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Heather Aston – Midwest Conference on Differentiated Instruction

August 17, 2011

This summer I was privileged to attend the Midwest Conference on Differentiated Instruction in Chicago, IL.

On Monday, July 18, I attended the following sessions: (1.) Replace Seatwork with Thinkwork, (2.) Using Homework to Promote Critical Thinking, and (3.) 7 Steps to Successful Student Achievement. In session 1, Karen Haag advocated an “information literate school community” as a way to move away seatwork, activities that ask students to think only on the most basic levels, and towards thinkwork, activities that require students to prospect for, interpret, and create new ideas from information. She provided examples for all content areas and encouraged attendees to empower their students to develop their own means of expressing their learning. In session 2, Katherine McKnight focused on ways teachers can giving students the tools necessary to complete meaningful homework assignments. She explained that “front loading information” is crucial as students begin this more thoughtful work, and she cautioned attendees that students will have to be taught to organize time and prioritize tasks because it will not come naturally to many students. In session 3, Carolyn Coil proposed using a systematic approach to building student success; the approach uses several different goal-setting forms and self-awareness checklists. Of the day’s sessions, this is the one I will put into practice most quickly in my classroom as I work with students to uncover their strengths and weaknesses and to set their semester goals during the first few weeks of school.

On Tuesday, July 19, I attended the following sessions: (1.) Teaching with the Brain in Mind and (2.) Assessment in the DI Classroom. In session 1, Eric Jensen first explained the essential rules for how the brain works. Then, he discussed—from a brain perspective—what educators can do to influence students to acquire complex learning. Jensen stated, “To maximize your time with students, you’ll have to know more than content. You’ll need to know how to change their brains.” In addition, Jensen described the 10-80-10 Rule: “On a given week, invest…80% on new learning, 10% on previous learning, and 10% on upcoming content.” In session 2, Rick Wormeli shared ideas from his book Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom. Among other points, Wormeli emphasized the importance of formative assessments in the classroom to inform teaching decisions. He presented a number of assessment options, from rubrics and portfolios to quick checks and “accountable talk.” Of the day’s sessions, this is the one that made me stop and think. I have spent time reflecting on my own assessment beliefs and practices, and I look forward to utilizing different assessments to better inform my teaching. Furthermore, as a district, CISD is focusing on assessment and grading practices this year, and Wormeli’s presentation has provided me with discussion points I can offer during meetings with district leadership and campus colleagues.

On Wednesday, July 20, I attended the following sessions: (1.) Brain-Based Learning for the Gifted & Talented and (2.) Gifted Strategies for ALL Your Learners. In session 1, Richard Cash discussed the brain’s executive functioning differences found in gifted and talented students, and he explained some of the unique traits found in the adolescent brain. Then, Cash took this information to a practical level: curriculum for gifted learners. Because of the gifted brain differences, he asserted that gifted curriculum should develop comprehensive content knowledge and advanced concept understanding across disciplines. In session 2, Richard Cash focused on motivation and choice. After explaining the importance of developing intrinsic motivation in students, he provided attendees with principles to develop curriculum and instruction that can motivate. These principles include the following: make it relevant, focus on the self, individual to group processes, options for creativity, and allow of choices. When speaking of choices, Cash encouraged teachers to offer students choices whenever possible, and he gave several examples that attendees can use in their classrooms on a regular basis. Of the day’s sessions, this is the one I will use early in the school year. As a department head, I am always sharing different ideas with my language arts teachers, and I look forward to sharing Cash’s thoughts on developing intrinsic motivation and his examples of activities allowing student choice at a September department meeting.

Overall, my experience at the Midwest Conference on Differentiated Instruction was one that will greatly benefit me and my students this year…and into the future as well. I would like to express my gratitude to CGA for providing me with this opportunity and, more importantly, for investing in CISD’s gifted and talented students.

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