Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners

Inclusion is oftentimes seen as a utopian concept that is far from being applied at German schools. There are numerous controversies about the differences between exclusion, integration and inclusion focusing on terminologies and the shortcomings of school-system, equipment at schools, and lack of financial means. While debating these important issues, we might sometimes lose sight of a – if not the –  fundamental thought of inclusion that every teacher can work on: to see, value and meet the needs of diverse learners.

In January 2017, our university allowed us to spend two sessions observing classroom actions at the “Rosa-Luxemburg-Grundschule” in Potsdam. This school is one out of 85 elementary schools participating in a pilot project named “inklusive Grundschule” (inclusive elementary school). While you could not observe a completely different school structure, a special architecture for children with special needs or more teachers than usual, you could clearly experience how much students benefit from a teacher who values differences in learners and has an idea about where to start with regard to inclusion. In the following, we want to elaborate on how inclusion could take place, according to our observations and experience in work and studies. Therefore, we will first demonstrate how the administrators of the “Rosa-Luxemburg-Grundschule” model inclusion. Then, we will discuss means to provide equity for all students. Next, how one can differentiate to meet all students needs and before drawing a conclusion, we will also look at how teachers guarantee and celebrate success for all students.

The “Rosa-Luxemburg-Grundschule” supports special needs students by concentrating on learning problems, emotional, social difficulties and language barriers. Classes should not exceed 23 pupils to guarantee a conducive environment. Furthermore, 60 hours of consulting by two special needs teachers are given to ensure feedback to teachers as well as the acquirement of specific knowledge in dealing with the diverse needs of learners.

When dealing with diverse learners, equity must be provided. It is a principle of fairness, which is closely related to equality. However, in contrast to equality, equity does not mean treating every student the same way. More importantly, it aims at meeting the needs of every student individually by means of differentiation, which will be discussed at a later point of this paper. Equity needs to be included in every diverse classroom since all students are different and learn differently. Thus, a teacher should provide diverse methods in order to ensure that each student can achieve his best. We observed equity being modeled in many ways. Most importantly, we observed the basis of equity to be a positive relationship between the teachers and the students. The relationship has to be made of trust and openness in order to ensure a positive learning atmosphere. The teacher’s trust was obvious since she allowed the students to use mobile devices for their research trusting them to not misuse their devices. Also, her friendly attitude and the ease with which students expressed themselves towards her made a good relationship visible. This quality is certainly partly produced by open discussions and tolerance of all utterances, opinions and feelings.

At the beginning and end of each class, students gathered in a circle and had an open conversation about contents, but also shared personal feelings about the lesson, for instance. The teacher took a moderating role who ensured equal contribution, but was clearly not imposing her opinion on the students’ minds. It seemed like she had the role of a learning partner rather than a leader. Moreover, the teacher showed fair treatment, which is also part of equity: She ensured, for instance, that every student was included in the group work and provided extra help if necessary. When presenting results, the teacher also accepted that some students presented less than others, she might have found this fact justifiable for individual reasons of workload, capability etc.

Another example of equity was given when station work applied. Every student was able to finish their work within the designated time- and therefore experience success – due to different difficulties of worksheets. Moreover, the teacher and students were allowed to switch between the English and the German language, thus, learning at their current language level. Nevertheless, two thirds of the language spoken in class was English. Most of the time, several students answered in German to ensure that everybody understood their valuable contributions. In general, most of the instructions were translated into German by a student in order to allow every participant to understand what the next task was dealing with and no communication problems applied. Furthermore, equity was achieved by creating a common basis for an exchange and work with the language: The most important vocabulary had been practiced beforehand so that students could all understand the lesson’s content.  Additionally, a high quantity of repetitions, concerning the content of certain tenses, was contrived.  Due to this method, students were able to understand the use and formation, for example, of the “will-future”.  After a period of time, students worked cooperatively and orally presented their results at the end of the session.

In looking at how equity is enforced, it became clear that differentiation is the key to meeting diverse needs, and there are various ways to differentiate. In our observation, we saw that the station work’s material had three different levels of difficulties. Each student was given a certain color which signalized his level.  The first station dealt with learning vocabulary. The task differed by the amount of given vocabulary which had to be translated. Another work station showed a differentiation of text length in which students had to color certain words. They finished their station work by filling out a crossword puzzle. The easier crossword sheet showed a few pictures which should be correctly filled in, the more difficult sheet merely dealt with descriptions of certain word. Observing the language of communication, we noticed another possibility of differentiation. Some learners were allowed to answer to certain questions in German whereas other students were encouraged to answer in English.

