The Reading Matrix
Vol. 5, No. 2, September 2005
Teaching Content to All: Evidence-Based Inclusive Practices in Middle and Secondary Schools
B. Keith Lenz, Donald D. Deshler with Brenda R. Kissam
Pearson, Boston, USA
ISBN 0 205 39224-5 (Paperback)
Reviewed by Juan Carlos Palmer
Universitat Jaume I (Spain)
Working as a teacher in the secondary school is not a simple activity: One of the main problems that many instructors often have is to understand the diversity among their students. There is a growing trend, all over the world, related to the increased linguistic and cultural diversity implied by migratory processes. Thus, classes are varied, including pupils coming from different countries, with different conceptions related to culture and learning, as well as with important linguistic problems. In fact, some of the lessons planned for the classroom work well among some students, whereas others have significant problems understanding them. Teaching Content to All places its emphasis in the study of different practical methods that can be used in the classroom in order to get the best from our students. It is, in a way, a book designed for those of us who sometimes struggle when teaching, a simple but comprehensive volume devoted to analyzing how student diversity can be used in order to enhance the richness of our task as instructors.
Lenz, Deshler and Kissam have devoted their efforts towards the creation of a volume in which they compile relevant studies related to the implications of diversity in the teaching practice. The authors pay attention to what they define as an inclusive learning community, considering it as an instructional environment where both teachers and learners consider learning as a relevant activity. As a result, they all work together with the same objective: learning as much as possible. This belief, based on mutual understanding about the whole process, offers the possibility of overcoming most of the problems that student diversity can imply.
Student diversity is one of the recent fields of study utilizing classroom-based research. In fact there has been a burgeoning of studies related to academically diverse classes, analyzing how average, above-average or below average students behave in the classroom when measured by either teacher, school district, or state academic standards. The only possibility to get the best from our students as a learning community will be based on the work carried out in three specific areas: learning, cooperation, and respect for differences. These three parameters are analyzed in detail by the authors of the different chapters comprising Teaching Content to All, who have also devoted some efforts into editing some previous research on the subject.
The book is organized in five different sections, plus a final set of appendices. Section One, “Framing Pedagogies for Diversity,” focuses on the need that teachers often have to find a good framework for their teaching practices, analyzing why some students may have special problems, due to their origin (diverse background) or learning needs. In many situations, these students show some specific flaws (lack of attention, problems related to the difficulties understanding English, and so on), some of them already analyzed in the recent issue of The Reading Matrix on Generation 1.5. These specific features that students often have are discussed in both chapters within this initial section. In Chapter One, Lenz and Deshler present the foundations and principles of learning, placing their emphasis on what the instructor knows about the learning process and how his/her personal knowledge affects the actual teaching practice. This general position is also commented on by Lynch and Taymans in Chapter Two; starting from previous research on the topic, these authors analyze how the principles of standards-based educational reform influence the way teachers fulfil their task, paying attention to the two central ideas behind this approach to education reform. Those two ideas are the alignment of standards with classroom practice and the interest of teaching for understanding, both of which move away from memorizing irrelevant or redundant information, as has been the rule in some classes (Lynch, 2000).
The second section, “Conceptualizing Pedagogies for Academic Diversity,” comprises a single chapter devoted to the implications of diversity for both teaching and learning. Lenz, Bulgren, Kissam and Taymans give special attention to the selection of the critical content that, in their opinion, students must learn. As they suggest, content selection is basic to planning for inclusive instruction, always maintaining the integrity of the content itself. Subsequently they present the basis of the SMARTER planning process, mainly from a curriculum-based perspective. Once at this stage, something is clear: teaching efficiently and effectively may require a new paradigm and some framework for designing the appropriate course planning is needed.
Based on that premise, the third section of the book, “Routines for Designing Instruction and Learning,” offers a detailed look at what can be done in order to start planning the course adequately for what we defined as an academically diverse group. In Chapter Four, Lenz, Kissam and Scanlon analyze teaching routines that can be of interest in order to structure a course. To do so we should not forget the relations established between teachers and learners. Similarly, we have to work on the creation of a compromise on both parts regarding some basic classroom principles, as well as some learning habits and performance options; all these elements will enhance some social skills which are necessary for cooperative learning. This is analyzed in Chapter Five by the same authors. The issue of communication in the classroom, a basic aspect to understand some teaching problems faced by professionals dealing with academically diverse groups is analyzed in Chapter Six by Ammer, Platt and Cornett. These authors suggest that one of the main features observed among these groups is the influence of previous experience in the teaching practice: Some teachers teach the way they were taught, something that can jeopardize the whole process when facing some specific situations. Thus, and according to the general framework established in Chapter Four as well as in the aspects noted in Chapters Five and Six, Chapters Seven (written by Taymans and Lynch) and Eight (written by Albert and Ammer) describe specific planning routines which can be used in order to create a unit and lesson, trying to identify all those elements that can help us to succeed in these situations.
Section Four, as its name suggests (“Teaching Your Course”) deals with the actual experience of offering instruction in the diverse class. King-Seers and Mooney devote Chapter Nine to the way instruction can be enhanced by transforming content in such a way that student learning problems can be minimized. In their opinion, content should be accessible, though not necessarily simple, to students by organizing it in a clear and coherent way. Similarly Chapter Ten focuses on teaching strategies to those students who have not acquired good learning strategies by themselves in the past. Berry, Hall, and Gildroy analyze and rate supports for learning strategy instruction, trying to allow their students to become both effective and independent learners, and enhancing the use of explicit instruction about each step of the strategy chosen.
Finally, Section Five (“Inclusion and Special Education”) helps us to understand those policies and procedures devoted to the implementation of special education, as Knowlton points out in Chapter Eleven. This is implemented in Chapter Twelve by Robinson, who notes the new ways of teaching special groups by analyzing instructor responsibilities when dealing with students with disabilities or general learning problems.
Summarizing, I have to point out that the great success of the book is based on the wide variety of highly-respected contributors, all of them working in the field of student diversity. It is important to notice that the authors have tried to design a book as comprehensive as possible, paying attention not only to the design of an initial framework for the teaching activity, but also going further, ending up with the policies and procedures that can be used to implement the practitioners’ task in the academically diverse classroom. Additionally, each chapter includes a graphic organizer in its initial pages, helping the reader to connect what is to be explained with aspects from previous or subsequent chapters. Similarly, the conclusion points out how the relevance of teaching content will always be based on the development of a framework that could allow us to teach inclusively and strategically. The twelve chapters, clearly organized by Lenz, Deshler and Kissam, offer some clues on how to deal with the proposed framework: It will be up to the reader to work with it in the most successful way. All in all, Teaching Content to All can be recommended as a clear guide for those practitioners interested in understanding student diversity and being able to design better classes.
Lynch, S. (2000). Equity and Science Education Reform. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
The focus of Dr Palmer’s research is on reading and writing in the EFL classroom. He is particularly interested in the use of summarizing techniques as a way to improve his students' ability to both understand a text and being able to create a new version of a given piece of discourse. His Ph.D. dissertation (1996) dealt with this specific field of study.