Ruhi Khan is a Clinical Assistant Professor at Arizona State University and an iTeachAZ Site Coordinator for the Deer Valley Unified School District. She also spent 16 years in the classroom where she taught elementary and early childhood education. For two of those years, she was a master teacher at a TAP school where she supported teams of teachers by providing specific evidence, feedback, and suggestions during coaching and observation cycles. In 2010, Ruhi was recognized as Deer Valley Unified District’s teacher of the year and represented the United States as a delegate for the Chinese Bridge Program in 2011. In her current role, Ruhi works with teacher candidates to prepare them for their careers in elementary and special education. In this piece, we ask her to share her thoughts on the proper use of differentiation for students with disabilities.
Thriving Schools: Ruhi, you have a unique lens into the development of teachers because you get to see them make that transition from degree to classroom. Focusing on the area of special education, what are some of the larger challenges they face as they make this transition?
Ruhi: Based on the feedback I receive from teachers and administrators, I’d say the big one is understanding the proper function of an IEP. This document shouldn’t be something we do just to meet a deadline or requirement. And our focus shouldn’t be on simply dotting i's and crossing t’s. It’s a living, breathing document that should help stakeholders understand how to best support a child. I work closely with the special education departments of our district partners to offer monthly programming that helps our teachers with this.
Thriving Schools: Tell us more about that. How did you design this programming to get 1st year teachers more experience with IEPs?
Ruhi: During these sessions, one of the things we do is give our teachers time to tinker around with e-IEP Pro so they can better understand the document and the process. And this is something they didn’t previously have an opportunity to do. The problem is the software is complicated – you have all these different screens and dropdown menus. And for teachers that have 3 IEPs due in September, you can see how they’d quickly become frustrated with it all. Furthermore, because our collaboration with the district is so strong, I also have district folks come into my class and deliver sessions twice a semester on topics they’re seeing our current 1st year teachers struggle with.
Thriving Schools: Where do you think the difficulty with writing effective IEPs comes from? And what can be done about it?
Ruhi: I don’t think we do a good enough job taking teacher candidates through the entire IEP process – what’s all involved in an IEP, how to hold an IEP meeting, what progress monitoring looks like, etc. I think we give them just bits and pieces of it. For instance, if they’re in a student-teaching placement and an IEP is being written up, they might get to see some data collection and attend an IEP meeting. But they rarely get to see the entire process, from start to finish. So to my last point, we try to address this shortcoming by directing our professional development time into this area. We’ll take teachers through mock IEPs in an attempt to help them understand the whole of the process. To summarize, I don’t see my teachers having a problem with pedagogy, differentiation, or meeting kids’ needs, but rather doing these things while adhering to a well-written IEP.
Thriving Schools: Let’s switch gears and talk about the proper use of differentiation for special education students. What is the biggest problem that comes up when teachers start differentiating assignments for students?
Ruhi: I think the most common problem we see is differentiating an assignment just to make something easier. However, students with disabilities still have a need for rigor. Let me explain it this way. For a student who has ADHD or gets frustrated very easily, the challenge for us as teachers is to provide them with the skills and strategies for dealing with that frustration or lack of attention. But a lot of the time what happens is we feel bad for a student so we end up differentiating assignments in a way that they don’t really need. And when we do this, I think we’re doing a disservice for students. So the right way to differentiate isn’t through avoidance of difficulty, but rather finding the right tools and strategies they need at the right time.
Thriving Schools: What guidelines can you give us for appropriately differentiating content, process, or product for students?
Ruhi: Number one is the readiness piece. That is, do we understand what an IEP is saying as to a student’s disability and exactly where they need support. Number two revolves around student interest. And this one applies to all students in helping ensure student engagement is high. This is more than knowing their strengths and weaknesses; we also have to know their interests. It’s thinking about how we’re going to get our students hooked on a subject. The final one is looking at the whole child and understanding cultural influences, family background, and what might be going on at home. For instance, sometimes when we assign homework and a student doesn’t bring it back we assume they were lazy or they forgot. When in reality, the student might have had to make dinner for and feed their five siblings at home and then get them all to bed at night. Here’s a great chart from Carol Tomlinson that helps teachers to think through differentiating instruction for students:
Thriving Schools: What resources do you like to use for teaching differentiation on content, process, or product?
Ruhi: To my last point, I would say Carol Tomlinson is one of these amazing educators who readers should know about. She has written a series of amazing books and her site has a number of great graphic organizers on it to help think about process and product.
And then the other one is the IRIS Center, which is an organization that uses evidence-based practices and interventions to help teachers in the classroom. It’s all free and you can take their modules to complete whatever you needed. And they have specific ones on differentiating content, process, and product.
Thriving Schools: Any closing thoughts you’d like to leave us with?
Ruhi: Absolutely! I’d like to share this reflection from one of my teacher candidates, Theresa LaRubio, who gave me permission to share this. I really like this reflection because this is a teacher candidate who hasn’t been out in a school on her own yet. But as you can see, she’s already starting to appreciate the many different ways there are to differentiate and the importance of collaborating with multiple stakeholders:
“My takeaway is not only about how important it is to differentiate, but how many ways there are to help my students succeed! Two methods I practiced with my group of students were: a relaxed pacing of lessons and visual supports. I also knew that the occupational therapist was working on handwriting with a few of my students. I also included diagrams that supported handwriting improvement in which the students had to trace dotted words in order to label the diagram. In the future, I will make sure that I know my students and the strategies that will support them throughout a unit. I believe this was the key to what made this unit so successful.”