: In any given classroom, there are thirty or so students of wide ranging skills and abilities and only one teacher providing one lesson to all of them. How does that teacher manage to both challenge the gifted students in the class while keeping from frustrating the students who are struggling with the material?
Over the last year, Sumter Middle School has pioneered a new approach to learning that has already showed remarkable results. In just the first year of implementing the Differentiated Learning Program, the school showed improvement in fourteen of fifteen areas of the Criterion Referenced Competency Test scores (CRCT). The one area of the scores that did not improve remained the same.
The program has teachers place students in four groups of skill level based initially on their CRCT test scores and then later on weekly appraisals. The goal is to move students from one quadrant to the next. The Quartile Board developed for every class allows the teachers to monitor the progress of each individual student and track the overall success of their teaching strategies.
Equally important to the success of the program are the group discussion sessions where all teachers of a particular subject meet out of the classroom to figure out how to present each lesson to a range of students, offering first a rudimentary knowledge of the material, and then progressing through to using that knowledge creatively.
“The goal is to figure out ways of teaching the same concept to different students,” said Susan Powell, School Improvement Specialist who is working with the project. “That provides an opportunity for each individual student to grow according to his or her abilities.”
At a recent meeting of eighth grade science teachers, Carliss Taylor, Helen Botu, and Lenora Satharla met in the school's media center. The three explained what the differentiated learning concept meant for a subject area such as the discussion of solids, liquids, and gasses:
“For instance, a level one question would ask the student to identify the characteristics of a solid,” said Ms. Satharla. “A level two question would be about what happens when a solid changes to a liquid: what happens to the particles? A level three or four question would ask them to determine thermal energy in a solid state compared to a gaseous state.”
Thus, all students enter the discussion on any particular subject knowing something about the subject at hand, and the teacher's goal is to move each student to the next level of understanding.
Sumter Middle School Principal, Stacy Favors, is committed to improving the program from last year and sustaining the results achieved:
"If we do one-size fits all teaching, gifted and accelerated students will be bored and the struggling learners may turn out to be discipline problems because they are frustrated and can't do the work," Ms. Favors said.
The work sessions, otherwise known as "Panther Planning," allow for the teachers to learn from each other while determining among the group what approaches to teaching worked best and which could be improved. It also allows them to figure out how to schedule their lessons over time, and what types of assessments can be used to measure the students' progress.
Teachers are also provided a whole other level of administrative support for the program through the team of Assistant Principal Angie Brunson, ELA and Social Studies Specialist, Shirley Waymon, and Math and Science Instructional Specialist Regina King.
“As a school district, we are looking for innovative ways to help all students in all areas,” said school Superintendent Donnie Smith. “The Differentiated Learning Program is one example of a way we are trying to think outside the box and do what is best for the kids.”