School-based topics

Personalized Instruction: The Students, the Teachers, and the SLPs

I can’t stop thinking about this incredible book I just read, Kristina Rizga’s “Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph.”


Rizga recently spent four years at Mission High School in the heart of San Francisco. She focused her time on getting to know the students and teachers there on a real and personal level — she wanted to get at the heart of what was failing the U.S. education system, and what was making it work. Her biggest realization was that the most successful and experienced teachers at Mission High employed personalized instruction to reduce or eliminate formerly-stark achievement gaps.

What is personalized instruction, you ask?? Personalized instruction incorporates a variety of educational programs, learning experiences, instructional approaches, academic-support strategies — you name it — in order to address each individual student’s unique learning needs, interests, aspirations, or cultural backgrounds.

Personalized learning is *exactly* what drew me into the field of SLP — I could serve high-needs children through therapy plans that were not only tailored to suit the unique needs of each child, but each plan could be rooted in the best evidence-based practices available. This field is evolving every day and I get the privilege of 1) gaining more knowledge through the span of my career (yay for lifelong learning!), and 2) applying it in ways that best serve the children I care so passionately for. This is the dream, people!!!

One common theme Rizga found in student descriptions of teachers who motivated them to learn: these teachers saw their individual strengths, intellect, personal interests, and effort. Students weren’t motivated to learn unless they knew why the material they were studying mattered, how it connected to things of the past and to other disciplines, and how it would impact their future careers. Just like most adults and employees, students, too, want to feel challenged and produce meaningful work representative of their intellect and skills.

I recently listened to a neat NPR Here and Now podcast about a high school in northeast Houston that’s experimenting with giving students more choice in learning. The school was plagued by gangs and student dropouts, so school administrators decided to take a personalized learning approach as a potential solution: For the last period of the day, students are given “Genius Time,” which is a chance to participate in a subject of their choice. Examples of classes include anything from training puppies, to martial arts, to doing zumba….SIGN ME UP, right?! Yes, and that’s exactly the point — the school’s trying to get at what excites the students, what makes them feel healthy, and what makes them feel like part of the community. Support for engaging students through what motivates them is such a compelling concept that the school won a $10 million grant run by Laurene Powell, Steve Jobs’ widow, to administer the “Genius Time” program.

In addition to building up the focus we place on individual students, Rizga concludes that “Increased investment in teacher development and trust in their professional judgment would also allow more educators to create their own research and action groups to solve school-based problems. […] Such peer-led groups much more effectively address complex root causes behind educational disparities than one-size-fits-all interventions from the district or state level.”…Yes!!! No child or educational institution is the same. Likewise, any academic intervention must adjust in order to best serve that specific school’s student body. The thing is, teachers need more time, resources, and capacity in order to get at the source of educational disparities. Teachers also need to be encouraged and empowered to collaborate with other teachers in order to share best teaching practices for the students that they share.

I’m admittedly a bit disappointed that in this book, Rizga does not include SLPs in this collaborative structure. I strongly believe that students receiving speech and language intervention in schools, including ESL students, students with specific language impairments, and those with learning disorders, can benefit immensely from collaborative SLP-teacher relationships. Teachers should share course content and student performance with SLPs and, in turn, SLPs should commit to incorporating curriculum-specific language and grammatical structures from classes during treatment. I think such synergy could only result in greater academic success.

This blog entry by Rebecca Visintin, included in a 2013 issue of the ASHA Leader Blog, provides a wonderful list of ideas to help school-based SLPs add more curriculum to their intervention:

  1. Ask to borrow your grade level teacher’s curriculum handbooks and get acquainted with their themes.
  2. Get a grasp on the Common Core Standards and investigate what skills your students should have in the areas of speaking and listening, language, writing and reading.
  3. Borrow your student’s grade level books from the librarian or classroom teacher and use them in therapy.
  4. Find the website on which your curriculum is based for online games and glossaries.
  5. Ask the grade level teachers for tips on where to find resources or look up their teacher site on the school website. Many teachers provide a list of related and helpful links for parents, so start searching through there.
  6. Contact your favorite speech pathology blogger and ask them to start making materials that are curriculum related.

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