“We all learn differently, and we all need pathways into whatever it is we’re being taught,” says Georgia Nikoloudakis, a 1st-grade teacher and the chapter leader at PS/IS 95 in Graves-end, Brooklyn.
It’s this philosophy that drives the professional learning experience at PS/IS 95. Each Monday after school, educators at the school come together in teams to explore Universal Design for Learning and ways of differentiating instruction for the school’s diverse population of learners.
“How do we get all our students to reach the same goal when the ‘one size fits all’ model doesn’t work?” asks Nikoloudakis. “That’s the whole framework around what we’re doing.”
The staff of PS/IS 95 started its first professional development cycle of the year in five different “vertical teams.” The teachers in the school’s Gifted and Talented program across all grade levels met as one team, as did teachers of students with disabilities, English language learners and struggling learners. Paraprofessionals from all grades also met as a group.
“We don’t often get to meet up with teachers in other grades who have the same types of students,” said Kimberley Perkins, a 4th-grade teacher on the ELL team. “This is an opportunity for us to utilize strategies from others.”
On a recent Monday in the ELL team meeting, the conversation was lively as teachers from different grades discussed strategies they use to help beginning ELLs speak in class. Using an approach called “give one, take one,” they shared charts and other artifacts from their classrooms and snapped pictures of one another’s work for reference to adapt the strategies for their own classrooms.
Math teacher Donna Breslin was eager to begin constructing a chart of sentence frames with math vocabulary.
“I’m used to doing something more sophisticated because I teach 6th grade,” she said. “But I needed to go down a few levels for my beginning ELLs, and I needed someone to help me with that. I love this because I always take something back.”
Across the hall, a smaller group of gifted and talented teachers was watching a video of Nikoloudakis’ class having a “grand conversation,” or a student-directed discussion.
“Lots of people think 1st-graders wouldn’t be able to debate, but pay attention to what types of UDL structures Ms. Nikoloudakis was using and what the students are doing,” math coach Dana Sivio said to the group.
Third-grade teacher Stella Bayiokos said the professional development cycle helped her think about how to push students who are already performing at a higher level.
“Usually when we meet as a grade, we’re focused on the average student,” said Bayiokos. “This helps me think outside the box for students who already understand.”
Next month, staff members will meet in grade groups, bringing along the strategies they learned from their vertical teams.
“It’s almost like a think tank when you’re working amongst peers,” says Nikoloudakis.