Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Whose Job Is It Anyways?

“…These fall more under the purview of the resource teacher. My focus is on the content material as I am a secondary teacher.”[1] Whose responsibility is it when a Senior Years student is unable to comprehend the material presented in his or her content area courses? Upon reaching Secondary School, there is a more predominant release of responsibility onto our students. More often than not, they are expected to take appropriate notes, read/watch assigned material in preparation for class, study independently and ask for help is they believe they need it. What happens, however, if our students are unable to comprehend the material they need in order to be successful? I argue that it is our responsibility as classroom teachers to ensure that each of our students has every opportunity to be successful in our classrooms, regardless of their age or grade level. I focus on a first-hand interview I conducted with a Senior Years teacher in rural Manitoba to effectively support this philosophy. Within this review, I will include my personal reactions and recommendations in regards to assisting struggling readers at the Senior Years level.

Background Information
            The teacher I chose to interview has approximately ten years teaching experience through various locations within Manitoba as well as abroad in Egypt, China and India. She is now located in a small rural school, in which I was placed for my third student teaching placement, where she teaches Grade 8 through Grade 12 English Language Arts as well as Grade 12 Global Issues and Grade 12 Accounting.

Upon beginning this interview, I asked her to, “Try to think of a specific student who has experienced difficulties with reading in one of your content area classes,” before she began answering the questions. The purpose of this prompt was to ensure that she was specifically referencing a student from a content area class as well as referencing the same student throughout the various questions. As per divisional policies, she was unable to identify the student in regards to age, grade, IEP plans or diagnosed disability, if any. Resultantly, the interview responses paint a general image of a struggling student and, where appropriate, I will state if information is explicit or inferred.

Interview Summary
            The teacher in question was able to address several different strategies that were implemented to assist the student in finding success within her content area course. These included note-taking frameworks that identified how many main points should be found within a certain piece of text, providing copies of notes at a reading level appropriate for the student, and providing alternative text options. The student was also assigned an Educational Assistant (E.A) to work one-on-one with, had the opportunity to work with the teacher at lunch hour, and was allocated additional time to complete coursework. In addition to these strategies, the student was also provided with in-depth assessment outlines prior to assessment activities and was assessed using alternative testing materials that focused on basic comprehension and objective questioning. While these strategies were implemented under the direction of the teacher, they fell under a plan involving the school’s resource teacher and E.A. From the information that has been provided through this interview, I can infer that this specific student experienced difficulties in reading due to a pre-existing learning difficulty or disability. From the strategies that were put in place, specifically alternative assessment strategies and E.A support, it is my guess that the student had an IEP in place that warranted an adapted or even modified program.

            When asked about the successfulness of the strategies, the teacher shared that the student did experience success in regards to comprehension of the material but still struggled with memory retention. As such, formal assessment strategies were difficult and she or the E.A completed most assessment through informal observation. Looking back on the situation, she shared that she would have liked to have oral readings of different texts available for the student so they could learn through a media that was more appropriate for their needs. This led me to question if the school division had text-to-audio software available for students to use like “Kurzweil” or “SpeakComputer” that are available in other divisions in the province. While the teacher did not know if they had those specific programs, she did share that each classroom had access to computer labs, laptops and iPads that all feature various literacy programs to assist students in various courses. What was bothersome to me, however, was when she stated,

            There are a number of online computer software programs to assist in literacy 
            but these fall more under the purview of the resource teacher. My focus is on
            the content material as I am a secondary teacher… the curriculum load for a
            secondary teacher means that I rely more on the Resource Coordinator to 
            bring these other options to my attention.[2]

Personally, my focus is on the students first and the curriculum/content second. I am sure that the teacher did not mean her statement to be implied that she does not care for the needs of her students but I found it interesting. Whose responsibility is it when a Senior Years student is unable to comprehend the material presented in his or her content area courses? Now obviously, when addressing the needs of a student on an IEP there may be a full team that is responsible for that student including: classroom teachers, E.As, resource teachers, appropriate specialists, et cetera. In my philosophy, however, the classroom teacher is still primarily responsible for the success of the students in their classroom; this includes educating themselves on various technologies to assist students in the most appropriate way possible.

            When I asked the teacher if she felt confident utilizing available technology, she shared that she is more comfortable with general technology such as computers, interactive whiteboards like SMART Boards and presentation tools like Prezi. Her reasons for incorporating technology like this included the ease of having electronic copies of documents for students, the alternative method of presenting information and the higher engagement level that comes from using technology in the classroom. I can assume that since she relies more on the resource teacher to implement specialized literacy technology that it makes sense that she is not familiar with those types of programs. This lead me to wonder how many students could actually be in specific need of these programs. The teacher I interviewed shared that, on average, there are about four or five students in a Senior Years grade of twenty-five students who are below reading level; this works out to approximately one-fifth of the students in Grades 9 through 12.

