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DV English Teacher Jackie Middleton Shares Innovative Classroom Tools That Help Her Students Access Challenging Content
Jackie Middleton’s upper school English classroom is unlike any other. From the physical space to the images and diagrams covering the walls, Jackie’s classroom is thoughtfully designed to encourage engagement and discussion among her students and to support their different learning challenges around grade-level appropriate content.
Jackie has transformed the standard classroom set-up -- individual desks and chairs in rows facing the front of the room -- and adopted what she calls a “cafe model” for her space. There are counter-height built-in tables around two walls of the perimeter with stools that swivel to allow students to change their focus in the room. Students can face the walls and use the counter space for individual work and to use their laptops, or students can face inward toward the center of the room for group teaching and discussion. The center of the room is open -- allowing for a lot of movement and shifting of positions and groupings during a class period. Students are welcome to use the floor - either sitting on cushions or just the carpet -- and standing is also an option. It’s a deliberately casual, dynamic and flexible space that puts everything the students need within reach while feeling open and inviting.
Jackie maximizes the visual cues and prompts in displays around the room to engage the students in interactive work around the books they are reading and analyzing. The main whiteboard in the room displays upcoming assignments as well as a visual reminder to support students work process. For each of the major assignments Jackie provides both text and pictorial reminders of the steps using the structure: Get Ready, Do, Done, which DV faculty received training on from executive function expert Sarah Ward.
In other areas around the room, Jackie has created storyboards depicting the characters and themes associated with the different novels students are reading for the class. For Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, there are drawings of each of the main characters with their name, a thought bubble that defines a critical aspect of their character, and a list of strengths and weaknesses. Next to the character drawings is a list of literary terms and their meanings that the students are using to analyze the text. This display provides a very visual quick reference guide that students can access to help with class discussions and individual work on this book.
For Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, Jackie further engages the students in creating the display by asking the group to find pictures of people who they think best represent the main characters and using those images to create a relational tree. When new characters are introduced, students add them to the board.
In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth the characters are color-coded to indicate their allegiance (to the throne or Macbeth) and also have some key descriptive points as to their role. When a character dies in the play, the students move that character’s picture to the bottom of the display.
The visual, relational and kinesthetic ways in which the students engage with this display help to solidify key aspects of the story for learners with different areas of strengths and challenges.
Changing focus, moving around the space, and shifting between group and individual work are some of the ways Jackie keeps her students involved during the ninety minute class periods. Another element in her innovative tool box is a deck of color-coded cards with different activities, challenges and short tasks on them. For a change of pace, or if Jackie needs to spend some one-on-one time with a student, she can pull out the cards and have students work individually or in small groups for ten or fifteen minutes.
The activities are differentiated to draw on students’ strengths, so that a student who who is a good writer might get a writing prompt; students who express themselves better speaking might be asked to engage in a discussion or debate, students who have an interest in art might be asked to draw, etc.
These displays and tools are not just illustrations of Jackie’s creativity, which is certainly evident and impressive; they are also examples of multisensory, differentiated instruction that supports students with different levels of ability and different disabilities so that they can engage together around the same challenging content. Incorporating these approaches in her curriculum helps Jackie level the playing field for her students by providing supports and scaffolding in areas of need and offering ways to access and engage with the content using areas of strength.
Jackie Middleton teaches Upper School English as well as one-on-one language arts tutorials at Delaware Valley Friends School. Jackie joined DV as substitute teacher in 2010, and became a permanent faculty member in 2016. Prior to her time at DVFS, Jackie taught in the Coatesville Area School District. Jackie will be stepping into the role of Chair of the English Department in September 2018. Read an interview with Jackie Middleton here-->
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