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Teachers eager to gain better understanding of learning differences

This is Part Four of our series on learning differences that explores the perspectives of teachers. In Part One, EdNC reporter Rupen Fofaria shared his learning differences story. In Part Two, we explored the meaning of the term learning differences. In Part Three, we looked at students with learning differences and what their journeys and successes look like.

In her first year as a teacher, Lauren Acree found herself instructing a group of 12 middle school students — all with emotional or behavioral issues and some, she suspected, with learning differences as well.

Acree hadn’t received specific training on learning differences during her undergraduate studies. She had only been given modest training with the behavioral issues, in fact. Out of sheer instinct to survive the day, Acree determined she needed a personalized approach to learning in her classroom.

“I had to figure out how to make a day work for each of them,” she said. “Making my classroom work in one way was not going to meet the needs of each of them. And if I wasn’t meeting their needs, we had lots of behavioral issues. But instead of kind of casting that on them, I felt like: Okay, what can I do to set them up for success?”

Now a research associate at The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, Acree is part of team that has developed a course for teachers to understand and address learning differences. And as she dug into the research and learned more about the issue, Acree was reminded of her old classroom.

“Maybe it wasn’t that Micah, who runs out of the classroom at every opportunity, is difficult — it was like, oh, for him, it’s task initiation. Getting started is the hard part,” she said. “And so, what could I do to help him get started? And having that language — man, that would have been so empowering as a teacher, rather than just knowing that it’s hard for me and I’m having a hard time reaching the students. That specific language is super powerful.”

Acree is now helping to pass that superpower on to other educators. Under the leadership of Mary Ann Wolf, director of the Professional Learning and Leading Collaborative at the Friday Institute, and alongside Alex Dreier, an instructional design lead, Acree has helped develop a Massive Online Open Course for Educators (MOOC-Ed) that K-12 teachers, instructional coaches, instructional support teams, and administrators can take to supplement their understanding of learning differences and adopt a common vocabulary around everyday struggles in their classrooms.

“No teacher would say, ‘This doesn’t matter’, or ‘I don’t need more support in this,’” Wolf said. “But I think what it comes down to often is either they weren’t prepared to have this understanding or language, or they don’t necessarily see the time to learn it now.”

Students at White Oak Elementary School in Edenton have many choices on how to learn and complete assignments, including limited time on iPads to learn through games or complete assignments. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC.

Underprepared by teacher prep

Acree is not alone in the feeling that her undergraduate teacher preparation program did not adequately cover learning differences. In fact, several teachers around the state said that the issue was not addressed in their master’s education classes. Instead, most of the background was in curriculum with only modest experience through student teaching, or clinical practice. For teachers we spoke with, this led to a rude awakening during their first year of teaching.

“I was not feeling prepared at all,” said Leslie Peele, a first grade teacher at White Oak Elementary School in Edenton. “I felt like college — I know it sounds bad — but college just doesn’t prepare you for that. Not until you’re in your classroom and learning how to do things completely by yourself. I mean, even with the mentor teacher, when you had that, you still had her leadership to kind of go off of, but when you’re on your own, you’re trying to figure out what to do really.

First year, I didn’t know what to do. And so you did have those struggling students, but at the time, you’re just trying to stay afloat.”

Teresita Hurtado, the learning specialist at Cannon School in Concord, had a similar experience. In fact, when she first started teaching in the early 1990s, not only were learning differences not addressed in teacher prep coursework, there was little awareness around the issue at all.

“What we once thought was a student maybe had dyslexia or a learning disability, that there was this finite space — that now they can only get so far,” Hurtado said. “But that’s not accurate. What we know about neuroplasticity, that’s not accurate at all.”

Hurtado remembers what it was like when she first started teaching and, compared to now, sees vast improvement in both awareness of learning differences and teachers’ desires to learn and do more.

“You would have thought maybe in your class of 30-something kids, you’d find maybe one or two kids,” she said of the thinking at the time. “But in reality, statistically, that’s impossible. There were probably at least another eight, you know, that I didn’t know were struggling, that were masking it better. 

