Q&A: Reaching Students Where They Are With Differentiation and RTI
We spoke with Jennifer Smielewski, Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Oakland Christian School about the differences, benefits, and importance of differentiation and Response to Intervention (RTI).
Tell us about your school, Oakland Christian School, and the role you play in it.
Jennifer Smielewski: I joined OCS as a social studies teacher five years ago after 10 years in the public school system. Currently, I am the director of curriculum and instruction (K-12). I also serve as the lead Schoology contact and trainer for our staff. OCS is a K-12 private Christian school in Auburn Hills, Michigan, that serves about 500 students and their families.
Could you explain the differences between Response to Intervention (RTI) and differentiation for those who may not be aware?
JS: The most succinct way to explain the difference between differentiation and Response to Intervention, or RtI, is that differentiation is for all students while RtI is targeted to meet a specific, identified need of a student. RtI is essential before referrals for testing, special education consults, and next-level interventions can be effectively evaluated. When educators differentiate, they allow for different interests and learning styles on the part of the assignments to drive what students do and how they learn. It’s appropriate for all students. RtI, on the other hand, is for students who are struggling and need a bit more support. Their struggles might be academic, social, or behavioral.
When I taught ninth grade U.S. History, for example, I assigned reading and note-taking to address the Common Core State Standards for literacy in social studies. There were five different assignment options. I guided each student toward one based on test scores, reading ability, overall performance, and their interests. I did this for all of my students - that’s differentiation. It allows students different pathways to learn and demonstrate mastery.
RtI came into play for a student who was a low-level reader. He struggled and was having difficulty meeting the CCSS standards as outlined in the assignments even with the variety allowed and his scores reflected that. I put a different plan that involved chunking the material (doing it in small doses to minimize frustration) and using a note-taking strategy designed for a low-level reader. That’s RtI. We did this for several weeks and in the process he learned a lot about how he learns and improved greatly. He was not a candidate for special education services; he was a student who needed an academic boost.
On the flip side, what are the similarities between the two? How do they work together?
JS: The biggest benefit of effectively using differentiation and RtI is that all students have an increased opportunity to succeed and to see purpose in what they are learning. When differentiation is done effectively, the classroom doesn’t have “high” and “low” groups or the stigma that comes with them. It has a collaborative environment that celebrates differences and acknowledges that we all learn differently. Effective differentiation also “masks” or protects the student receiving RtI from being singled out or feeling less capable than his peers.
We’re coming to the end of the decade. Thinking back to 2010 vs now, what are some major differences in how you differentiate learning to help your students?
JS: When first faced with differentiation - and RtI - my initial response was, “You want me to plan individually for 150 students? I can barely plan whole group for 150 students!” Simply keeping track of the different activities and who was doing what was a nightmare. Coming up with the activities was time-consuming. It was hard.
Fast forward to now and I won’t say it’s easy, but I will say it is easier. It takes time to build a bank of activities; I have those now. Students have technology in their hands and they are interested in using it. Giving them options that use that tech as a tool and not a toy is important and they feel like they are doing what they want. We’re kind of sneaky that way - let them use the technology, as long as they are learning what we need them to learn.
Technology has also made it easier for me as an educator. The ability to curate resources and strategies is right at my fingertips. Using an LMS like Schoology makes it easy to manage groups, and assignment and assessment types. I don’t pass out papers that look different. No one knows who is doing what. As an added bonus, differentiation reduces student-to-student cheating. You can’t copy from someone who had a different activity to complete.
You mentioned that you use our Certified Partner Education Modified for communication with students’ other teachers. Could you explain more about how you do this and the benefits you have seen?
JS: Talk about having resources right at your fingertips! When it’s time for RtI, I search EdModified right within Schoology. I can narrow my search by category, age, and a variety of other topics to find valid and reliable intervention strategies. When I find one I think could help, I tag it to the student. Only I and the student’s other teachers see it. There are directions, printable resources and in some cases video tutorials on how to best use the strategy. I use the provided field to make notes about progress for a few weeks.
Sharing the strategy with other teachers helps us more quickly identify what works and doesn’t work for a student. Having the information in one place allows us, when it’s time, to take comprehensive documentation to our Counseling Office for the next level of intervention.
You are accomplishing a ton right now in your role as Director of Curriculum and Instruction. How has the use of an LMS made this easier for you and your teachers?
JS: Everyone knows I adore Schoology (love’s just not a strong enough word). We have aligned Course Objectives to help build our pacing guides and curriculum maps. We are tracking student proficiency of learning objectives using rubrics and standards-aligned exams. It is a slow process and we aren’t fully there, yet, but the resulting data does what data is supposed to do. It helps us identify our weaknesses so we can address them; it helps us identify our strengths so we don’t stop doing the good stuff.
We also have upped our game in our use of Schoology for professional development. We are individualized or delivering content via Schoology, yet, but we are sharing the resources from our presenters, completing feedback forms for professional development, and tracking teachers’ PD hours so they have a quick reference in the “grade book.” It took a while to get people to go to Schoology themselves for resources, but we are getting there. It’s ironic when we are constantly telling students, “It’s on Schoology.”
What is your advice for an educator looking to get started with differentiation and RTI, what are some of the first steps they should take?
JS: The first piece of advice - don’t get overwhelmed by the multitude of options!
As you dive in, find one or two things that you are comfortable with and will benefit your students. Work to master those. Once you are on solid ground, consider adding a third, then a fourth…. It is much better to do a few things well in this area than to spread yourself too thin and do many things poorly. It is also better for your own mental health!
Find someone - in your building, in a neighboring school, in a Facebook teacher group, on Twitter - who does this well and use that person as a resource. Bounce your ideas off others who are in the know.
Lastly, do something. You became an educator because you love kids, not because you wanted to do seventh-grade grammar for the rest of your life. This is one way to show how much you care. Students will see how much you have invested in them and know you want the best for them.
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