (who we call "experienced students") often naturally fall into a mentoring role with the kindergarteners (who we call "beginners"). This benefits both parties; the kindergarteners are able to receive help from knowledgeable peers and the first graders build self-esteem by acting as role models.

My William & Mary course on students with exceptionalities has made me more knowledgeable about the characteristics of students who are gifted and of students who have special needs, whether those special needs are due to physical/orthopedic impairment, learning disability, an autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disability, AD/HD, etc. Learning about students with special needs has made me not only a more caring and empathetic teacher but also a more effective teacher because I have learned about the best instructional and behavior management strategies for responding to students with autism, learning disabilities, AD/HD, etc.

How Students Differ in Their Approaches to Learning:

  • Students have different personalities and different preferred learning styles (such as auditory, visual, or kinesthetic), and as a teacher I try to take this into account in my lessons by teaching a concept in multiple ways (such as explaining a concept verbally, drawing a picture to represent the concept, and having children use hand-held manipulatives to practice the concept). Personal interest has led me to read a lot about Myers-Briggs personality typing, which classifies people into 16 different personality types based on the dimensions of introvert vs. extrovert, intuitive vs. sensor, feeler vs. thinker, and perceiver vs. judger. I read the book Nurture by Nature about the different personality types in young children, and it gave suggestions on the most effective ways to teach and nurture extroverts vs. introverts (Do they prefer working in groups or alone?), sensors vs. intuitives (Do they prefer hands-on learning or conceptual learning?), thinkers vs. feelers (Is building a relationship with the teacher important to them?), and judgers vs. perceivers (Do they prefer a high level of structure or do they prefer unstructured, open-ended activities?). When I'm working in small groups or one-on-one with children, I try to respond to their personality type. For example, a child who is strong on the intuition scale would enjoy a debate or hypothetical discussion about a topic, while a sensor would respond better to the use of manipulatives or visuals to help understand a concept. A child who is strong in introversion may need the teacher to draw them out during a discussion, while a child who is strong in extroversion may need gentle reminders to listen to their peers in addition to sharing.

  • When I'm planning a whole group lesson, I think about representing a concept in as many ways as possible. For example, when I taught a whole group math lesson on addition story problems, I wrote out each problem as a sentence, then converted the verbal sentence into a mathematical equation (e.g., going from "Ilissa had 3 necklaces and Arielle gave her 6 more. How many did she have in all?" to "3 + 6 = ?"). Next I demonstrated the problem with manipulatives (such as blocks or marbles), and finally I demonstrated the problem with pictures. This benefits visual learners (pictures), auditory learners (hearing the story problem read and discussed), and kinesthetic learners (using tangible manipulatives to solve the problem).

  • Another example is a presidential election lesson that I taught for social studies. The lesson was broken up into very different 15-minute activities designed to appeal to different types of learners. The first segment involved showing large color pictures of the candidates and their running mates as well as reading a poem about elections several times as a group to appeal to both auditory and visual learners. The next segment was an interactive read aloud (Duck for President) to appeal to auditory learners. I followed this with an activity in which the children could move around the classroom for kinesthetic learning (I read out two choices such as math or reading, Valentine's Day or Halloween, etc., and children "voted" by moving to one side of the room or another). For the third segment, I pulled out two puppets ("Dagwood the Dog" and "Bernadine the Bunny") and did my best silly voices so that the two puppets could implore the students to vote for their side in the coming election; students then completed ballots I had made for them and turned in their votes in the "ballot box" which was decorated with pictures of dogs and rabbits (auditory and visual learning). I concluded the lesson with a journal prompt so that students could color and write about what they had learned (visual and kinesthetic).

Examples of Differentiation in the Classroom:

  • In the math lesson on addition story problems described above, I used differentiation by creating three different math worksheets of varying difficulty -- one with extensive scaffolding built in for struggling students, one with minimal scaffolding for average students, and one with more difficult problems for advanced students.
  • Another way that I achieve differentiation in the classroom is through small reading groups organized by ability level. I meet with each of five reading groups three to four times a week with lessons that are tailored to their specific reading level. While I meet with a group, the rest of the students work at literacy stations that are set up around the classroom. In the photograph below, I am giving a picture walk of a new book for six students at the semicircular reading table. Students who are not part of that reading group are working independently at literacy stations.

How I Collaborated to Meet Students' Diverse Needs:

  • I worked closely with my cooperating teacher and with the William & Mary professor from my class on exceptionalities in order to craft the intervention lesson plan for two struggling readers in my student teaching classroom. Asking their opinions, brainstorming, and reviewing data with them allowed me to create a more effective intervention lesson than I would have accomplished working alone.
  • I shadowed two special education teachers (one for Grades K-1 and one for Grade 3) at my school and also interviewed one of the special education teachers. This allowed me to learn more about students with special needs and to learn more about the role of special education teachers and how they work together with classroom teachers to meet students' needs. I believe that this knowledge made me a more effective student teacher.

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In addition to the artifacts and examples given above, the William & Mary course on students with exceptionalities involved additional assignments in which we learned more about the various exceptionalities and also got hands-on experience in the schools working with students with exceptionalities:

  • I analyzed the IEP of an anonymous student, gathering the most pertinent information about the child's accommodations and remediation strategies in order to create the following IEP-at-a-Glance. (The student's name and identifying information have been removed for confidentiality purposes.)
  • I observed an anonymous student suspected of having behavioral and/or academic special needs. (The name in this write-up was changed to protect confidentiality.) After reflecting upon this observation I developed a special intervention for the student.
  • I contributed to an electronic reference notebook created by William & Mary students on the characteristics of and classroom adaptations/modifications for students with disabilities and exceptionalities. My area of expertise was students who are linguistically/culturally diverse. I researched online resources about this exceptionality and summarized and posted two examples to our classroom website. The collaborative website is available here. My contributions to the website are here and here.