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Change Your Style

Classroom challenges can call for adjustments and new ideas

by Angela Harvey

W hen it comes to teaching, practice makes perfect—almost. But working in a learning environment means teachers often make discoveries right along with their students. And sometimes teachers learn things that require them to adjust their teaching style to meet a student’s unique needs. When that time comes, patience is key.
“Sometimes, even through our best efforts, we don’t get any results. But if you try multiple approaches, eventually you will find the best way,” says Anne Tenaglia, retired teacher and author of It Wasn’t in the Lesson Plan: Easy Lessons Learned the Hard Way.

Here, three NEA members share strategies they use to help students learn even in the face of challenges.

Improving Low Test Scores
For years, students at Totem Middle School in Kent, Wash., have struggled to meet state standards on tests. Last year, almost 72 percent of eighth-grade students failed to meet the state standards in science—a rate that is considerably higher than other schools in the district and the state. To help students improve, eighth-grade science teacher Stacy Lawler uses pre- and post-assessments. The assessments give her a better understanding of her students’ grasp of the concepts at every stage of the learning process.

“All throughout the lesson I can put interventions and strategies in place for each individual student based upon where they are struggling and where they need to be challenged more,” Lawler says.

Intentional grouping and differentiating assignments have made a difference in the performance of students in Lawler’s classroom. She often makes two versions of an assignment. One provides extra practice for students who have shown a lack of comprehension and need to revisit concepts. Another version goes to students who are progressing well and can handle work that is more in-depth. Students are placed into several small groups based on similar progress levels, and Lawler circulates among the groups, offering help as needed.

“It enables me to challenge students on both sides of the spectrum without it looking different in the classroom,” Lawler says. “Everybody is working where they are at, and you can’t tell which students are getting the extra help.”

Working with English Language Learners


English language learners comprise 45 percent of students at Paradise Elementary School in Las Vegas, Nev., where Ruth Devlin (pictured left) teaches second grade. Devlin is monolingual and says using a variety of visual aids, physical movements, and hands-on activities are keys to communicating with her students as they learn a second language. 

“Regardless of a student’s English language ability, each one has the capacity to use their cognitive abilities to think things through. Language learners just need more clues,” Devlin says.

To differentiate her instruction, Devlin must know how much English her students understand. She adjusts her vocabulary and rate of speech to meet their needs—no easy task with her students’ varying language skills.
Like Lawler, Devlin frequently uses intentional partnering of students. She pairs students according to language ability so they can solve problems together and help each other. She can also assign pairs to work on specific skills.

“Not all the kids leave my classroom reading and writing on grade level because learning a language takes a long time, but I track their progress and I know they’re all much further along than where we started.”

Connecting with Alternative Students
High school students in the Fox School District in Arnold, Mo., who perform poorly in class or are at risk of dropping out attend Bridges Alternative High School. There, small class sizes allow students to get the extra help they need to catch up and earn a diploma.

Bridges business teacher Mike Evans has been an eyewitness to the school’s success, which has led to a 2 percent reduction in the district’s dropout rate. He says it’s important for him to understand the issues his students face outside the classroom.

“Most students are coming from adverse home situations or are dealing with emotional issues,” he says. “It’s important to bond with the kids to let them know that I really do care and I want them to succeed.”

Evans says his first year at the school was difficult, but over time he found his footing. It helped to throw out his old list of rules and focus more on respect. “If you respect the kids and they respect you, together you can accomplish your tasks. If there’s not that mutual respect, they will not listen to you and probably won’t learn anything.”

Evans seeks to earn respect by treating his students like adults. For example, he holds private meetings with students who exhibit behavior problems in the classroom. Evans spells out the changes he wants to see and asks the student what he as the teacher can do differently to help.

“I have to communicate with the students to let them know that I’m there because I care and I want to work with them,” Evans says. “Once respect and trust is established, we can overcome any hurdle in the classroom.”


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