Teachers can also adopt personal mission statements to help guide their planning. For example, when Mitchell was a seventh-grade science teacher, he wanted his students to be able to “ask questions like scientists,” and he infused that idea into each of his units.
Rely on Evidence
Whether the topic is reading instruction or classroom management, there is rich research available if you take the time to look for it. For example, recent advances in neuroimaging are changing intervention methods for students with dyslexia. Mitchell also pointed to John Hattie’s research on 1,200 meta-analyses in an effort to determine the variables that truly impact students' achievement.*
“If something is not working, consult the evidence,” said Mitchell. “Because chances are somebody out there is doing research on it and there’s good evidence to support a practice that you might not know about.”
Break Down the Traditional Structure of School
“I love being an educator,” said Mitchell. “But most everything about the industrial-factory model of school is not ideal for learners.” However, there are ways teachers can work around this structure, such as focusing on the word “variety.”
“When you, as an administrator or teacher, are constructing curriculum, think about variety," said Mitchell. He reminds educators that classes will have a variety of learners so it's important to have several offerings. "Think about multiple-sensory inputs -- let them hear it, let them see it, let them feel it -- and think about multiple instructional forms.” He also said variety is important when assessing student understanding; one form of test or assessment will not adequately reveal every student’s knowledge and skills.
Provide Clear Instruction on How to Think
At Currey Ingram Academy, teachers explicitly teach executive functioning skills to their students. Executive function and self-regulation skills are, according to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, “the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.”
Mitchell shared a strategy used by a third-grade teacher who was giving a short unit test. Immediately prior to the test, she spent 10 minutes reviewing test-taking strategies with her students -- with the test right in front of them. “She reminded them of seemingly simple things like, ‘There are four blanks for question two, and that means four responses are needed.'” After students were done with the test, they engaged in one more learning exercise. “They went over the test again. Not the answers, but the test itself. Did you answer all the questions? Instead of a typically summative learning experience, she made it a formative learning experience.”
Be Mindful of Working Memory Limitations
Working memory is a brain system that temporarily holds information while you process it. It’s where humans store data, step-by-step instructions, or a list until they don’t need it anymore.
“The fundamental friction between the human brain and the traditional learning structure of school resides with our relatively poor working memory,” said Mitchell. He believes that sometimes teachers misinterpret a working memory issue as “willful misbehavior.” For example, what an adult might call “difficulty paying attention” may simply be that “there might be too many things for that child [to hold in working memory], especially children with learning differences.”
Working memory also affects students’ ability to access information, remember instructions, get started on a task and copy information from the board. For some students, “three instructions may be too many. You may need to break it down to one or two.”
Teach Reading Explicitly
Evidence reveals that “explicit, direct instruction works,” said Mitchell, “especially for younger and struggling readers.” There are many evidence-based programs available, but they all contain five strains: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. But even with a great program, a school must still schedule enough time for students to master these skills, said Mitchell. “You need an hour to an hour and a half every day to make the difference.”
Manage Behavior Through Prevention
Mitchell believes that 90 percent of classroom management is prevention: rules, routines, engaging instruction and structure. Rules should be simple, generated by consensus and reviewed regularly. Routines should include regular brain breaks (Mitchell’s teachers use egg timers and take a one-minute “learning break” when it dings), and instruction should use a variety of activities to engage learners. “For the other 10 percent,” said Mitchell, “you need formal, systematic behavior plans and support.”
Use Communication to Your Advantage
Schools “teach families, not just students,” said Mitchell. “If you reach out to your students or parents before they reach out to you, you have built up immense capital.” He recommends that teachers and administrators conduct regular surveys to hear feedback about how things are going in the classroom and at the school. Mitchell has found that his constituents often respond to the surveys with “ ‘thanks for listening to me,’ and that’s probably the most important thing that happens.”
Use Supporting Programs in a Targeted Way
Strong schools engage in “robust and targeted professional development,” said Mitchell. “By targeted I mean you’ve set a goal as a district, you’ve set a goal as a school, you’ve set a goal as an individual, and you target your professional development based on those goals.” Given the financial constraints every school faces, targeting professional development to goals is the "most effective way to utilize your finite resources.”
Celebrate and Empower Students
“Systematically, identify and celebrate at least one strength in every student,” said Mitchell. Then, “give each student opportunities to showcase this strength.”
Students who enroll in Currey Ingram Academy after attending school in a more traditional environment “come in and they are fragile – they have had little success in the academic setting,” said Mitchell. He hopes that these 10 ideas his school employs can help schools that aren't specifically designed for kids with learning differences better meet the needs of all learners.