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by Michael Milone on Feb 1, 2018
In the teacher’s manual for every instructional program, there is a suggestion about the ideal way to use the materials. For many teachers, however, the ideal way is an impossible dream. So, what do you do? Improvise and create implementation models that match your circumstances.
Some of you might think you are misreading what I’ve written. After all, I’m one of those annoying academics (annoyademics?) who gets in everybody’s face about fidelity of implementation. I even blogged about it here. But I’m also a former teacher who knows the most effective approach to fidelity is adapting practices to the existing circumstances, and no single implementation model works for everybody.
In considering the best implementation models for your students, Step No. 1 is to recognize you are going to need a bunch of them, probably more than you first suspect. The complexities of everyday life in a classroom can be overwhelming and inconsistent.
The overwhelming part is generally recognized. Students vary with respect to their abilities, personalities, background knowledge, and practically everything else. Then, there are the foreseen and unforeseen circumstances like the inattention that rises during the holiday season (foreseen) and the squirrel that finds its way into the classroom (unforeseen), all of which consume time, resources, and patience. In the wonderful piece, Designing Lessons for Diverse Learners, Natalie Olinghouse (now at the University of Connecticut) addresses the diversity challenge by describing ways of accommodating all students’ needs, not just those who are struggling.
The inconsistent part is sometimes not so readily recognized. How do you make things work for a student with sporadic attendance? How about another student who attends class regularly for two months, sporadically for three months, and then returns to steady attendance? How about the student who enters your classroom in late January with so little forwarded learning data that you aren’t sure where to start?
The response to all of these intimidating situations is, of course, make it up as you go along, a.k.a. improvise. Oh, and don't forget to keep a journal about what you did. You never know when your brilliance on one day will come back to help you.
When improvising your implementation models, the primary consideration should probably be deciding what is most important for a given student or group of students with similar needs. Although this sounds straightforward and obvious, it can be difficult to accept. If you are teaching a fourth grade class and some of your students are having problems with word recognition, it can be hard to focus on word recognition with them when “the authorities” are expecting you to teach EVERYBODY close reading of complex text so you and your students won’t be classified as inadequate based on a single-episode test score. (SIGH) You have to suck it up because you know without good word-recognition skills, close reading is impossible.
A related consideration is establishing a timeline for providing the critical instruction and practice. This can be tricky because the research is clear about the greater effectiveness of distributed practice when compared to massed practice. However, some instruction or practice is better than none, so one of the “desperation” implementation models is to give students ample opportunities to learn when the students are available.
If some students have attendance deficit disorder (get it?), an alternative is to provide even a small dose of something, like a digital learning experience or a group reading/discussion activity, when the opportunity presents itself. If you can manage this on an irregular but continuing basis, it’s kind of like distributed practice. It also adds some predictability and stability to the student’s school experience, which is just as challenging for the student as it is for the teacher.
When I recently spoke with some teachers about implementation models, one of them mentioned something to the group I found interesting. She always previewed new materials from beginning to end to identify the absolutely mission-critical elements throughout the year. She often found herself associating a particular skill or topic with one or more of her students who would be really interested in it or would benefit from it. The head nodding from the other teachers suggested this was a pretty good idea. I agree.
In closing, I would like to suggest it also will be enormously helpful to the students if your improvised implementation model, no matter what it is, includes some quality time with you, whether as an individual or small-group experience. The time together will give you an opportunity for providing some extra instruction, conducting an informal assessment, discussing something the student has read, and, in general, interacting in a way that shows the student you care.
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