The Yellow Zone
Posted by Megan Nesbeth on May 22, 2012 - 01:05 PM
At Vermont’s Middlebury Union Middle School, students and teachers learn to thrive in differentiated classrooms by staying in the Yellow Zone.
“Theoretically, students learn better if they’re all in the same room,” says first-year student-teacher Emily Culp. “You get less discrimination problems and less teachers teaching down to lower tracks, which plays into all sorts on inequities that we have.”
“But if you’re going to put them all in the same classroom, you can’t keep teaching the same way, because it won’t work,” says Culp. “You have to teach so that the students who are struggling and the students who don’t struggle at all in school are challenged all at the same time. You have to do more at once.“
While mixed classrooms hold the promise of social justice, many teachers, veteran and rookie alike, are probably chuckling at the thought of integrated classrooms being easy to teach. Yet when they’re successful, differentiated classrooms are one of the strongest methods of inclusion in education.
Mixed classrooms have long posed a huge challenge for teachers. Attempted solutions at eliminating the problem all together, such as tracking, are steeped in a long history of injustice. Furthermore, the most intuitive solutions, such as smaller class sizes, are a logistical impossibility in many schools.
Many Vermont schools, such as Middlebury Union Middle School (MUMS) where Culp began her career, are blessed with smaller class sizes. Yet that alone has not been enough to guarantee that each student receives the targeted education that they most need. Like many other schools, MUMS has long struggled long to keep high-achieving students from being scheduled for too many study halls, and other students from being pulled out for stigmatizing tutoring sessions.
Today, while still far from perfect, MUMS offers new hope in making mixed classrooms productive and enriching for all students. For the 2011-12 school year MUMS has hired Bill Rich, a former teacher who is now a consultant on differentiated instruction, to help teachers better meet the individual needs of each unique student. Rich first worked with the MUMS cohort during the summer, and continues to visit the campus one full day per month to support teachers on an ongoing basis. Rich’s methods focus on openly and transparently explaining to the middle school students that everyone will be celebrated at a different time. At the core of Rich’s teachings sits the “Challenge Level Challenge,” a rethinking of our traditional understanding of comfort zones.
Where Rich’s Challenge Level Challenge methodology differs from others is this: rather than sharing it with teachers only, Rich encourages teachers to share it with their students, too. By giving clear, relevant, real-world examples of what it means to work at each level, teachers can explain to students that the yellow “challenged” zone is optimal for growth. This develops a common language between teachers and their students.
Getting to Yellow
As a Connecticut native and Vermont transplant, Emily Culp found herself in a whole new world when she decided to student-teach seventh-grade English in Middlebury, Vermont. Once she got her bearings, her initial discomfort turned out to be the best tool for helping her students to understand the Challenge Level Challenge. While explaining her lack of skill with skiing or tractors compared to that of her students, Culp taught them what it looked like to be comfortable, challenged, and overwhelmed.
Tiered work structures were common in the classroom that Culp shared with her collaborating teacher, Eileen Sharps. Tiers surrounding a book that Emily was teaching her class may have looked like this:
Level 1: What’s one character trait that this character has, and how do you know?
Level 2: What’s the most important character trait that this character has, and why is it the most important of all of his or her traits?
Level 3: What’s the most important character trait that this character has, and why is it the most important of all of his or her traits? AND can you connect this to a possible theme?
After posing three tiered questions, Culp or Sharps would instruct every student to pick the question that they felt ready for. This is a big task for a middle-schooler, Culp says: “The differentiation has to be really transparent. You have to tell the kids, every kid is ready for a different thing with different skills.”
To encourage a clearer understanding of this, teachers constantly do exercises with the students explaining the different levels through different skills. Culp describes modeling as best practice for a differentiated, heterogeneous room. Teachers read the students a series of statements and ask students to physically move to the area demarcated by red, yellow, or green paper based on how comfortable they are with the particular prompt that has been presented. Using a wide range of skills from hunting deer to writing a computer program, every child can be celebrated, just at a different time. Kids physically move to different zones all over, and the class discusses this movement and its implications.
“It’s really brain science,” Culp and Sharps remind their class. “If you’re overwhelmed, you can’t learn and if you’re comfortable, you can’t learn, so we always want to be in the yellow.”
With examples such as skiing, Culp would guide students through the process of talking out how to choose the best way to accommodate skiers of different levels within a group.
Should everyone do the bunny trails?
No, because some kids would be bored.
Should everyone do the black diamond?
No, because some students might get hurt.
Should everyone do a medium trail?
No, because that’s no fun.
Finally, Culp suggests that every person in the group ski the trail that they feel best on and then suggests a similar approach for schoolwork.
Talking through a more concrete problem allows students to relate. Culp stresses though that any introduction to choosing different levels must be open and honest. For example, she reminds students that this class is not like elementary school, when they were split up by how “smart” they were and sometimes felt crummy. Modeling sample problems at each tier level is also essential. “You always have to show them a model,” Culp says, where you can say, “If you can do this model choose a harder one, if not choose an easier one. “
Staying Yellow All Year Round
To continue supporting the groundwork laid through all of the exercises and models, Rich suggests that teachers give each student a red, yellow, and green chip. Students can display, on their desk, the chip that reflects how they’re feeling at any given moment, which in turn reflects whether their brain is learning.
Written one-to-one contact between teacher and student via self-assessment rubrics and written assignments has become another hallmark of implementing successful tiered strategies because it allows teachers to better identify students’ individual needs.
Once kids understand the system, teachers can pose questions such as, “Which question will be your yellow question? “ As much agency as this gives to students every now and again, teachers will still have to make the tough calls and tell a student to do the harder question. The goal is to have students get to the point where, during any learning activity, they can put themselves in the yellow zone.