While working as an artist-in-residence in Brooklyn, Rhonda Bondie, Ph.D., then a student of educational theater, decided to tackle the subject of immigration by performing an original play with her fifth-grade students.
A thorny, though classic, problem arose.
Students who were hard of hearing or deaf were not included because there was no teacher trained to assist them. Fearing that the other children would tease them, the school’s principal decided it was best to let them forgo participation.
For Bondie, now a clinical associate professor of childhood special education in the Graduate School of Education (GSE), the incident sparked her desire to find ways for all children—regardless of ability—to achieve at their highest levels in diverse classroom settings.
Her solution: Empower students to self-educate by offering them choices in their learning.
“To help the learners have the disposition to learn for themselves: That’s what I’m really after, whether they’re my graduate students or children,” said Bondie, a 24-year public school veteran.
According to Bondie, today’s classrooms portray a tension between what students are required to learn and how they ought to learn it.
“Teachers have common goals that all students must reach, and the teacher’s pay and professional respect is contingent upon all students achieving these standards,” Bondie said, referring to trends that rely heavily on national data and test scores. “Yet students come to them with very diverse experiences and strengths and needs, so how can instruction invite and capitalize on that diversity, to make sure everyone achieves the standards and far beyond?
“It’s so much more,” she added. “We’re developing humans, not just people who need to reach a certain score … I’m interested in the teaching methods that are particularly efficient and effective at moving students at a wide range of levels.”
That method is called differentiated instruction (DI), a type of teaching that tailors educational activities to individual learners.
DI stems from the idea that students have different abilities and experiences and, therefore, learn in diverse ways. Still, students must master a core curriculum at each grade level—a challenge for students who are behind in their grade level and an impediment to those who are beyond it.
But by varying instruction methods—through group learning or using digital media, for instance—a teacher can design activities that complement individual learning styles while ensuring that the class as a whole learns the required material.
“It’s not effective and it’s not efficient if you lose the what [the content],” Bondie said. “Just because you can do [a lesson] eight different ways, doesn’t mean the kids actually need that. The kids might need just one way. So you have to know when to differentiate instruction.”
Her qualification yields the first rule of DI: Know your learners.
“We teach our teachers to learn from the learner first: What can I learn from the student about what they know and how they came to understand what they know?” Bondie said. “Then, when I understand the learner as an individual, I’m ready to help them stretch themselves and grow in different ways.”
Over the years, DI has proved successful. But despite achieving results in her own classroom, Bondie continued to observe the problem that she encountered while teaching in Brooklyn—too few teachers prepared to help students with special needs, the students who would especially benefit from DI.
“The greatest need for teachers is in grades seven through 12 special education or dually certified teachers,” she said. “There’s a huge shortage in New York City public schools.”
So last year, armed with her tried-and-true teaching method, Bondie left primary classrooms to take her message to a wider audience. In January 2011, she joined GSE’s Division of Curriculum and Teaching after teaching for many years in New York City and Arlington, Va. Now, she works to prepare future teachers for the diverse students who will populate their classrooms.
“All [special education] students at one point or another are in general education,” she said. “So we want to prepare teachers to be as effective as possible and to build their confidence in helping learners with dramatically diverse learning needs.”
Even though she arrived at Fordham only last year, her plan already is underway. A program that she launched, Education with Equity for Adolescents, prepares GSE students for dual certification in general and special education up to grade 12. Previously, Fordham’s special education certification ended at grade six.
In addition, she and Su-Je Cho, Ph.D., associate professor of childhood special education, won a $1.5 million grant to develop Project REACH (Rigor, Equity, Access and Collaboration in Higher Education), which assists GSE faculty members in improving the dual and special education programs.
What she communicates through these efforts—a message that she not only hopes to deliver to future learners through her graduate students, but also to her graduate students themselves—is that with the right tools, every person has the capacity to achieve at his or her highest levels.
“It’s based on this notion that everyone can learn in more ways than one could ever imagine,” she said. “I put a lot of responsibility for learning on the learners, so that they uncover things I couldn’t imagine them being able to do.”