Reaction & Recommendations
            One major concern I have when formulating an appropriate reaction to this interview is the amount of information I, as someone outside of division, have access to. I feel as though I need to know more about the specific student before making an appropriate judgement on the situation. As such, I feel as though my responses need to be more general lest they lead to misunderstanding about the student in question. With this in mind, the recommendations included are my personal thoughts on how I may help any student who is struggling in one of my courses, rather than trying to create recommendations for a specific student that I do not have adequate information on.

            In regards to technology, I would ensure that I am fully educated on what is available to me within my school or division and take appropriate training sessions to learn the software if needed. For example, following my interview I consulted with the school’s resource teacher via telephone and learned that the school does not have access to any formal text-to-audio software. I was able to find, however, many free tools online that allow teachers to manual input text to be converted to audio. Some examples include, “vozMe”, “TTS Converter” and “Text To Speech”. For reference, the literacy programs the school has in place currently include the Precision Reading program that address fluency, the Momentum Guided Reading program and the Essential Skills Software program which addresses comprehension through activities designed for multiple intelligences. After meeting my students and fully understanding their needs, I would also research what is available to address their specific situations and try to find online tools, apps and supplementary programs.

            I believe that the teacher’s attitude towards building literacy skills was a restriction in regards to the student’s overall success. Perhaps if she was more aware of various programs that were available to her, she may have been able to provide different instruction for the student. I understand, however, that it is hard to make speculations when I am unaware of the student’s specific situation. I think that it can be hard for a teacher to work specifically on literacy skills when they are responsible for differentiating instruction, creating experiential learning opportunities, incorporating new technologies, and attempting to address curriculum goals effectively. I believe that understanding our students is our main priority and planning with their needs in mind from day one can help alleviate some of the workload that can occur when teachers need to go back and change plans once they realize something is not working.

Strategies I Would Implement
            Some strategies that I have learned in this class that I think would be appropriate and beneficial in this situation include the incorporation of a multimedia environment, portfolio assessments, and exploratory writing through blogging. A multimedia environment involves incorporating a variety of mediums in which to present material to students including text, audio, video, images, manipulatives, et cetera. Not only does this provide an opportunity to meet the multiple intelligences of our students but it can also be an engaging activity for students who may be tiring of traditional learning experiences. Furthermore, by presenting information through multiple platforms students are able to make connections on the meaning of the information more easily. For example, if a student has difficulty with comprehending textual information on the War of 1812 he/she may learn content-related vocabulary through text and comprehend how it occurred in real-life through a video. In this manner, students are able to learn the material of a content area course through an appropriate medium despite having difficulty with literacy skills. Personally, I believe that schools rely too much on written text to learn material and should be providing these multimedia learning opportunities for all students.

            I believe that portfolio assessment is an authentic form of assessment that allows students to display their understanding in a manner that best represents their learning style and it is something that I will definitely be incorporating in my future classroom(s). When I was out student teaching I had a student who scored a 47% on a written Canadian History exam and, knowing that she knew more about the subject, I offered her a verbal exam. Through her explanations of her understanding of the material, she was able to boost her score up to a more appropriate 74%. This situation helped me to realize that students need to provided opportunities to display their understanding in a manner that best suits them and I think portfolio assessments fits this. The way I envision utilizing this form of assessment involves open discussion of curriculum outcomes in a manner appropriate for the student’s level, student choice in exploratory projects and reflection work. I recently attended a PD session on Digital Storytelling and I think it would be so cool if a student were able to display their various projects through images or film and then create an audio voiceover to explain what they learned through that project. In this manner, students could choose to display essays, posters, interviews, dioramas, et cetera, based on their learning style and the audio voiceover would count as their reflection. This type of activity would be done at the end of each unit and would be used as a form of summative assessment.

            I blog regularly about my learning process as an education student and have found it to be incredibly helpful in regards to furthering my understanding on a variety of topics. As such, I would love to have my students participate in blogging as well. Not only can it serve as a host for students to write any number of literary forms but it provides an authentic audience for their work. Some of my most influential learning opportunities have come from comments left on my blog and the resulting conversations and I would like my students to experience this as well. Not only would they be able to write in a form that best suits their needs but they could extend their learning through the resulting comments that their post may receive. Obviously, this may require a bit of work to implement in regards to building an appropriate network for a classroom blog but if a teacher has a strong and support PLN in place already, it can be easier than you think.
            In summary, I believe that it is our responsibility as classroom teachers to ensure that each of our students has every opportunity to be successful in our classrooms, regardless of their age or grade level. Yes, there may be times when it is necessary and appropriate for students to be working with an E.A or under the direction of a resource teacher, but we still need to ensure that we are doing as much as we can to assist our student’s in being successful. There are several ways in which teacher’s can differentiate their instruction in order to meet the needs of their students and it is our responsibility to educate ourselves on these strategies.

[1] R, M. “Email Interview”. Question 6. February 4, 2013.
[2] R, M. “Email Interview”. Question 6-7. February 4, 2013.

Resources Mentioned (In Chronological Order)
vozMe (text-to-audio online tool)

TTS Converter (text-to-audio online tool)

Text to Speech (text-to-audio online tool)

Precision Reading Fluency Program

Momentum Guided Reading Program

Essential Skills Software Program

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