The needs of my readers are so diverse. How can I manage it all?
Sandy’s first grade classroom is comprised of students who read everything from Elephant and Piggie books to Clementine and beyond. Within Sandy’s classroom of 26 readers, she has nine students who are learning English, a student with Asperger Syndrome, several students on IEPs, and at least three students who are working through the social/emotional effects of trauma. Her current assessment shows 10 different independent reading levels ranging from what her school considers kindergarten to third grade and beyond. She often worries she won’t be able to meet the needs of these diverse learners.
Does Sandy’s classroom sound familiar? Every classroom is comprised of children with diverse strengths, needs, interests, backgrounds, and experiences, and therefore Sandy’s worries are common to most teachers.
We don’t pretend to have a quick or slick answer to doing this important work, but in today’s post we share eight starting points for creating conditions to support a very diverse class of readers. Perhaps a couple or all eight might resonate with you.
1. Get to know your students as people.
Relationships matter. The more we know about our students, the more authentic the relationship we are able to build with each of them. The more authentic the relationship, the more trust will be built. Students are more likely to be open to new learning if they feel they have a relationship with us and can trust us.
One easy tool to help grow your understanding of individual students is an interest survey. Interest surveys allow us to collect periodic information about students’ likes and dislikes, learning preferences, thoughts about school, and even interests outside of school. Although many teachers use surveys such as these at the beginning of the year, anytime is the perfect time to dig a little deeper into what matters to your students and makes them tick.
If using an interest survey is new work for you, take a look at Christina’s survey with her fifth grade class. Feel free to make a copy in Google docs to edit for your own class. Since her school year is at the halfway point, Christina actually gave this survey to her students last week. She learned that one student was no longer that interested in soccer, while another felt like she needed more support in math, and yet another is consumed by friendship issues out at recess. By giving this survey to her students at this point in the school year, Christina was able to reconnect, check-in, and show her students that their needs and concerns were of the utmost importance in the classroom- thus, building trust even more.
Students’ interests grow and change over time just as ours do as adults. The better we know our students as the unique people they are, the more equipped we will be to support them in their growth.
2. Ensure Daily Time for Self-Selected Independent Reading
Meeting the needs of diverse readers begins with making sure that every day, every reader has access to diverse reading materials that they truly care about as well as time to read those materials.
Take a look at your schedule. Does it include regular time for students to carry out daily, self-selected, uninterrupted reading? If not, where could you start?
We know many K-8 teachers who’ve swapped out “bell ringers” or “morning seat work” in lieu of starting the day with self-selected independent reading. Students come in, put their materials away, and then settle into reading with a book of their choosing. This gives every student the chance to start the day with predicability, choice, and success. Sarah Ahmed has named this gem of a practice a soft start.
A soft start like this not only gives kids a safe, empowering, and predictable landing, but it also provides the teacher the time to personally greet each reader and potentially commit to a more in-depth conversation (conference) with at least a few of them.
Whether self-selected reading happens at the beginning of the day, the end, somewhere in between, or in some combination, the benefits it provides for a diverse classroom of readers are enormous.
3. Diverse Readers Need Diverse Books
It’s books that engage readers. Plain and simple. So when you’ve got a diverse classroom of readers, you’re going to want to make sure you and they have ready access to a continually growing diverse collection of books.
As you picture each individual reader in your classroom right now, do you feel confident that there are at least a few baskets or shelves in your library that they are consistently excited to choose from? If not, this is a critical starting point.
Also, all children should see themselves in the books on the shelves in their classroom library. In addition, all children should have access to books that provide a glimpse into the lives of others. Dr. Rudine Simms Bishop wrote about this idea in her essay Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors. It’s worth a read to help you start or dive more deeply into this important idea.
Think of your classroom library as an organic and ever changing collection, reflecting the diverse interests, attributes, and identities of the students who you work with everyday. When in doubt, ask your kids. What kind of books do they look for and hope to find there? Our book, To Know and Nurture a Reader offers oodles of support for helping every kind of reader learn to consistently find books that lead to high levels of engagement.
4. Offer Personalized Learning through Conferring
The more varied the needs of our readers (or writers, mathematicians, etc), the more critical we believe it is to develop a committed conferring practice. Conferring, the art of purposeful one-on-one learning conversations, is a reliable and effective path to personalized engagement and learning for all of your students.
