A Math Teacher Tackles Differentiated Instruction

This is Ryan Holmes. He seems to be eating a burrito. Ah, FB. I got to know Ryan when he was a MATCH Corps tutor. He went on to take a 2-year stint doing parent organizing for the 14 Boston charter schools, where he was fantastically effective. Now he teaches middle school math at Excel Charter School in East Boston, one of the best in the nation. Also, he has an uncannily accurate jump shot from about 17 feet.

In October, I blogged about Mike Schmoker's view of "differentiated instruction." Schmoker opposes it.

In every case, it seemed to complicate teachers’ work, requiring them to procure and assemble multiple sets of materials. I saw frustrated teachers trying to provide materials that matched each student’s or group’s presumed ability level, interest, preferred “modality” and learning style.

So I asked Ryan how he approaches "differentiated instruction." He writes:

1.) All our teachers have a tutoring day once per week where they are supposed to pull kids from what is essentially a study hall at the end of the day for us. (We call it "focus"). Mine's Monday. So I know I pretty much have access to any kid(s) who I feel feel is struggling. It's 40 minutes long.

How this actually plays out depends on where I am in a unit. If we're approaching an exam, I may also grab Wednesday. Or I may not do this extra help at all if we just started the unit. It probably average 1.5 tutorials per week over the course of the year.

We also have to do these A-Net reaction plans. Based upon A-Net data, we specifically indicate a plan to tutor two different dates and times, two different groups of three or four kids, and two objectives.

A-Net is a great organization. They help teachers get data every 6-weeks on how their kids are progressing. These interim tests predict how kids will do on their high-stakes MCAS exams. They started by helping charters. Now they're helping lots of turnaround schools, too. And traditional schools.

I gotta take you on a short detour. Laury Coolidge is A-Net's chairman. He helped it launch back in 2005. Laury and his wife Nancy are part of this small, wonderful "old guard" of Bostonians who helped create the charter school movement in Massachusetts. They've worked hard beginning in the early 1990s to change education policy. If you work at a Boston charter school, you partially owe the opportunity to folks like them.

You hear "Coolidge" up here and you think "stuffy old dude." Wrong! Check this out:

They spot him two or three mornings a week from late November until mid-May, a wiry figure busily working his way along the rocky Boston banks of the Charles River, wisps of hair blowing from beneath his yellow hard hat.

Sometimes he's wielding a chain saw. Other times he labors behind an ornery gasoline-powered brush cutter. His '89 Ford Taurus station wagon, never far away, stands ready to gather tree limbs, brush, driftwood, waterlogged blankets, and whatever else he removes from the edge of the water and hauls onto the Esplanade.

He's Lawrence Coolidge, that's who. He's 64 years old, lives on Beacon Hill, is admittedly wealthier than most Americans, and is a member of the Coolidge clan that arrived in Boston in 1630.

He earns his living by managing people's money, but before he dons his bow tie and walks to his downtown office, he often spends 90 minutes or so working up a considerable sweat on the banks of the Charles.

At the MDC, where administrators say that budget cuts prevent the agency from tending the Esplanade as it once did, Coolidge has practically achieved the status of mythical figure. Brian Kerins, the MDC's deputy commissioner of operations, says he himself informs each new commissioner ("And there have been 17 in the 28 years I've been here") not to be alarmed by the sight of a solitary soul jungle-hacking along the Charles while sidestepping rats.

"He's one of a kind," Kerins says. While groups of volunteers sometimes spruce up the river's Boston banks, Coolidge is the only person who's made it a way of life.

The Boston Globe published that story almost 11 years ago. He was 64 at the time. I'm 41. The next time I use a chain saw will be my first. I was moaning yesterday to Pru about my hard labor of shoveling snow for 20 minutes. My conclusion: Laury is a stud.

And he still rocks the bow tie.

Okay. Back to the business at hand. Differentiation in math class, remember? Ryan Holmes (who I am fairly sure has never worn a bow tie; I'm skeptical he has worn any form of necktie) continues:

2.) I feel like this next one is really effective: I send a weekly plan to Komal (the principal) every week. In that plan I can say "Hey, I am pretty much using all Wednesday afternoon to practice percent problems. Kids X, Y and Z are really struggling. Can you give me a body to be in my class and proctor them while they do a class work? I'll work with kid X, Y and Z in the pull out room."

She's usually able to give me someone from the SpEd or ELL department to do something like that. It frees my hands from behavior monitoring and lets me teach kids who need my coaching. And the other kids get 40+ minutes of independent practice (I provide them with an answer key), but I don't have to create two separate worksheets.

In all sorts of opinion surveys, teachers say they want "more support." Support becomes a Rohrshach test. What is support?

In this case, the teacher is able to get help because 3 things are in place:

a. A student support team who actually want to jump in and help! It's quite possible for people in these positions to take a different approach: it's not my job.

b. A principal whose schedule is built precisely around directly helping teachers. Think about it: if Komal has 20 teachers, then that's a decent size chunk of customized teacher support to dole out.

There are many competing demands on a principal's time: kid issues, parent issues, early dismissal for snow, random heroin addict who has overdosed in the parking lot, assistant minister of education from Guam is visiting. Not easy for principals to be fully vested in the teacher support business.

c. Small school. 20 teachers is tough but possible; a principal with, say, 80 teachers couldn't very easily help in this manner.

Ryan continues:

My latest thing with this is this. I've ID'd 20% of the class most likely to score below proficient on MCAS. Once a week for the next four Tuesdays, I am going to pull them from class and work on MCAS prep. I have like a bajillion problems from old tests and stuff ready to roll.

The other 80% of the class is going to take a practice SSAT math section (which they all take for real for the first time in late May). I'll likely do this again 4 more times the weeks leading up to MCAS. My hope is that those 80% get really good at taking a challenging, timed, high stakes exam. And the 20% working with me will get over the proficiency bar.

I've done other stuff too where I don't have support and kids have two entirely different worksheets. One has "stretch it" problems. One has more basic stuff. If there's a daily objective you can really "stretch" the format works, but I don't love those lessons. You are constantly having to adjust and tinker with homework, quizzes and unit tests. Or the challenging new objective goes away after a period, and kids don't really learn that way. Especially hard stuff.

Our English teachers frequently have "high", "medium" and "low" groups answer different questions then at the end of the period, share their answers with the entire class (so everyone gets a taste of the questions). Or they have three different essays that they assign kids. I've never really figured out the math equivalent to this.