My Goal this School Year is to Meet Students’ Diverse Needs in an Advanced Class

Robyn Howton

by | 11.15.19

Robyn Howton is a high school teacher in Delaware. Follow her on Twitter @robynhowton.

This school year, I’m teaching AP Language & Composition. I’ve taught this course before – but this year, my students have a wider range of skills in reading and writing. In addition to students who always expected to find themselves in an AP course, several students have ventured into something they didn’t think they’d ever take on. Seeing “AP” on their report cards is giving them a chance to identify as college-bound students in a way that feels real. It has me really excited. 

It also poses new challenges. I’ve been teaching for 28 years, and this year, I need to develop new ways of making sure all my kids get what they need. I’m working to make sure my students understand my goal for all of them: to start wherever they are now, and go as far as we can together.

Getting started: Establishing a baseline

When my students run into challenges, I don’t want them to feel like they don’t belong. I want to make sure every student feels like they do belong. I’ve made it clear up front that we all have a lot of learning to do. Early on, we used the multiple-choice tests put out by College Board, and I told the students, “Everybody is going to do poorly at first.” It took away that fear. When kids saw that even the students they consider the “smartest” kids missed the same questions they missed, they didn’t feel as bad. Now, they’re at the point where they’re like, “Okay, this type of thinking is hard for all of us. And it’s okay that it’s hard.”

For their first writing assignment, I asked students to tell me about their best and worst experiences with a teacher. I’ve tried to use their answers to guide me toward routines that make them all feel supported. The prompt also gave me a helpful writing sample. They were most concerned with the content of what they were telling me, so I got a really good baseline look at their writing. 

I saw who would need help with grammar and who was already writing at a sophisticated college level. Every student is thinking at a sophisticated level, but their ability to demonstrate their ideas in writing varies. So here’s what else I’m doing in my classroom in the coming months to support my students in improving their writing skills:

Testing new strategies: Giving students different supports within the same lesson

Based on the needs I saw in students’ writing, I placed them in groups. I pulled out mentor texts, and right now, we are practicing reading like professional writers. We read a text and talk about the writer’s purpose and style. Everyone can learn from the same mentor text, so I can embed differentiated instruction in small doses, without planning a bunch of different lessons.

I might offer students the first paragraph of a news story. I will tell one group, “Write the first paragraph of a news story about a school event, and use the same level of vocabulary you see in this text.” I will tell another group, “I want you to figure out what information belongs in the first paragraph. Make a list of everything the introduction includes.” And for a third group, I might highlight the parts of the introduction and give students a list of names and definitions for each part. Then, I’ll ask them to match the names with the sentences I’ve highlighted. 

They’re all being stretched, and they’re all learning. The focus hasn’t been “some of you are much better writers than others.” The focus is “we all need to get better at different things.”

Next steps: Taking on our first college-level writing assignments

We’re getting ready to start our first essays. I’m getting ready to dive into more writing instruction. I’m working on preparing some mini lessons. The success we’ve had with differentiated reading instruction should work with writing, too. The overall goal is to see better scores on the writing section of the AP test at the end of the year – and, of course, for every kid to leave knowing they can succeed.

I know there are challenges ahead, but I’m looking forward to learning alongside my students. I’ll be reflecting on our journey throughout the year, and I’m excited to share updates with all of you on what my students’ progress teaches me about my own instruction.

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