Many teachers have told us that they feel they don’t have adequate time for conferring because their schedules are filled with structures suited for mostly whole and small group instruction. Yet, the more diverse the needs of the class, the more transformative conferring can be for individual students.
Sure, it would be easier if all students’ needs were similar, and could be met mostly in whole group instruction. But, we know that’s not reality. When we rely too much on whole group instruction and one-size-fits-all assignments, we lose learners along the way. A consistent conferring practice can become a lifeline for readers and teachers alike, providing a platform for building both relationship and personalized learning plans, one caring conversation at time. For some students, it may be the one of the few times of the school day where their unique academic or social-emotional needs are being more closely met.
5. Prioritize Your Conferring Time
Once independent reading is a routine part of the schedule and you’ve committed to conferring, it’s time to grab a clipboard and start to make some decisions about who you’ll connect with (confer with) first. Take a quick look around the classroom. Which students seem most in need of your partnership to help them strengthen their engagement with reading? Which students don’t seem to be settling into a reading spot? Which students appear to be struggling to find a book?
As you launch or recommit to a conferring practice to support your diverse learners, you’ll want to prioritize who you feel needs your time most urgently. Everyone doesn’t need your attention in equal increments. Some students might benefit from more regular check ins, while others will thrive on a meaningful conversation every week or so.
Whether you jot a simple note on a sticky or something more concrete in a planner, what’s important is that you ask yourself, “Who could most benefit from my partnership in building a more vibrant reading life?” In To Know and Nurture a Reader, a chapter titled Make a Plan offers more tips and tools for planning.
6. Enlist Partners to Support Your Efforts
It takes a village to teach a child. Anytime you wonder about how to best support a particular student, one sure fire strategy is to reach out to trusted colleagues, coaches, or specialists for help. When working with students whose needs fall outside of your developmental area of expertise, you might reach out to a reading specialist, English Language teacher, math coach, school psychologist, or even a teacher above or below of your grade level for support. Colleagues are an invaluable source of ideas of strategies, texts, and next steps for kids who need more specialized sorts of attention.
7. Consider scaling back on other commitments.
A simple truth of education that we don’t always openly talk about is that some combinations of students are just more challenging than others. Some years are trickier than others. So, watch for signs that you might have more going on in your life than you realistically have the bandwidth for.
Then give some thought to what you might possibly be able to cut from your daily or weekly schedule to open up for more needed thinking, reflecting, or even conferring time for you and your learners.
This school year, Christina’s classroom includes many learners with extremely diverse needs. A few weeks into the year it became apparent that she wouldn’t be able to keep up all of her extra school duties, committees, and also meet the needs of her learners.
Because meeting the needs of her learners was the priority, Christina gave herself permission to step away from two committees that she’d served on in prior school years. Finding the courage to say no to two commitments gave her more space for thinking and planning in her daily teaching life. Saying no is not easy, but sometimes it can be life changing.
8. Take care of yourself.
Finally, we encourage you to embrace the idea of engaging in a bit of self care. To bring our best selves to a classroom of diverse learners every day, we need to be intentional about taking care of ourselves as well. We can’t meet their needs when we aren’t meeting our own.
So, be good to yourself. Breathe. Smile. See the best in the children around you. Eat something healthy. Take a walk. Do a little yoga. Go for run. Laugh out loud. Stop with the negative self talk already. Wear comfortable shoes.
And by all means allow yourself time and grace when adopting or refining a practice, such as conferring. Trust yourself to follow your students’ lead and honor their interests. And remember, we’re all learners. This is a practice, not a destination. So just show up every day determined to get better.
Meeting the needs of all learners takes time, energy, collaboration, and self-care. Making plans that prioritize certain needs, asking for support, and engaging in self-care are critical in this work. It’s an ongoing journey of recognizing what’s going on, reevaluating what’s working, and adjusting as needed. Sometimes it takes a while to figure it out- the important thing is to not give up. Your students need you, and you can do this!
To learn more about the art and the science of this little conversation called a conference, check out our new book, To Know and Nurture a Reader: Conferring with Confidence and Joy from Stenhouse Publishers.
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