What does a coach do when half of her team is slam dunking and half is learning to dribble? What does a teacher do when one student understands a concept and another is still learning it? Anyone who has spent time teaching or coaching a group of learners will eventually confront this dilemma: How can we ensure that all students learn at high levels? Last week, the Alzar School teaching fellow class taught by Director of Studies, Laura Bechdel, sought to answer this perennial question.
In educational circles, adjusting instruction based on an individual’s needs is called differentiation. Laura sees differentiation as a natural response to wanting the best for each student: “We explore ideas of equity versus equality, and why doing what is 'equal' isn't necessarily fair.” In an effort to strive for equity, teachers might provide choices for assessments that allow students to express learning targets in a number of ways, or assign different angles of analysis according to a student’s interest. Laura noted that teachers at Alzar School often provide “personalized bookmarks to guide reflection in reading texts and guided notes to help some students access more difficult texts.” All in an effort to help each student access the class material.
The takeaway for teaching fellows? Spencer reflected, “Differentiation applies to all students, rather than just those at the very top or the very bottom of the class. Differentiation helps to motivate students by teaching them at their level and to their best ability rather than trying to get everyone to ‘make the same shoe fit.’”
Update: By popular demand, here is the recipe Sam used.
We have all encountered a situation where learning something new seemed utterly tedious. At the Alzar School, we help students engage in their studies by crafting curriculum and assignments to accommodate various interests and passions. For some, learning Spanish, or any language for that matter does not come naturally. Through conversational challenges in Chile, students are giving the opportunity to tailor their Spanish lessons to their interests. The power of learning and cultural exchange combine as we watch students use the Spanish language to communicate about their passions, drawing upon schema, prior knowledge, and experiences, to connect with local Chileans.
As an avid chef and baker, Sam found his Spanish learning nitch in a Chilean kitchen. Sam first approached Veronica and Joanna, the women who serve and cook our meals in Choshuenco, with a conversational challenge to learn the Spanish word for “measuring cup.” This initial conversation left Sam wondering if he would be able to use their kitchen to bake. So, he asked and they agreed. Deciding upon a dessert for the group, Sam shared his recipe for donut muffins with Veronica and Joanna. Together they worked through the ingredients, quantities, and instructions in Spanish. Sam remembers feeling more comfortable trying out new vocabulary and tenses with Veronica and Joanna “because we were in their homes” and in the familiar space of the kitchen. Throughout their baking conversations, Sam learned new vocabulary such as “moleda” meaning “powdered, “nuez moscada” or “nutmeg”, and “Imperial” which is the Chilean brand of and cultural reference for “baking soda”. Needless to say, the donut muffins were a hit! Constructing his conversational challenge around his passion in the kitchen, Sam was able to get far more out of his Spanish lesson in Chile all while making new friends.
Every Tuesday, sometime between lunch and biology, Faculty and Teaching Fellows sit down at a small table on the patio, beneath the whitebark pine, in view of Snowbank Mountain. We gather because for a brief window each week, we cease to be teachers: we desert our lesson plans and relish in the opportunity to be learners again.
It’s called PD30--Professional Development, 30 minutes--a brief moment to step away from teaching to think critically about how we can best educate our students. We hear from teachers across disciplines, each with distinct background and educational philosophy; we discuss rubrics, differentiation, assessment tools, and each others’ growth as educators. Whatever the topic, PD30 is a chance to improve our instruction together.
Jack, our Biology Teaching Fellow, enjoys “looking at things in a different way--similar topics, with a new perspective.” Laura, our Director of Studies, is PD30 host and instructor extraordinaire: “every teacher is going to have their own take, their own style, their own approach. I find it refreshing to keep learning from one another.” As instructors, we came to the Alzar School to be a part of a community of continual learners: for our students, and for each other.
As a part of our three-week ROAM Summer program last month, Kori Richards, our Director of Expeditions and Risk Management, wanted to design an activity that related directly to students’ lives and the places around them. So, we asked students to lead a short lesson on a topic about which they were passionate. Instructors provided example lessons that were brief, experiential, and informative. We provided a mobile library and offered ourselves as resources. The students filled in the rest.
Students and Instructors take a closer look at a trailside wildflower. Photo Credit: Kori Richards
Challis, a student from nearby McCall, approached me with the idea to co-teach a lesson on fire in the West. Fire fascinates me because it invokes ideas of ecosystem regeneration and the role that humans play in the environment. Challis views fire from a different lens: her father and brother spend their summers traveling around the West fighting infernos, often uncomfortably close to home. In our lesson, I provided the ecological background and Challis followed up with stories of fire and the role that it plays in small Western towns like ours. It was the first time many of our East Coast students had considered wildfires, let alone the direct role fire plays in their new friend’s life.
