Differentiate This!

Jason Shephard:

Friday afternoon is not an optimal time for academic focus, but when Keesia Hyzer peers over her glasses and commands three minutes of “think time,” the 21 students in English 10 at West High School get busy.
“The only thing you’re thinking about right now is what you can get passionate about!” she proclaims as she snakes her way around aisles of desks.
Hyzer is teaching a new “core curriculum” class that puts the most-struggling students together with the highest-performing. It’s part of the Madison school district’s effort to reduce the achievement gap between racial minorities and whites.
The students are being asked to brainstorm topics for a semester-long research project. One by one, they stand and share their ideas, which Hyzer scribbles on the blackboard. Among the topics: Greek mythology, genocide in Sudan, prejudice against gays and lesbians. The students quiz each other on these ideas before breaking up into topic-based groups, listing on posters what they already know and what they want to learn.

One thought on “Differentiate This!”

  1. The following Letter to the Editor was submitted to Isthmus in response to Jason Shepard’s 2/9 column:
    Dear Isthmus,
    Many thanks to Jason Shepard for his ongoing excellent coverage of educational issues, most recently his profile of West HS English teacher Keesia Hyzer (Talking Out of School, 2/9/07).
    A few reactions:
    1) Keesia Hyzer IS a phenomenal teacher. (My son has had her for two different courses, so I know whereof I speak.) In fact, West High School is filled with phenomenal teachers. But not all high school teachers are as devoted and masterful as Ms. Hyzer.
    2) Let’s not jump the gun. Madison may — or may not — be moving in the direction of “increasing the number of ‘heterogeneous’ classes.” The District has only just begun its two-year high school study. The issue of grouping practices will surely be an important focus. Let’s hope data and research guide the conversation.
    3) As the Superintendent says, “once you have two students, you have heterogeneity.” Thus the issue is not “heterogeneous” versus “homogeneous” classes. The real issue is how much heterogeneity is optimal — for students and for teachers.
    4) Training in differentiation requires lots of time, money and professional development. A single in-service or workshop is not adequate. If adequate training is not possible — whether because of union contract rules or limited funding — then initiatives that depend on differentiation in order to be successful should not be implemented.
    5) The problem at West was that some students were “self-selecting into the less rigorous [English] courses and thus could graduate without a solid grounding in writing and literature.” One wonders why a more targeted solution was not tried first — like requiring a certain number of the more rigorous literature and writing courses for graduation.
    6) Implementation of the embedded honors option in English 10 has been extremely uneven. Some teachers dissuaded students from signing up for it, while others do not require anything different from their honors students. The MMSD Student Senate is on record as being against embedded honors options because of the divisions they create within the classroom.
    Thanks again, Jason; and thanks Isthmus. Keep up the good work!
    Laurie Frost
    A few additional points I left out of my letter (in order to keep it under 350 words):
    a) At the January West PTSO meeting, SLC Coordinator Heather Lott stated clearly that there is no money for teacher training in differentiation this year. One wonders (and worries) how under-trained this leaves the West faculty who are currently teaching core courses that depend on effective curricular differentiation for their success.
    b) It is important to remember that whatever may be revealed by 10th grade WKCE data is primarily a reflection on West’s English 9 core course (which has been in place for several years). That’s because the 10th grade WKCE test is administered early in the school year, usually late October or early November.
    c) According to Bruce King’s English 10 report (November, 2005), a second reason why English 10 was implemented is that some groups of students were failing English 9 at higher rates than other groups of students. (Very possibly, these were the same students who were choosing the less rigorous English electives as upperclassmen.) SIS readers may recall that many of us in the West community asked repeatedly that English 9 be studied and fixed before the same approach was extended into 10th grade. Unfortunately, our request fell on deaf ears.
    d) The English 9 and English 10 “by-pass” options were the result of cheerfully persistent parental advocacy. They were not freely given. Nay, they were (some would say continue to be) powerfully resisted by some members of the West staff.
    If you have a child who will be in 9th grade at West next year, you should know that —
    — Your child can skip over either English 9 next year or English 10 the following year if they score at the 95th percentile on the 8th grade WKCE (scores not yet available), the ACT (when compared to other 8th graders who took the test), or the SAT (again, when compared to other 8th graders who took the test). For more information contact Theresa Calderon at tcalderon@madison.k12.wi.us.
    — There will be two (yes, TWO) sections of Accelerated Biology at West next year, according to Superintendent Rainwater (personal communication, February 12). This long sought after change brings West in better alignment with LaFollette and East. The screening tests for admission to the accelerated sections will be held in early May.
    If you have a child who will be a 10th grader at West next year and who is taking English 9 this year, you should know that —
    — Your child can skip over English 10 next year, presumably according to the same criteria described above. Because this option has not been widely publicized, it is still not clear to current 9th grade parents what the criteria are or how they should proceed in order to help their student take advantage of it.

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