Connecting Columbia Union Seventh-day Adventists

Custom-Made Education

March2014TitleTreatmentHow teachers are making education work for all learning styles

Article by Arin Gencer
Photo by Jamie Bodo

Flexibility is at the heart of Carrie Hess’ English classes at Spencerville Adventist Academy (SAA) in Spencerville, Md. That flexibility is manifested in several ways: Assessing students before test days and rescheduling if they haven’t quite grasped a concept. Allowing some to do alternate assignments or giving others more time to complete papers if inspiration has yet to strike. Coming to school with an agenda that can change once she gauges where her class stands.

“You’re not lowering your standards, but the way you’re able to get your students to that standard may vary from student to student,” says Hess, who teaches juniors and seniors. “It’s about doing what’s right for that student at that point in time.”

Hess’ approach to teaching embraces a concept that education officials in the Columbia Union hope becomes common practice. Differentiated instruction (DI) emphasizes viewing students as individuals and factoring in their learning levels, interests and styles when teaching so that all—whether struggling, on level or advanced—have the opportunity to learn and succeed. The union is in its second year of a five-year initiative to encourage a more intentional focus on this approach and, ultimately, improve student learning.

Join our panel of education experts Tuesday, March 18, at noon, to discuss why Adventist education is still worth the investment, and for tips on how to help your child succeed, no matter what school they attend. Weigh in at

“Differentiated instruction speaks to good teaching,” says Donovan Ross, the Columbia Union Conference’s associate director of secondary education. “It forces the teacher to expand his or her repertoire of teaching strategies.”

The concept also aligns with “what [Seventh-day] Adventists believe: that every child can learn; every child has God-given talent,” says Ileana Espinosa, the union’s associate director of elementary education.

Differentiation: A Quick Primer

Differentiation is “just a way of thinking about the classroom,” says Carol Tomlinson, chair of educational leadership, foundations and policy in the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, who has researched and written extensively on differentiated instruction and curriculum.

“It begins with the belief that kids come to you with different learning needs, and as teachers, we have to make a decision whether we do anything with those differences,” Tomlinson says. “The core of it is really the decision about whether a teacher needs to study his or her students and responds to what the students bring.”

Research shows students bring three key elements to the classroom, Tomlinson says, all of which differentiation responds to: a readiness to learn, which can vary by subject; personal interests; and learning profiles—a combination of gender, culture, how children’s brains are wired and their learning style (i.e., whether they learn better by reading or listening).

Readiness—assessing where a child is in a given subject on a given day—is the most important, she says. “Addressing readiness is necessary for academic growth. If we don’t get a kid … in the right ballpark, they don’t learn. They can’t learn.”

As classrooms have grown more diverse in the past 15 to 20 years, more people have seen the need to differentiate, Tomlinson says. “Differentiation is very broadly accepted as good practice, and in public schools in the United States and Canada, it appears as a key element in systems for evaluating teacher effectiveness.”
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A Union-Wide Initiative

The Columbia Union’s initiative primarily serves as a resource for conferences—not a mandate, education officials say. Last summer, with a grant from the Commonweal Foundation, the union hosted a three-day training session for teachers from each of its eight conferences. More training is planned to further help them incorporate the approach into their classrooms, says Evelyn Sullivan, the union’s associate director for early childhood education and diagram creative paper cut style  template  / can be used f

Conference superintendents have been very supportive of the effort, Espinosa says. “Each school, in its own way, has started down the path.” Several, such as SAA; Spring Valley Academy in Centerville, Ohio; as well as a number of teachers in the Pennsylvania Conference, had already embraced DI. Some have practiced it for years. And, in many multigrade classrooms, some level of differentiation is already the norm. Now superintendents are pursuing conference-wide approaches.

“We’re just taking it one step at a time,” says Jeff Bovee, Pennsylvania’s vice president for education. He asked eight teachers to volunteer to attend the union training last summer, hoping they’d help generate excitement among their colleagues. They all “came back energized,” he says.

