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Design To The Edges

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edgesThere have been many instances that stand out in my mind when discussions with non-educators have sparked ideas and blog posts. I often find that some of the best ideas come from those outside of the profession.

PointeMy favorite came out of a shopping trip to a dance apparel store with a pointe shoe (ballet shoe) fitter. My daughter entered the store and explained what she was looking for. “My teacher said I can only wear Grishkos!” (Some fancy-schmancy brand of shoe). The fitter shared that she hates when teachers tell students that they all HAVE to wear a particular kind of shoe because each shoe is so different and each dancer is so different. She said earlier that day a girl came in and said the same thing as my daughter. The girl had a very wide foot but that particular brand was made for narrow feet. The little girl squished into a pair and went on her merry way. The fitter expressed that she didn’t feel right selling those because they were not a good fit and could actually do harm.

This whole scenario, of course, triggered the educator in me. In our classrooms, there is no “one kind” of student and no “one way” that works for all. So many times we hear “Well I taught it. They should know it.” This phrase punches me right in the heart!

There IS a difference between teaching and learning.

It brought to mind one of my favorite TED Talks: “The Myth Of Average.” It is worth the 18 minutes, I promise.

The premise of the talk is that there is NO AVERAGE learner so we can not teach to the average. No “shooting down the middle” because there isn’t one. If we do, we are missing all of those students on the “edges” (where a majority of them lie). There is no “one way” that works for all, just as there is not one pointe shoe that fits each dancer. There are many layers to getting both right.

My team uses this TED Talk often, and every time I cry. I cry because most of my students, as well as my daughter, live on the edges. They don’t fit into a box and a box isn’t going to teach them. They think differently; they act differently; they come with different backgrounds, strengths, weaknesses, passions, and personalities. These ALL come into play because the anatomy of the learner is so complex.

We CAN NOT ignore the differences in our students. We need to, insead, celebrate them AND play TO them.

I cry because I think of all of those amazing students who would have missed out on learning had I just “shot down the middle”. I think about the students who struggled in academics but excelled in performing arts…I used that to their advantage. I think about the students who told me at the beginning of the year that they couldn’t do math and were scared of it…only to shine and reflect at the end of the year, calling themselves “mathematicians” who LOVE math. I think about the little girl who struggled to speak in class, but we figured out if she wrote her thoughts out first, she could contribute greatly. Or the little boy who, in second grade, could barely read pre-primers but had an amazing critical mind. His door was opened when he was given the opportunity to use that gift to discuss read-alouds. The list goes on and on.

I also cry for those students that are left to hang out at the edges, never getting tethered in. Those are the kids I worry about…those are the kids I fight for. Why change? I don’t even think that is a question anymore…we need to change because our kids deserve it.

The thought of personalizing learning can feel overwhelming and like an impossible task. I am not proposing that each student should have an IEP. That is not the case I’m trying to make. So, how might we meet those “edge” students? Here are some my thoughts…

1) Relationships matter: I believe that we need to know students to grow students. We really need to know those in which we serve. What works, what doesn’t work, what are their passions, their strengths…what makes them tick? This takes time, but believe me, this important time on the front end will offer great rewards on the back end for both you and your students.

2) Teach protocols: This is something I learned from my friend Jon Corippo : See video here: Edu-protocols. If we create a framework that students become familiar with, the content can be differentiated to meet their needs. One of his favorite examples is using the Frayer model. When you first teach these protocols you use a very low cognitive load, something fun and familiar. Once students become familiar and at ease with the “frame” of the protocol, that piece falls into the background. These protocols are done on an ongoing basis, but what changes is the content and/or the rigor. The students can spend their cognitive energy on the content rather than on learning a new “strategy” AND content. This also is very low prep for the teacher as you are not creating new activities for each new lesson. Win-Win.

3) Provide multiple entry points and exit points: This is the idea from Jo Boaler’s Low floor, High ceiling” activities. What does this mean? The questions, activities, and tasks are open-ended. Students will enter where it works for them, and take it as far as they can, and with a little scaffolding…they will take it further. They will feel success and valued in their thinking. This confidence is key.

4) Give students choice: Allow students choice in how content is taken in, how they process it and their output. This may seem like a lot of work on the teacher, but it really isn’t if your tasks are student-centered. More them, less us. The students are doing all of the work, our job is to set up the options. Many use things like  “choice boards” to help facilitate. The choices can stay the same (or add new one in every so often), but it’s the content and/rigor that changes.

5) Honor differences: Acknowledge, honor and celebrate students’ differing ideas, answers, solutions and paths. One thing I loved about teaching math was the different ways in which students would come to a solution. When they shared out a new way, we would name it: “Shane’s Way” and make a poster that would hang in the math area. This not only empowered the originator, but gave other students new ideas as jumping off points or something to grip on to. The ultimate was when a student would come up with a new idea that clicked with me…I had many “aha” moments from my students.

Keeler6) Teach skills: The skills we teach our students will take them well beyond our four walls. To me, these are more important than content. Alice Keeler often says “We need to teach like Google and YouTube exist”. We should not be spending time feeding students content that they can find at their fingertips. We instead should be teaching and supporting them on what to do with that information. We need to shift them from consumers of information to being creative critical thinkers and problem solvers. This can only be done by providing tasks, time and space to practice this.

My call to action is to start thinking about the edges…how can we design to them? When we zoom out and think of our students, and their “profiles” we will find many hanging out in those edges…Therefore;

We need to design to those edges, our students need US to meet THEM.

Editor’s note: This blog post is a “mash-up” of two original posts: “Design To The Edges” and “En Pointe” from Cori’s personal blog site: Leading In Limbo.


Cori is a mother of two amazing children and currently works as a TOSA in Simi Valley Unified School District. She is a co-moderator for both #SVTChat and #VCHSchat. Cori has presented various sessions for CUE Rock Star, CUE BOLD as well as within and outside of her district and county. She is also a frequent blogger on her site: http://leadinginlimbo.weebly.com/  Follow her on Twitter: @CoriOrlando1

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Cori Orlando