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Six Simple Steps to Layered Curriculum®

By Dr. Kathie F. Nunley

1. Present Assignment Options. Instead of assigning class and homework, offer an assortment of learning activity choices. Offer a wide variety, addressing as many styles and interests as possible. Activities may vary in terms of length of time required and point value. Allow the student to choose which assignments they want to do to meet the point requirements for that unit. Try to include enough assignment choices so that even the nonreaders or low reading ability students can experience success. A unit sheet may include lecture, video, computer programs, book work, posters, modeling clay, poetry, construction of a board game, flashcards, mobiles, book reports, video performance. Allow the students freedom to come up with their own creative assignments. Variety is key to leading rather than managing your students.

2. Require an Oral Defense of Assignments. In addition, or as a replacement for some written exams, have a brief one on one conversation with each student as assignments are completed. You may be amazed at what your students are and are not learning. An oral defense has many benefits. It gives you an opportunity to meet face to face with each one of your students. This allows for clarity and individualized instruction. It reduces cheating. Even the student that copies the answers to a book assignment from another student will have to study that material in order to receive credit. Therefore, actual learning is required for points. Don't be surprised to meet some resistance to this idea from students who have had years of practice just "doing the work" without any accountability. Another advantage to this is that it reduces test anxiety if you use it as one of the primary means of assessment or evaluation. If you have spent a few minutes with that student asking her what she learned from the activity, is there really any need for a formal written evaluation at a later date? The face to face conversation is a more valid form of assessment than many written exams. You can also individualize expectations to accommodate various abilities in the classroom. With this individual assessment you can change your expectations slightly from student to student so that you are testing for individual growth rather than a general criteria that may fit no one.

3. Offer your lectures as an OPTION. Or even put them on tape. While most students will choose to listen to a lecture, their attention is greatly improved when they perceive it as a self-made choice rather than a teacher-mandated assignment.

Either lecture live, or set up a listening station in your classroom. Most districts have a surplus of old cassette recorders with inputs for five or six headsets. This allows the teacher to record the lecture outside of class, later offering it as a learning option. There are many advantages to this method. First, your lecture is uninterrupted by classroom disruptions. It also frees up your time during class for one-on-one work with students.

Using the headsets isolates students and helps them focus their attention on the lecture. This is especially beneficial for students with an attention deficit disorder who have trouble filtering out extraneous stimuli. It also gives you an opportunity to isolate these students without embarrassing them. Obviously it saves on your voice and reduces your frustration. It also adds consistency to various class periods. If students are absent one day, the tape is available for make-up and even allows the class to continue in the event that the teacher is absent. Try to involve pictures or physical props with your lecture so that the students have some visual information to go with the auditory lecture.

4. Design and Offer Hands-on Activities for all Concepts. Teachers have known for years that hands-on manipulatives lead to longer retention of concepts but you may not have been told why that is true. It is a simple plan to reach both memory systems in the brain. Humans have two distinct memory systems which are actually located in different areas of the brain. One is called the episodic memory and the other is the semantic memory. Your episodic memory houses your autobiography. These are memories which you did not specifically set out to learn. They are unintentionally stored. It includes things like all the houses you have lived in, your third grade teacher, a fun summer vacation, and what you did last Christmas. Although you never set out to intentionally memorize any of these 'episodes' of your life, you nevertheless did. Psychologists refer to this as your episodic memory.

Your semantic memory comprises items that you have specifically set out to learn, such as your work phone number, the second president of the United States, the multiplication tables, and how many stripes are in the American flag. Psychologist know these two memory systems are separate in the brain because it is possible to have a memory loss in one and not the other. This is why Alzheimer's patients may not remember their children or spouse but could tell you who was the second president of the United States. Understanding how these two memories are separate explains why a hands-on experience in teaching increases the likelihood of retention. The idea is to put the information into both memory systems of the student. By having students intentionally memorize a concept stores the information in the semantic memory while the experience stores the concept in the episodic memory.

5. Offer a Variety of Textbooks. This idea may appear somewhat unorthodox at first glance. However, it is probably the most important first step in moving away from a teacher-centered classroom. Have students choose their own text. Most teachers have accumulated an odd assortment of textbooks over the years. It may be possible to trade some between teachers within a district. There are many benefits to this idea. First it shifts the focus off the textbook as an anchor to instruction. It prevents routine teaching from a particular book with book questions assigned as the main mode of instruction. By having students choose their own text from a wide assortment, you accommodate all reading levels. Many publishers even offer textbooks in languages other than English. What an aid to a Limited English proficiency student to have a subject reference book in their native language. When students have several books at their disposal they can see the variety in approaches and presentation of topics from author to author. Students begin to see the textbook as a reference source to support their learning. Teachers are forced to add a variety of instructional materials to the classroom which will meet the needs of a larger percentage of students.

6. Tie the students grade into complexity of thinking. The concept of layers in Layered Curriculum encourages students to think more complexly in order to improve their grade. C layer assignments require basic understanding. B layer assignments ask them to manipulate or apply those concepts. A layer assignments ask them to critically think on the subject.

There is no easy answer to teaching. It is a tough occupation that most of us won't escape without a few battle scars. However, you can increase your success rate and decrease the classroom stress, by striving to make your room as student-centered as possible. No longer will you be solely responsible for student assignments and grades. You are simply another resource. If students are not learning, or don't like how they are learning or how they are doing, they have the power to change it. Give them that control. You may get your classroom back.


About the Author:
Dr Kathie Nunley is an educational psychologist, researcher and author of several books on parenting and teaching, including A Student's Brain (Brains.org) and the best selling, "Differentiating the High School Classroom" (Corwin Press). She is the developer of the Layered Curriculum® method of instruction and has worked with parents and educators around the world to better structure schools to make brain-friendly environments. In addition, her work has been used by the Boeing Corporation, Family Circle Magazine, the Washington Post, and ABC television.
Email her: Kathie (at) brains.org


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