Now we've got the foundation in place: beginning our instruction at a higher level, which allows us to push our entire class (gifted and IEP kids included) farther along before we wrap up our unit.
But this solution doesn't work without individualized instruction. And that kind of support comes from using your classroom equivalent of my “circle table.”
A gathering place for learning
For years, I had an old poker table at the back of my classroom. It was covered with a hard writing surface and surrounded by stools so that multiple kids could easily fit around it.
Of course, any table will work; it's the concept of the circle table that’s important – although my kids always liked the fact that they were gathered around a poker table!
So, how does this fit in with your mini-lesson?
At the end of every lesson, I announce that those who want a little bit of extra help need to meet me at the circle table with their papers. This is my opportunity to very quickly clear up any lingering issues that a child may be having with understanding the lesson.
By the way, if I get a flood of people at the circle table, then I know that I need to do some immediate re-teaching!
Usually, these kids just need a little confidence. After giving them a quick brain boost, I'm free to walk about the room, asking questions and checking in to see how everyone is doing, including those advanced kids who may be racing ahead already.
Then the circle table comes back into play if needed. If your speed-demons are finishing up, they can be called back for a quick review of their work and then some extension activities.
Video tips: working with small groups
Helping individual students
Individualizing doesn't stop just because you've given focused attention to a small group. Sometimes you have to go all the way down to the single student to give them the support they need to be successful.
Take a look at how to make this work in your classroom.
Video tips: one-on-one sessions with students
Left behind? Or pulled ahead?
I can understand if you remain concerned about your lower kids being left behind because of the methods I've outlined. However, I really encourage you to try it; it will resolve not only many of the issues with your early finishers, but will also raise the performance of all the kids in your room.
After all, isn't that really the point of Special Education: supporting kids to function at grade level?
Trust me on this: challenging lesson plans with support from a devoted teacher can work wonders!
I have a lot more ideas on this, including information on different subject areas, in my Elementary Einsteins book.
I'll finish up with a few more guidelines that take lesson plans from “adequate” to “super-engaging.”
Children learn by seeing and doing, not by listening
Humans are primarily visual learners. Yes, there is always room – and good reason – to include other learning pathways, such as auditory or kinesthetic. But make no mistake: your children will learn much more quickly if you engage them visually.
We've all heard the voice of the teacher in the Charlie Brown cartoons… you know, the voice that is essentially a nonsensical drone. No matter how great a lesson you prepare, this is exactly how your voice sounds to your students after approximately five minutes.
Let me restate this to ensure full understanding: You cannot talk knowledge into students’ heads. They must see and experience to learn. By the way, this is why I absolutely adore using interactive whiteboards – and why my students love them as well.
So keep it visual, keep any talking short, and move on to practical application. As I’ve said, this is why mini-lessons are “mini” – they're supposed to be short so that kids can quickly start applying what they have learned in order to reinforce it.
Using a pre-assessment for individualizing instruction
I've tossed out the concept of a “pre-assessment” a few times as a means for determining the current level of knowledge your students have regarding a particular standard. Let's talk a bit more about them for individualizing instruction.
Such an assessment, given before your first lesson in a unit, can help you target your instruction so that you are not making assumptions about your students’ existing knowledge.
Where do these pre-assessments come from? Many curricula will have these built in, just as they have pre-tests built into the review section for each unit. If they don't, then look up your standard online and find a set of practice items.
Usually, you'll be giving this pre-assessment near the end of the preceding unit. You want to hit the ground running with your first lesson in your next unit, so don't take up that valuable time with your pre-assessment. Get it done a few days earlier so you can do some final tweaking on your lesson plans.