Teacher says education must be personalized

August 17, 2005

Bulletin Staff Writer

Teachers must get personal with their students to educate them effectively, a University of Virginia professor told local educators Tuesday.

Getting personal means teachers should be interested in each student, find out how each student learns best and to some degree tailor classroom activities to meet those individual learning styles, said Carol Ann Tomlinson, professor of educational leadership and policy at U.Va.

That concept, called "differentiated instruction," allows teachers to use a variety of teaching methods to reach students with different abilities and learning styles.

The Henry County and Martinsville schools, plus the private Carlisle School, are conducting projects involving differentiated instruction or something similar.

Every student sometimes gets a little ahead or a little behind others when learning, said Tomlinson. So teachers must be flexible in their lesson plans so they can assist students who need extra help, all the while making sure other students do not get bored going over a subject they have mastered, she said.

Specific teaching techniques were not discussed in detail.

Tomlinson taught in middle schools for more than 20 years and was named Virginia Teacher of the Year in 1974. In addition to her current position, she has worked with teachers nationwide on differentiated instruction initiatives, local school officials said.

She spoke during a joint meeting of city, county and Carlisle instructors at Martinsville High School. It was sponsored by The Harvest Foundation, which has provided almost $2.69 million in grants to fund the Kindergarten-12th Grade Education Initiative in local schools.

The reason for the grants, said Harry Cerino, the foundation's director, is to help take local schools from "doing a good job to the goal of doing a great job."

"Teachers and educators have one of the most important jobs," he said. "We're investing in children for the future."

Cerino said the initiative is focusing specifically on teaching reaching and math and the best ways to accomplish that.

"We want to improve the quality of our education (system)," he said, and using Tomlinson's expertise among teachers gathered together to share their experiences is a good way to help accomplish that goal.
The money from the grants is spread out over five years, Cerino said.

The grants included $190,000 to the Henry County School System on Dec. 9, 2003, specifically earmarked to begin planning differentiation of instruction on math and literacy. The other grants have been to develop programs in math and literacy in kindergarten through 12th grade in the three school systems, address student performance in those areas and monitor the programs, according to a list of grants on The Harvest Foundation Web site.
Henry County schools are involved in a differentiated education project with help from consultant educators, including some from U.Va. They are "teachers of teachers," said Superintendent Sharon Dodson.

Martinsville schools are using a similar "effective schools" model to use classroom time more efficiently, Superintendent Scott Kizner said.

Carlisle has a curriculum project aimed at boosting student achievement by addressing the needs of a range of students, including those who need challenging course work and those who need remedial help, officials said.
Tomlinson admitted it is hard for middle school and high school teachers who teach 150 students every day to get to know all of their students well. But she said they should try to get to know them as much as possible.
It also is hard to vary teaching methods, she said, when teachers must instruct to comply with the state Standards of Learning (SOLs).

She told teachers that it seems as if "more and more there's a train pushing us to do certain stuff in a certain amount of time."

However, students learn best when lessons are "relevant, engaging and worthwhile experiences," Tomlinson said.
Teachers must "reach out to them first as human beings," letting students know they care, and then "build bridges" between their lives and students' lives to show the relevance of learning, she said.

The approach works, she said, and as proof mentioned a former student who was diagnosed with a learning disability, yet with help he went on to college and earned a master's degree.

Essentially, differentiated learning should be common sense, she said.

"A good teacher is able to teach all of the children," no matter what the individual needs are, Kizner said.
"We want all (local teachers) to be great teachers," said Dodson and called differentiated instruction "the way to do it."

The school year will begin Aug. 24 in Henry County and Martinsville schools. All students at Carlisle School will begin classes Aug. 25.


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