Strategies For Teaching

Strategies to help teachers address the challenges of a classroom comprised of students with various academic abilities and related disciplinary issues.

There are a myriad of issues looming over teachers' heads these days. Of these numerous concerns, there are two that are the most common, and yet the most perplexing. One is the reality of having a classroom comprised of students who differ widely in academic ability. The other is the persistent classroom discipline problems that we hear about far too often. What are some strategies that teachers can utilize to cope with these two issues and help their students succeed? Let's take a look at the first issue, the multi-level, multi-ability classroom.

The key to managing a group of students who have different levels of academic ability in your content area is to differentiate instruction. You may find that what appears on the surface to be differing levels of ability may in fact turn out to be different learning styles. Often, it is both. What can you do to help all of the students in your classroom learn?

Try scaffolding the instruction. This means that you make individual instructional modifications for each student. This may sound daunting, but as you begin to grasp the concept, it becomes second nature as you intuitively begin to grasp which modifications will work for each student.

For example, students who have difficulty writing lengthy responses to questions can be given the opportunity to type their responses or to deliver them orally. A student who struggles with homework might be given fewer problems to do. A student who is creative and not sufficiently challenged might benefit from making a web page promoting a book, as opposed to writing a standard book report. Flexibility is key. You will find that as students discover that they have a chance to succeed in your class, their rate of learning will increase.

In the differentiated classroom, small group work is common. Many teachers shy away from group work, since when it is not set up properly, as students may take advantage of the situation and not do the required amount of work, perhaps putting the lion's share onto the shoulders of the most academically capable student in the group. However, if group work is set up appropriately, each student can feel capable and contribute something valuable to the group. If a student cannot read well, that student can be the one who is in charge of the visuals for the group's presentation. If a student is talkative, and usually unable to focus on quiet work, put that student in charge of practicing the oral part of the presentation. In this scenario, all students can learn the course content, regardless of individual academic strengths and weaknesses.

Let students show what they know. Research tells us that while we may only retain ten percent of what we hear, we remember ninety percent of what we teach! Why not let your students become the teachers? I have seen students who have been labeled as "low-functioning" become experts at presenting visual information via transparency on an overhead projector. How absolutely empowering for the student!

Always be aware that your students do not learn the same way. Some students are auditory learners, while others are visual or kinesthetic learners. Visual learners benefit a great deal from watching you model a procedure, rather than merely listening to the explanation. Kinesthetic learners learn the most when they are allowed to do the procedure themselves. Reading about it in a book may not be the most effective way for them to retain information. In a differentiated classroom, the teacher will integrate many different modalities of learning. A good book to read that addresses this subject in depth is Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice, by Harvard professor Howard Gardner.

A nice thing about utilizing strategies for a differentiated classroom, which you will almost certainly have, is that it automatically gives you strategies for the second most common problem, discipline. Whenever you begin individualizing instruction, students begin to feel that they can be successful, and the number of acting out behaviors begins to decrease. One of the primary reasons that students act inappropriately in class is because they would rather gain negative attention for poor behavior than to appear "stupid" in front of their peers. Another reason for behavior problems is that the student may be bored due to lack of understanding. If you can put your content within the students reach, and give her an investment in learning the subject because she plays an important role in the class, the motivation for that negative behavior will be greatly diminished.

If you have gotten to know your students well enough so that you are able to individualize instruction, chances are that you also know what makes them tick. You may have picked up on the fact that Humberto comes to school worried because he only has one pair of jeans and is afraid that the other students will notice. Kayla may have told you that she has forgotten to take her medication for ADHD that morning. You have built relationships, and that is the single most important thing you can do in order to minimize discipline problems in your classroom.

You have heard the old saw, "It takes a village to raise a child." This is especially true today, even when the village at times appears to be practically non-existent. The child's presence in school can be used to create that village once again. You can communicate with other teachers about your students, and put your heads together to help problem-solve. You can talk to parents; not just about their child's behavior, but also about academic performance, kindness towards peers and positive class participation. There is always something positive to say about any student.

You can also become involved in the community where you teach, and do activities such as weekend food drives with your students. Any student with whom you have spent part of a Saturday afternoon eating ice cream while pulling a wagon down the street to collect cans of food is not likely to arrive in your class on Monday morning and act inappropriately. They will respect the relationship that you have built. You may also be surprised by which students volunteer to participate with you in community activities. Often, it is the very children who lack the behavioral supports at home who long for time with a caring adult. An aside: A relationship with one caring adult in the life of an at-risk student exponentially increases the chances of that person being successful in life. What an impact you can make!

If you have a particularly tough student in your class, try putting him in a position of responsibility. Of course, you will make sure that he remains deserving of it, but a student who is accustomed to being labeled as a behavior problem in his other classes will be floored when he is asked to be the helper in your class. This may be the first time that this student has had this opportunity. Let him know how happy you are that he is there to help you, and counsel him privately when his negative behavior threatens to get the best of him.

Different levels of student academic ability and various disruptive behaviors can certainly make for a challenging classroom environment. What you can do is make your classroom the place where students feel safe, appreciated and recognized for their talents. By doing so, you will have utilized the most powerful strategy of all, that of nurturing the talent and potential of all individual students.

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