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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 69.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Differentiate this!
Teachers must learn to adopt new approach
Keesia Hyzer
Keesia Hyzer

Friday afternoon is not an optimal time for academic focus, but when Keesia Hyzer peers over her glasses and commands three minutes of "think time," the 21 students in English 10 at West High School get busy.

"The only thing you're thinking about right now is what you can get passionate about!" she proclaims as she snakes her way around aisles of desks.

Hyzer is teaching a new "core curriculum" class that puts the most-struggling students together with the highest-performing. It's part of the Madison school district's effort to reduce the achievement gap between racial minorities and whites.

The students are being asked to brainstorm topics for a semester-long research project. One by one, they stand and share their ideas, which Hyzer scribbles on the blackboard. Among the topics: Greek mythology, genocide in Sudan, prejudice against gays and lesbians. The students quiz each other on these ideas before breaking up into topic-based groups, listing on posters what they already know and what they want to learn.

In this 50-minute class, Hyzer demonstrates some of the teaching tools - including lots of choices and interactivity - of differentiation. And as Madison moves toward increasing the number of "heterogeneous" classes composed of kids at widely divergent academic levels, these tools are becoming more important

"It's how we do business," says Lisa Wachtel, director of the Madison school district's teaching and learning department. She calls "misguided" the idea that, in any given classroom, "everyone is on the same page and at the same place."

At West High, heterogeneous English classes grew out of concern that minorities disproportionately self-selected into less rigorous courses, and thus could graduate without a solid grounding in writing and literature. Now, all ninth- and 10th-graders take the same courses - ensuring a degree of quality control and emphasizing important skills.

The move sparked opposition from parents, school board members and some district staff. Steps toward similar changes at East High were suspended by Superintendent Art Rainwater pending a comprehensive "redesign" of high school curriculum.

While boosting minority student achievement is a laudable goal, core classes require that teachers adopt new strategies to ensure that each student is being challenged. This requires greater knowledge of individual students, experience at modifying assignments, and comfort with multiple things going on at once.

Research shows that advanced students generally do better with like-minded peers, so widely heterogeneous classrooms run the risk of leaving these students intimidated or bored.

At West, there's at least one high-end benchmark that should cause concern: In 2003, 70% of West's students scored "advanced" on the 10th-grade state reading test; that dropped to 65% in 2004, and 61% in 2005.

The district has taken small steps to address some concerns, creating an "embedded honors" designation in some classes and providing a bypass system for the most gifted students. But the critical component - teacher training - is still being developed.

Madison's high school teachers have not had widespread training in differentiation and cannot be forced to train under union contract rules, Rainwater told a parent group last fall.

"Many elements of an effective classroom require high energy and are demanding," acknowledges Wachtel. And key components of differentiation - including deep content knowledge, wide-ranging assessment tools and classroom-management skills emphasizing flexible grouping - "are something that for most teachers take time and practice."

Hyzer is a good example of a teacher who is up to the challenges that differentiation presents. Almost all her students seem engaged, and she rattles off examples of how students in her class do different things - from selecting independent reading books at appropriate levels to choosing essay topics tiered for different abilities.

As she sees it, the first semester of English 10 was a success. Now she's looking forward to the rest of the year. "We are way beyond the point of talking about why we're doing this," she says. "Now we're hungry for talk about how to do this and how to do it well."

Much of Hyzer's success at differentiation likely comes from her broader abilities. She's in her 27th year at West and demonstrates the energy, passion and skills to keep her teenagers engaged. But, like all good teachers, she knows there's always more to learn.

Last fall, she took a course on differentiation at the UW-Madison, a voluntary step of the sort that will be critical as the district adds more heterogeneous classes.

"I've been doing this a long time," says Hyzer. "But I needed more tricks in my bag of tricks. That bag is never full."

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