Moreover, when the class was reading the stories of Robin Hood, the teacher distributed the play’s characters to the students. She consciously matched the length of the written text to the students and thereby met different levels of competence. Besides that, some translations of vocabulary were provided at the end of each page in order to ensure the understanding of the given text.  During another lesson, the students had to compile information about animals in winter. They had already started this exercise and collected information about their animals in an early lesson. Different material was presented for the students who worked in groups. There was a circle in the middle of the classroom where students could take books from and read about their animal. Students were also allowed to use electronic devices in order to research information on their animal. Thus, the students did not just learn from a universal input given by the teacher, but individually researched on their own, using tools which they find helpful for their level of knowledge and way of learning. Hence, the students did not simply learn from above, but learned within the process of researching. Differentiation could be also seen in the teacher’s feedback. She did not criticize everything, but rather tried to give as many hints as she thought would be constructive for each student at the very moment. This avoidance of overly applied criticism is certainly conducive for creating motivation.

Motivation is also an important trigger of success, and the other way around. Motivation and a feeling of success must be guaranteed in every classroom. A diverse classroom asks for various ways of showing a student his accomplishments. To guarantee individual success and motivation, the importance of an atmosphere where students are comfortable taking risks needs to be reiterated. This atmosphere does not only foster a feeling of belonging and pleasure in itself, but also ensures that mistakes and criticism of mistakes can be taken in order to develop, and not to feel discouraged. From what we have observed, we think that this atmosphere can be achieved only if the teacher shows interest in all students and has a trustful relationship with them. For instance, when the teacher gathered all students around her in a circle to talk about the last lesson, she asked the students what they had learned in class and complimented them for their good reading skills. Compliments continued to be spoken throughout the course of the lesson as individual responses to contributions. This regular praise of success is essential to keep up the motivation of students, also of those who take rather small steps in the learning process. Another trigger of success is certainly a high contribution of students. As it was one lessons’ plan for the class to continue with the play that they had started to read, Mrs. Kramer distributed the different roles to the pupils. With each chapter, she redistributed all of them to make sure that every pupil gets to read out loud. In doing so, she made sure that everybody practiced their English reading skills equally. It is only by this practice that success can be achieved. Furthermore, Mrs. Kramer paid close attention to the pronunciation of the words and asked the pupils to repeat certain passages if their pronunciation had been flawed. This individual feedback helps students to learn the proper pronunciation of words guaranteeing success in the foreign language. It was, in fact, striking how many pupils already had an accurate pronunciation of the English words considering that they were only in 6th grade.

Moreover, success was guaranteed throughout a pre-, while- and post-reading task when the stories of Robin Hood were approached in 6th grade. Before they started reading the book, learners created mind-maps which every group presented afterwards. While they were reading the book, Mrs. Kramer asked how to pronounce certain vocabulary and for their meaning. When they finished reading, some students were allowed to sum up the content of a few pages. Because the teacher offered so many small tasks, every student got the chance to feel success. Last, but not least, to guarantee success, feedback is not only an important tool for the teacher to correct students and point to strengths, but their feedback can also help the teacher to meet the diverse needs. At the end of each lesson, the teacher asked the students to give some feedback about how they liked the lesson, which showed likes, dislikes, and feelings of success and disappointment. Also, the students were asked to name one positive and one negative aspect about each other’s performance. The way in which the students provided the feedback was very encouraging and motivating and showed that they have already learned how to kindly criticize and motivate each other. Taking over responsibilities, such as evaluating each other, also creates a motivating atmosphere in which tolerance for different strengths and weaknesses plays an important role.

All in all, one can say that inclusion can be achieved working on the relationships with the students. It is important that they feel valued, safe to take risks, and to meet their individual needs as well as possible. Key factors for meeting diverse needs include open communication, immediate feedback, individual learning modifications, modeling tolerance, acceptance, and motivation. As you can see, special equipment and financing is not necessary when creating an inclusive environment in a classroom. A classroom needs positive relationships and a variety of classroom strategies.

 

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