Northwestern B.C. schools identify struggling students

And that means teaching strategies shift to meet individual circumstances

Caledonia Students Michael Demelo

All schools in the Coast Mountains School District are analyzing their teaching strategies with the goal of strengthening their education for all students.

The school district is encouraging an approach to education called Response to Intervention (RTI), where teachers prioritize what needs to be taught, teach from different angles and identify struggling students early and intervene with support.

The RTI system has spread across school districts in United States and Canada, and an academic study and review in 2005 raved about the compelling evidence of its success in the Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment (Burns, Appleton, Stehouwer).

The RTI system includes three tiers:

(1) Strong curriculum to help all students thrive. Teachers focus on key outcomes, demonstrate concepts in multiple ways (differentiation of learning) and check regularly with students to ensure understanding (formative assessment).

(2) Early intervention with supports for students who are struggling. Students identified early and then given opportunity for extra help and time to understand a concept and then pick up with the rest of the class.

(3) More intensive supports for students with significant gaps in understanding or challenges in learning.

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Caledonia Secondary School is focusing on strengthening their education strategies as they review their approach to education in light of the recently introduced system called Response to Intervention.

Principal Keith Axelson said they have a lot of strong teachers who are already using many of the RTI strategies.

“Lots of our teachers are already very good at supporting students and differentiating their instruction,” he said, adding that they are reviewing and looking for gaps and ways to adjust and improve.

This year the focus of the school is on bolstering classroom teaching for all students (tier one).

Axelson and vice-principal Jane Arbuckle are guiding the implementation of the RTI ideas, organizing and focusing staff meetings around various classroom strategies.

Two groups of teachers formed book clubs in 2013 when RTI was first introduced, and they read up on the strategies and share the ideas with staff.

In 2013-2014, Caledonia focused on formative assessment, which is about checking frequently with students to ensure they are understanding the topics being covered.

“It can be things that are really simple,” said Axelson, explaining that some teachers simply ask for a show of hands for how many students feel confident about their understanding of a lesson.

Others have cups on student’s desks, a green one for student’s to display when they understand, a yellow if they are unsure and a red one for when they do not understand at all. That way teachers know when they need to revisit a lesson.

In spring 2014, a group of teachers went to Fort St. John to learn about project-based learning, which is about students exploring big questions through interactive, hands-on projects.

Currently, the teacher book club is studying differentiation of learning, which should help teachers demonstrate concepts from different angles and using different methods.

“It’s just recognizing that students can and need to demonstrate their learning in different ways… some prefer written tests, some prefer oral,” said Axelson.

But it is also about teachers diversifying their teaching to include things like graphs and photos, oral teaching, hands-on projects, etc.

It is “teachers making efforts to get that information to kids in different ways to make sure that everyone gets it,” said Axelson.

He says they are focusing on tier one this year because it is the foundation for all student learning, and the extra supports for students in tier two and three will follow.

“Until you are confident that the first level of support for kids is solid, and is being practiced in classrooms by teachers, it is hard to get a sense of what tier two supports might even be necessary,” he said.

“The tier two supports would be things we will look at from the data we generate over the next year or two, to say ‘okay, where are the gaps now that we’ve tried to address what is happening in the classroom?’” he said.

Axelson said education has a constant revision and review process, implementing new techniques, then reviewing them to see if they are effective, and then revising where necessary.

He says part of the constant educational changes are about responding to a changing society.

“Students today are in many respects different then they were 30 years ago. Technology and social situations are much different now,” Axelson said.

“The basic underlying premise is that you want to find ways to make learning relevant and meaningful for kids and you want to find ways to help kids who struggle, and find supports that are meaningful and produce results. That’s the goal and that’s where you have to start.”

Axelson said it is great to learn the RTI strategies to be implemented alongside the government’s new curriculum, which will be open for implementation starting next year.

In 2017, implementing the new curriculum will be mandatory, focusing on fostering core competencies such as  critical and creative thinking, communication, social awareness, and personal and cultural identity.