January 18, 2011

How Much is Too Much When it Comes to Differentiation?

Today is the first day of second semester.  It's the start of my third week in my new long-term position.  I was lucky enough to be asked to cover a maternity leave in the same school I was in for the fall.  In fact, I am working with the exact same students, which has been great since I already have a rapport with them.

Except for the fact that I used to be the newcomer teacher, meaning I worked with the students new to the country who were still learning the English language, and now I'm teaching reading and writing to the sheltered students, meaning they are still behind in their academic language but can communicate otherwise.

Two weeks ago, it was decided at the district level, that the three newcomer students should be exited from that program and put into sheltered classes all day long effective at the new semester (today).  Immediately, I began to panic because as their main teacher for the year, I knew two of the three students could not, read, write, or speak well enough to survive in a sheltered class where they are going to be held accountable for the same work as their peers.

I talked to the counselor and my administrators about this, and even though they agree with me, their hands are tied because the director of the ELL program has made his decision.  The end.  There's nothing we can do about it.  And his decision was made solely on his personal philosophy of how long a child should be enrolled in a newcomer program.  Not once did he talk to their teacher (me) or assess these students, even informally to make an educated decision on whether or not they are ready for this step.

To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, my district uses Scholastic's Read 180 program.  There is a set of 'below level' books that come with the program, and the lowest book available is a 100.  This is the kind of book that says, "This is Jack.  This is Sam.  Jack and Sam are friends."  This is a 100 level.  I should also mention that this is the only 100 level book - they all go up from here.  When I assessed the newcomer students to get them started in the program, one scored a 7 and the other scored a 0.  Yes, a zero. 

Despite my assessment, these students are now enrolled in my reading and writing classes.  And I have been told that I should not treat them like newcomers in a sheltered class, that they should do the same things the rest of the class does.  How, though, are these students supposed to write essays on short stories we read in class (which is what my students were doing this morning) or discuss and take tests on stories in their textbooks (my afternoon classes) when I know they can't possibly understand it? 

To say I am concerned for them would be an understatement.

I have no choice but to differentiate my instruction, assessments, and activities for these students if I want them to have any level of success in my classroom.  I can't give them the same assignments as their peers; I have to work with them at their level. 

So, now I'm left wondering where is the line between differentiating instruction and teaching two classes in one room?

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