So now I think there’s an awareness. I don’t know if schools and teacher education programs, in general, are doing enough, though. I think we can do more. But I think there is a greater awareness to prepare teachers for this world. I think we are moving in the right direction of understanding — and realizing that the numbers are maybe much more significant than 1 in 5.”

White Oak Elementary School in Edenton is a 1:1 school where each child has an iPad available for limited use. While some students prefer to read physical books, others can read aloud and record themselves, while still others can read books by listening instead of with their eyes. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

The learning differences MOOC-Ed

When Sheila Evans receives an e-mail from the Friday Institute, she stops and pays attention.

“I love what they’re doing,” said Evans, the principal at White Oak Elementary in Edenton. On one summer day in 2017, the e-mail was about the MOOC-Ed.

“I thought, this is fascinating, I think we need to do more on this,” Evans said. So she signed up eight of her faculty.

Through grants from organizations like the Oak Foundation, the Friday Institute created a MOOC-Ed designed to bridge the gap between where teachers leave off after graduation and where they need to be once they get into the classroom.

“We continue to see that a lot of people come out of the schools without a deep understanding,” Wolf said. “And I think part of the goal of our work is that we become more a part of doing that.”

The MOOC-Ed was first created for teachers in their first three years of the profession, but it quickly became apparent that the audience demand was much broader.

“We were building something that would work for beginning teachers in their first three years, and then we started to have these veteran teachers come in and say, ‘You know, I forgot to look beyond the head on the table. I just thought that kid didn’t care,’” Wolf said. “And then they started to learn about motivation and the other things that come into play, like the task initiation and when kids don’t know where to start, they might just put their head down. And so that was rewarding but also surprising for us that these veteran teachers are like, ‘You know what, I thought I knew this stuff, but really, I had forgotten or I never had the language in the first place.’”

The MOOC-Ed runs through six units covering what learning differences look like, executive functions, working memory issues, student motivation, and strategies for teachers in their classrooms. At the end of the course, there is a final “project” where teachers are asked to pick one student, interview them to identify learning differences, and then try different strategies.

The course is meant to provide deeper understanding around learning differences while not requiring a hefty investment of time.

“We are not talking about taking a month out of your instruction,” Wolf said. “We’re talking about maybe one day a week for four weeks, or something like that.”

Each of the White Oak faculty did the MOOC-Ed independently, and then they met weekly as a group to discuss and trade thoughts. By the end, they received a lot of affirmation on practices the school already had in place, but they were able to add new components to their teaching strategy, tweak previous practices, and — perhaps most rewarding — adopt a common language.

“I think the course brought our attention back to the learner,” said June Proctor, an instructional coach at White Oak. “I think we all knew from our experience that each child learns differently. And so it was like a refresher course on that, but it brought it back to the forefront and gave us terminology and different strategies. I think that’s important for us.”

Added first grade teacher Jennifer Attkisson: “We bounced ideas and discussions off of each other during that time that I don’t think would have happened if it were just me at home doing that or sitting in my classroom after school. The collaboration part between us was valuable.”

The White Oak teachers say they look at their students, whom they call “their friends,” differently now. There has always been a culture of acceptance and nurturing individual learning styles, but now each student’s learning possibilities are puzzles just waiting to be solved — not behavior issues or similar challenges.

“It’s about building that relationship and finding out from their perspective, not what we perceive to be something that they think, something they see themselves as good at or that they struggle with or what their interests are,” Attkisson said.

First graders in Leslie Peele’s class start their day with guided reading instruction before breaking up into groups, partnering up or reading independently. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

A glimpse inside White Oak

At White Oak, the Friday Institute found an already friendly audience for learning differences. But even that group was able to improve their approach.

“We saw statistically significant gains in the strategies those teachers were using in their classrooms,” Wolf said. “And I think that school embodies the ideas around this. Sheila Evans is an amazing principal and she knows to actually focus on things like this. I think they are a great example.”

