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Every student has unique needs, but with teacher adaptability and evolving edtech tools, supporting all students is possible.

4 lessons I’ve learned about supporting all students

Every student has unique needs, but with teacher adaptability and evolving edtech tools, we can support all students

Over the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with many innovative student teachers and have taken advantage of several blended learning instructional opportunities in my building. These experiences have been the best thing to happen to my teaching practice.

Between the small group instruction and differentiation used in the special education classroom that translated perfectly to my inclusion and general ed classes, the new technologies I’ve learned about from my co-teachers, and my own constant pursuit of professional learning, I have been mindful that even as a 32-year classroom veteran, I must continue to evolve my approach and incorporate new strategies so I can be at my best for all learners.

The challenges we’ve faced as a profession throughout the pandemic have validated my thinking and reinforced the importance of being adaptive and always learning as an educator. With the new approaches I’ve implemented and with new technology, I’ve seen students achieve some marvelous things.

These are four of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about supporting all students:

I’ve learned…to always learn

I simply cannot get enough of new teaching ideas and technologies. The student teachers I have worked with have taught me so much about how to enhance our blended learning goals and, from teaching in an inclusion environment, I learned how well kids respond to well-designed anchor charts and other visual aids. For example, I now make sure each student in my general classroom receives a math portfolio and anchor charts, accompanied by a student data notebook in which they can reflect on their progress, set goals, and monitor their growth. I can create a dialogue with them that highlights their progress and encourages additional growth.

I also love learning and presenting at conferences, such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM),  Rhode Island Math Teachers Association (RIMTA) and the Association of Teachers of Mathematics in New England (ATMNE). I always search out ways to present math vocabulary to my students in innovative ways at these events, and identify what I can take back to share with my students.

As I began to teach math vocabulary in context using math literature, the students came alive to learning.  Every Friday, we share a reflection on our math and reading learning. Our Math Literature lessons were constantly a favorite!  I remember one student standing up and saying, “Mrs. Barbour, every time you read a book, we know exactly what you’re talking about and how to do that. You are making math magical.” It has expanded to where I’m making correlation charts for LETRS training, keeping in mind the Science of Reading principles and how they can be applied to teaching mathematics.

Some of the most valuable discoveries I’ve made at conferences are the edtech tools I’ve encountered. Many of these apps became lifesavers during the pandemic, as we engaged in remote instruction for the first time. i-Ready and Seesaw, which became standouts during my online teaching last year, are two such tools I used as my lifelines!

Regardless of the setting, context, or content, I’ve found that when I keep learning, my students’ learning gets better and better.

I’ve learned the power of parent-teacher communication

Engaging parents and getting their buy-in are key factors for any teacher, even more so during the pandemic, and Seesaw has been a transformative tool for me during this period. Every classroom in our school used the app last year, and whether kids are learning in-person or at home, they can record their work, ensure it is shared with both parent and teacher, and use it to facilitate better discussions. My elementary students had an amazing way of expressing themselves using this tool and really got to “show off” for me and their parents. By the time we entered our first lockdown last year, we were fully up and running with Seesaw―and as a result, we experienced no interruptions to our parent communication or our learning.

This paid off in a major way, as parents were my key allies in ensuring students stayed on top of their assignments during remote learning. I even became friends with some parents during this process, texting back and forth to make sure assignments and meeting times were clear.

I became particularly close to one set of parents whose child suffers from a form of selective mutism that creates such high levels of anxiety that she’d often find herself unable to speak in the classroom. The shift to unfamiliar distance learning naturally led her parents to wonder if she’d be able to succeed in this environment. By using technology that enabled her to share thoughts in writing or sometimes pre-record herself, without the pressure of speaking aloud to the class, my student had an opportunity to fully express herself for the first time. Peer reinforcement from our classroom community and the support of her parents, who were directly involved in my efforts during this time, helped her develop an all-new enthusiasm for school. This became not only one of my best experiences during the pandemic, but one of the most fulfilling successes of my career.

I’ve learned how to differentiate for all students

The ability to personalize instruction is critical for supporting our students with special needs, as in the example above, but it’s also important that we do this for all students. Every learner has something unique we can address when we have the right information and approach. It was in this area, in particular, where i-Ready was such an invaluable piece of my practice over the course of the pandemic. Simply put, it delivered student assessment data to me on a ‘silver platter,’ so I could see in a timely fashion how students were progressing, identify areas of struggle, and confidently develop an instructional plan.

Small group instruction is something I truly value with my third graders and differentiation plays a key role. i-Ready provides me with the data I need to form productive instructional groupings and make the most out of this strategy. With my RTI groups, for example, I use the next steps indicated in each student’s i-Ready assessment and then I plan my instruction so I can fill in the existing skill and knowledge gaps to move the entire group forward. I’ve found such a good balance with it that my principal has encouraged other teachers to try the same approach.

Differentiation is taking on a whole new context this year, with kids returning to the in-person classroom full-time at even more levels of proficiency than in a typical year. We have students beginning second grade who haven’t been in a classroom since the middle of kindergarten, just to name one example, so we are seeing a wide range of needs for which we need to account. I’m encouraged that online learning was effective for many students, and further encouraged to have instructional tools that will help us teachers support our students through another unique year.

I’ve learned that anything is possible when you have the right approach

Even though I know it’s important to constantly learn new things, the past year exceeded my expectations as a teacher and a person. I believe in always going above and beyond for my students to personalize according to their needs and make sure each student has the best possible instruction. However, it was hard not to have any doubts about how successful I could be given the novel challenges we’ve all been encountering.  I was fortunate to have the right tools to support my approach.

I’ve already touched on the story of my student with selective mutism. It’s one that will stay with me forever. She’s unique from any student I’ve had before, with anxiety so severe that she’d freeze in the classroom even when she knows the answer―which she quite often does. Getting to know her and her parents personally at the beginning of the year was helpful in establishing an approach that would slowly increase her comfort level.

In our online math small group, she slowly began to open up and thrive. As online instruction continued, she consistently completed her i-Ready math lessons and showed tremendous growth on the mid-year assessment. Using Seesaw, we were able to post her model work so classmates could comment and use it as a benchmark to make their own assignments top-notch. This pushed her to become one of our top student influencers by using math discourse that led other students to express mathematical thinking. The way I was able to use these different assessment and instructional tools in remote learning showed me how much was possible that I’d never imagined.

This student’s success moved me so much that I was inspired to nominate her for the Rhode Island Mathematics Teachers Association “Outstanding Math Student of the Year Award,” given out to students who have overcome obstacles to be successful in mathematics. She now wants to become a math teacher herself when she grows up and it brings a smile and tear to my face knowing that she is happy and thriving.

If we as teachers keep learning, continue to work toward meeting every student’s unique needs, and keep ourselves open to new tools that will help support our goals, there’s no limit to what is possible.

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