The 16 Allegheny East Conference teachers who attended the same union training are now regional mentors supporting their peers, says Gloria Perry, associate superintendent. “Modulars” scheduled throughout the school year introduce teachers to different aspects of DI, which they are expected to start applying in their classrooms.

“For teachers, it’s a mindset change,” Perry says. “Right now, we’re asking our teachers to learn the process and learn it well—and once you learn it, you’ll realize you’re already doing it.”

With the help of the union, the New Jersey Conference trained the teachers in its five schools last September, and Sadrail Saint-Ulysse, superintendent, says he’s “already seeing a difference, even in the lesson plans that the teachers present to me.” He adds, “We were doing some type of differentiated instruction in the past, but now we’re being more specific, and it is becoming more purposeful to helping students based on their individual needs. I’m very encouraged and very pleased with the way that our teachers are implementing it.”

Transformed Classrooms

Teachers say the “intentional flexibility” at the heart of DI gives them freedom to deviate from their plans if students need more time with a concept. The focus is on mastery.

Yoel Paredes uses a similar approach with seventh- and eighth-graders at Meadow View Junior Academy in Chesterfield, N.J. “If there’s an improvement, that’s a good day,” he says. “That’s what I grade—if they learn something. … At the end of the day, I don’t care about the grade as much as I care about learning.”

Paredes, who teaches math, social studies and science, encourages his students to do their own exploration. He considers their passions, asking one to create a video for a project, telling another to pretend she’s working for a newspaper as part of an assignment. He records his lessons for those who learn better from watching the video.

The New Jersey Conference’s September workshop on DI led Nita Connell, principal at the Tranquility Adventist School in Tranquility, to create individualized daily lesson plans for the 13 students (grades 4 through 8) in her classroom. Students pick up a sheet outlining their objectives for the day and set to work. This gives Connell time for one-on-one meetings while the rest of the class moves forward in their own ways—and cuts out the busywork she sometimes used to resort to.

“I can keep them thinking,” Connell says.

A North American Focus

The Columbia Union’s initiative runs parallel to a similar effort in the church’s North American Division to encourage DI in all Adventist schools. Some unions have long embraced the concept and actively put it into practice, says Larry Blackmer, the division’s vice president for education.

“Every union does it a little differently, but most unions are doing something,” Blackmer says. In early 2011, the division provided professional development on differentiation for union directors and associates and offered training again in December for new ones. “We’re hoping that it becomes the norm automatically because teachers feel that it’s the best way to teach,” he says.

The Challenges

Still, DI can present challenges for teachers. In an age when they and their students are judged by standardized tests, differentiating seems counter-intuitive, Tomlinson says. And, put simply, changing habits is hard.

“We have a few teachers who have been teaching for 25-plus years, and if they’re used to teaching in one particular way, it’s really difficult to change that,” says Carla Thrower, principal at Takoma Academy in Takoma Park, Md. Why change what they’re doing, they ask, when many students go on to meet with great success?

Thrower—who transferred from a local public school system where differentiation was a way of life—responds by pointing to the students for whom it didn’t work: How many more would have benefited from more individualized instruction?

Others feel swamped with more going on in the classroom. And, one of the biggest challenges is the time it takes to plan lessons, says Dulce Morales, a second-grade teacher at New Jersey’s Lake Nelson Seventh-day Adventist School in Piscataway. But, she adds, the extra time is worth it.

Join our panel of education experts Tuesday, March 18, at noon, to discuss why Adventist education is still worth the investment, and for tips on how to help your child succeed, no matter what school they attend. Weigh in at

“What I’m doing now works much better,” Morales says. “It helps me to know exactly where my students are struggling and helps me to set goals for them. …Kids are being challenged in the right place.”

She also can communicate better with parents on where their children are, where she wants them to be and how she’s getting them there. “I don’t feel like I’m leaving anyone back,” she says.

Connell echoes that sentiment; she already sees a difference in her students. “They come in with a smile on their face,” she says. “They’re getting more engaged. … The kids now feel like they own their education.”

 Arin Gencer writes from Baltimore.

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