By Margaret Mary Policastro, Diane Mazeski, Noreen Wach (Roosevelt University, Chicago, Illinois), and Tom Magers (Broadmeadow Elementary School, Rantoul, Illinois)
From the Illinois Reading Council Journal, Fall 2019
Recently, at our Summer Reading Clinic open house, a parent asked if we “ever had success with a student who doesn’t like to read?” As we were thinking of a response, her son, who is just going into 1st grade in the fall, was telling us how much he likes “bones and skulls.” He took out an object from his pocket and showed us a small dinosaur skeleton that he had put together. Collectively, we responded with positive thoughts about how all of these interests would be an important factor for the first day of the clinic and moving forward with him as a reader. On opening day, we had an abundance of books awaiting him about skeletons, bones, dinosaurs, and skulls. We were eager to see how he would respond. Indeed, within minutes of surrounding him with these books, he was totally engaged, curious, and captivated by the informational texts with which he was encircled. The photo in Figure 1 captures the essence of what happens when you match books to students’ interests. In this instance, the student going into 1st grade had access to books that had pictures, diagrams, and illustrations for him to comprehend. One pop-out book dis- played dinosaur skeletons. Since that first day, we noticed how his interest in these topics is both dense and deep—a knowledge base of information far greater than most of his peers.
We reflected on this experience as we realized one more time how critical and essential it is for teachers to get to know their students from many different perspectives. Perhaps this type of “knowing” and information about our students can bridge the missing needed information gap, support struggling students, and scaffold learners into literacy well-being. We bring this example up because more and more we see an emphasis on the assessment of academic skills of the learner and not so much on getting to know who the students are. We see that the start of the school year is often heavy on all sorts of assessments and diagnostic tools to determine their academic pro- file and get ready for guided reading groupings. As Springer, Harris, and Dole (2017) state, “In light of our current test focused educational cli- mate, some teachers think that their focus must shift away from motivation to read in favor of core-focused instruction. . . . [E]ither we focus on readers’ motivation and interest or we can focus on test-prep and learning” (p. 43). We believe academic assessments are important, but we also believe in the critical information needed to be collected about the lives of our students. It is this rich information that allows us to determine what texts students need to have access to, what read- alouds will capture their attention, how to plan for guided reading materials, and what to include in our classroom libraries and centers that will engage students and immerse them in their quest to literacy. Further, there needs to be a way to balance the data collected on students to reflect both an academic profile and also important information about the life of the student. We believe that getting to know our students is at the heart of differentiation in the balanced literacy classroom. Therefore the purpose of this article is threefold:
- To offer an overview and definition on the ideas inherent in differentiated instruction.
- To give a rationale for why we need to get to know our students from multiple perspectives, including both academic profiles along with important information about the life of the learner
- To provide examples of strategies and activities for gathering and collecting data on getting to know our students within the balanced literacy classroom routine.