On a recent Monday morning, Sheika Luc welcomes her 14 second graders to their classroom at The Park School in Brookline. The children happily accept her invitation to sit on the circular maroon rug, underneath the Smart Board. After reviewing their jobs for the week (including line leader, snack helper, messenger and caboose), writing the date and reviewing the schedule, Sheika deftly shifts to the day’s math lesson.
On the interactive Smart Board, Sheika displays a number line and asks for a volunteer to show where “25” falls. Fourteen hands shoot up hoping to be selected to write with the special marker and manipulate the screen. Next, she pulls out a bag of change and introduces a game called “Collect 25¢.” After a quick demonstration, the second graders arrange themselves into their math partners, taking a die and a handful of change to their tables. With a roll of a “3” a girl selects three pennies and puts them in her pile. Her partner rolls a “6” and places six pennies in his pile. “You could have taken a nickel and a penny — that makes six, too,” she offers.
Behind the scenes, Sheika has orchestrated the pairings with great care. Park School teachers practice Differentiated Instruction — a way of personalizing teaching methods, curriculum and activities to best suit the individual needs of each student. “To bring D.I. into the classroom,” Sheika explained, “you first need to explore how each student learns; then the real teaching can begin!” Sheika modifies the game for her students who are finding the addition easy; she asks them to roll the die and add money until they reach $1.
Often, Sheika breaks her class of 14 students into small groups so that she can tailor the lessons to individual learning styles. “We’ve set up a mini-computer lab over here,” she said gesturing to four Macs in a corner. “This technology is a real compliment to the curriculum — it’s not busy work at all.” One of the challenges to using D.I. is keeping every student working at an appropriate level. With supplementary spelling, reading and math programs, Sheika can create individualized lessons ahead of time. “My colleagues and I were excited to discover a new spelling program that lets you plug in appropriate words for each child. The kids put on their earphones and practice their spelling words while I work with the rest of the class.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree at Amherst College, Sheika first learned about Differentiated Instruction in graduate school at Bank Street College of Education in New York City. “Every school I’ve taught in, from Manhattan to San Francisco to Boston, is talking about D.I. But it takes a lot of time to be able to put it into practice. Now that I’ve been teaching for nine years, I’ve got a good handle on both the content and my own teaching style so that I can adapt to better serve the kids.”
The children grow tremendously in their second grade year — it’s an important juncture in child development. “When the students come in September, they’re basically first graders, but they accomplish so much by June. I like watching their growth; particularly in writing,” Sheika said. Early in the year there can be some tears, but in the spring, every student has written his or her own memoir. “You see the kids go from struggling with writing one sentence to writing several pages. I really love teaching second grade!”
“The main reason that I teach,” Sheika continued, “is that I want all my students to feel like that they have a voice and can bring all that they are to school in terms of ethnicity, religion, race — whatever informs their identity.” At Park, there’s not just one image of “other.” Kids represent all kinds of differences: socio-economic range, family configuration, educational background and nationality. The school works to create affinity and representation within each classroom, an effort that Sheika applauds. “I want the children to be exposed to all kinds of differences and learn to appreciate those differences.” In a way, Differentiated Instruction is a critical piece of Park’s commitment to honoring diversity and to respecting the dignity of each child.