Darcy, our lone New Englander, drew upon past research into the ethical and ecological considerations of factory farms. She began her lesson without preface by forcing the expedition to don heavy backpacks and cram themselves into a small rope corral. Darcy proceeded to walk us up and down the beach until we cracked. When she informed the group of the topic of her lesson--factory farming--the group’s anger turned to appreciation of the ethical demonstration. The group spent the afternoon discussing Darcy’s decision to eat vegan, and I caught more than one student sneaking a taste of the tofu we brought for Darcy.
Each student taught their peers about something they are passionate about: everything from a lifelong connection to salmon (the fish) to the igneous rocks on Salmon (the river). These lessons represent a small part of a much larger learning experience, but they demonstrate that learning doesn’t need 4 walls, a textbook, or a teacher at the head of the class: just a group of people with an interest in the world around them.
After six weeks in Chile and spring breaks spent across the USA, Alzar School students have finally returned to campus and hit the ground running. Between busy class days, outdoor activity, PE, and even some spring skiing, the schedule has been jam-packed. But students haven’t forgotten their time in Chile, or the language skills they learned while abroad. Last week, students had the opportunity to share their experiences, as well as their language skills, with local elementary students in Valley County.
Students began planning their lessons in Spanish class. Each class prepared not only a short presentation on Chile, but also fun and engaging 15-minute lessons based on concepts recently studied in their Spanish classes. Spanish teachers Auriona East and Colin Hull encouraged their students to think outside the box, and students worked in small groups to develop lessons and materials for their classes. They prepared slideshows, poster-boards, cut-out figures, and fun games to help their soon-to-be students engage with the new content.
On Tuesday, students travelled to Donnelley Elementary School, where they taught in first, third, fourth, and fifth grade classrooms. On Thursday, I joined students at Cascade Elementary School, where they taught fifth and sixth grade classrooms; following our time at the school, we headed to the Cascade Cultural Arts Center, where students taught a small group of homeschooled children of various ages.
The lessons at Cascade Elementary started with a brief slideshow in which Alzar School students presented on their experience in Chile. The students had the opportunity to share not only about the various different landscapes and environments that we travelled through, but also to discuss differences in Chilean cultural and lifestyle. The Spanish C class enthusiastically shared about the different foods that they ate in Chile, from empanadas to the famous lomo a lo pobre, a steak dish served with caramelized onions, French fries, and a fried egg. The Cascade students gobbled down the information as readily as they might have gobbled down one of the dishes displayed on their Smartboard; as the Alzar School students moved through their lesson, they reviewed new vocab. “What’s the word for soup? Or bread?” they asked the class. The local students perched on their knees, shouting sopa, pan, stretching their arms up into the air to be called on.
After the short presentations on Chile, the fifth and sixth graders split into four groups, rotating through stations planned by Alzar School students. One group of students taught a wonderful geography lesson, in which Cascade students competed against one another in a “trashketball” competition based on identifying new vocab. Another group had a vibrantly colored poster-board with illustrations of valleys, mountains, rivers, and more, which transitioned into a Pictionary game on the board. Students shouted the new vocab enthusiastically. “El rio, el sol, la montaña!” echoed through the locker-lined hallways.
Another group practiced weather vocabulary with an animated game of charades, directed by the Spanish B students. A slight, blonde boy stood at the front of a table of his peers, violently shaking and chattering his teeth; “Hace frio!” his friends cried out, competing to be first to remember the new words. On the floor nearby, Spanish D students split their small group into clusters of two and three, and each group was tasked with arranging a cut-out house, tree, and person based on a Spanish phrase. “El hombre es lejos de la casa,” Ceilidh said, and an active brunette with a tie-dye sweatshirt on quickly grabbed the stick-figure man and placed him an arm’s length away from the house. Each student, whether from the Alzar School or from Cascade Elementary School, was active, engaged, and excited.
Reflecting on the experience over the course of the next few days, our students noted that teaching was incredibly fun, as well as exhausting. They returned to campus with a newfound appreciation for their Alzar School teachers, and the work each of us puts in to planning an engaging classroom discussion or activity.
But more importantly, they reflected on how exciting it had been to share their knowledge and experience with local students. They had offered the Cascade and Donnelly students a glimpse into Chilean culture, as well as an inspiration to continue to study language – and perhaps, one day, to use that language to connect with a new place, to make a new friend, and to expand their understanding of the world.