The examples are perhaps most evident in the personalized approach to reading and the bevy of choices offered to students throughout their instruction.

“I think the way we have things set up, there’s a lot of room for children that do have a learning difference to learn in their own way,” Attkisson said. “With our reading time, we have the reading groups, but there’s also the reading workshop model that incorporates a lot of the partner work, independent work, group work, and we use flexible seating. There’s a lot of choice in student learning here. There’s a lot of things that we do throughout the day, that opens the door for a child that learns differently or learns outside of the box that will allow them to be successful.”

The day for first graders begins with group reading instruction, where teachers project books onto smart boards and take students through a reading — starting by looking at the pictures and predicting what is happening. They also discuss tricks for handling tricky words, remembering to ask themselves: Does it look right? Does it sound right? Does it make sense?

Then they break up into small groups, which are comprised of readers at similar skill level. Afterward, students either partner up or have independent reading. The teachers will partner classmates who have different strengths and allow the students to co-teach each other, allowing peers to help one another when they are struggling.

In independent reading, some kids select physical books and choose their own space to settle in with the book. Others might choose to use a cloud library called Epic and select a book to read off a device. Books on Epic can either be read in a traditional manner, or kids can select a link to listen to the book using headphones.

“It goes back to the choices,” Peele said. “You’re giving these strategies and then you’re giving them choices. But ultimately, they get to decide and that’s going back to their ownership of how they want to learn.”

The choices are plentiful in math, where sometimes teachers will offer students up to 10 strategies they could use to work out a single problem. The student can choose one or two strategies to try and can keep going back to different strategies until they find something that works for them.

“And if they become frustrated, we’ll say: ‘Try something different,'” Proctor said. “If that didn’t work, then try this or try that, you know.”

Attkisson recalls one time when a parent grew frustrated by the multitude of choices their students had. 

“Why can’t you just tell my child how to do the math one way, like I learned?” the parent wondered.

“Because your child might not learn like you do or like another child does,” Attkisson said. 

Having the choice and teaching kids how to make these choices is one of the more important lessons they can teach, say the White Oak teachers. Not only do students learn differently in school, these same students may perform differently in the future when they’re out in the real world.

“You’re trying to develop a lifelong learner who’s succeeding at life,” Attkisson said. “Times are different now and these kids graduate and go out to get a job or go onto the next step, it’s not a memorization thing. You’re working in teams and you’re problem-solving and you’re engineering and you’re creating. It’s a technological world now, so people are writing and doing different things while they’re listening to a podcast in the background, or watching their iPad while they’re typing other things over here.

And, you know, if we don’t teach all these different ways, then they might be successful here right now, but after the fact, will they be?”

The teachers and faculty at White Oak are among more than a thousand educators across 90 countries who have engaged in the Friday Institute’s work around learning differences, and the team at the Friday Institute is analyzing participant responses and feedback in an effort to improve and grow the resource. For them, as former teachers and education development professionals, finding a way to empower educators to reach each child is the mission.

They talk about every person’s unique genetic makeup and individual backgrounds. They talk about how it is only natural that each person receive and process information differently. And they talk about how every kid is expected to show up to school, and if they must show up and they necessarily show up differently, why shouldn’t they each be treated as individual learners?

For Acree, it goes back to the lessons she learned that first year in teaching.

“I just remember,” she said, “the students that I was able to work with most effectively were the students who were able to say exactly what they needed. They had a sort of self awareness. And, you know, at the time I knew that that was important and recognized that I wanted my students to understand exactly what was hard and how to talk to other teachers about that in other settings. But coming to the Friday Institute and learning about the learning differences work, understanding the science behind it — it was really empowering to have specific language.

And so now, understanding the specifics of your learners and how you can better meet their needs has become really important to me, and helping other educators do that has become really important to me.”

Editor’s note: The Oak Foundation supports the work of EducationNC.

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria was the equity and learning differences reporter for EducationNC from 2018 through October 2023.