Teacher Leadership

WUSTL helps science reachers with recipe for success for all learners

Few teenagers fit the mold for cookie-cutter education designed for an average student. But a trio of WUSTL Life Sciences for a Global Community (LSGC) masters program alumnus have cooked up a curriculum that hits the sweet spot of success for all learning styles.

“Instruction for Today’s Diverse Learners” is a project that grew out of conversations among 2010 LSGC graduates Kelly Shipley of McMinnville, Ore., Michelle Halvorsen of Austin, Tx. and Valerie Smallbeck of Bismarck, N.D.

Together, the three middle- and high-school teachers educate a full spectrum of students: Smallbeck teaches mid- to higher-level learners, Halvorsen’s students are deaf and Shipley’s have learning and other disabilities. During their LSGC program, they shared many “aha” moments, each with their own specific twist.

“One of us would say, ‘Oh, I could do this in my classroom but I would have to do it this way’ and another would say, ‘I’d have to do it that way,’” Shipley remembers. “And we fell into the idea that we could really hit all of the learning styles if we teamed up together.”

That realization marked the beginning of their joint project addressing the potpourri of learning styles in a single learning environment.

“Teachers today have low-performing students and high-performing students, all in the same classroom,” Halvorsen says. “Kelly and Valerie and I have three very different kinds of students, and yet a lot of our concepts are the same, so we thought we could create something that would be helpful to a large number of teachers.”

Their curriculum for diverse learners — now poised to launch on a national scale — would likely never have come to fruition were it not for a WUSTL-administered fellowship: the Robert Noyce Master Teacher Scholarship Program of the National Science Foundation. After finishing their LSGC studies, Halvorsen, Shipley and Smallbeck were named as Noyce Fellows, which provided funding and other support to keep them working together across the miles.

“If not for the Noyce Fellowship, we would have never brainstormed beyond the work we completed to get our degrees,” Smallbeck says.


Each of six lesson plans starts with a pretest to determine the students’ knowledge base. A core curriculum, with activities and labs targeted to mid-level students, is customized with modified supports for lower-level and special-needs learners, and extensions for higher-level learners.
An example of a support activity is a vocabulary pretest in a unit on photosynthesis. Students begin with 16 pieces of paper, each displaying vocabulary words ranging in difficulty from “sun” to “ATP,” a molecule used in the process.

They work in pairs to organize the words in groups, a line, or any way they choose, and then talk about those they know and those they don’t. It’s an open-ended process with no right or wrong answers, according to Shipley, whose teaches students with disabilities.

“They see that, ‘I already know half these words and I kind of recognize this word and I think it goes with this one.’ Or ‘I have no clue what they mean but I know where I can put them,’” Shipley notes. “It makes them feel they at least know a little bit and it introduces them to the vocabulary.”

Visual learning is, of course, also critical in the deaf population. A good example of a activity created with deaf students in mind is called a “food web carousel.” The teacher provides the class with a half-dozen large sheets of butcher paper and divides the students into groups.
During a set time period of perhaps 30 seconds or a minute, student groups use markers to depict plants and consumers and their feeding relationships. When the time is up, they switch to another paper in the carousel and work forward from its images, until every student has contributed to each one. The end result is six different food webs.

“You can take any of those papers and dissect it and talk about it,” Halvorsen explains. “And then each group can write about it and explain the energy relationship that would be based on that food web.”

Higher-level learners take the photosynthesis and food web lessons a step further: writing full lab reports using the scientific method/engineering design process.

“The completion of the lab reports would involve them doing research for their background information and, of course, technical writing,” Smallbeck says. “Having students complete both of these activities also meets standards for the ‘Common Core’ curriculum.”


The realization that Common Core standards must be included became clear at an Institute for School Partnership teacher leadership conference at Washington University last June, thanks to the feedback of other teachers.

They’d already made sure the standards of their own three states would be met. But addressing the Common Core standards — now adopted by 46 states — created a curriculum that would be much more viable on a national scale, and remain relevant for a longer period.

“It’s like with technology, when you get a computer and two years later you’re like, ‘Wow I can’t believe I have something this old that doesn’t’ have this capability or that capability,’” Smallbeck says. “We don’t want all of our work to be put on a shelf because it’s obsolete.”


For two years, the three educators have worked together over email and through a Skype-like platform called Oodoo. But it was their biannual in-person meetings that proved to be the most productive.

Every year, thanks to their Noyce Fellowships, the three meet up at the National Association of Biology Teachers conference and during an additional, carefully planned weekend. Working around jobs and families, the three women typically hole up in a single hotel room with their laptops, a projector, saltines, trail mix and plenty of Diet Coke.

“We get up at 7 in the morning and work until 11:00 at night, maybe stopping just for dinner,” Halvorsen says. “It’s amazing when we get together how much we can accomplish and how focused we are.”

Halvorsen, a new mother, says the others have graciously adapted their schedules to hers. In spring 2011, Shipley and Smallbeck, whose children are older, agreed to travel from Oregon and North Dakota to Austin so Halvorsen could drive home for nursing and bedtime. This past fall, Halvorsen brought her family to their meeting in Denver, her husband’s home town.

“We’re all really good friends and we all work really well together,” Shipley says.

The friendships have been forged through many difficult conversations. It’s an ongoing challenge to identify that mid-level point from which all supports and extensions begin. A genetics unit exemplified the dilemma, according to Shipley.

“In that unit, there are a lot of difficult conceptual pieces,” Shipley says. “ At my level, with the freshmen, genetics is an overview, but Valerie is really in-depth and Michelle has an even more broad view.”

“We hash it out,” Smallbeck says. “I keep wanting to see the bar lifted higher on expectations and Michelle reminds us to include all the accommodations needed for her deaf students and Kelly has a plethora of diversity in her classroom.”

Three teachers focusing on three different kinds of students and having three different personalities add up to one big lesson for all involved.

“We have all learned the wonderful art of compromise,” Smallbeck observes.

The next step: publishing the lesson plans online to provide access for science teachers all over the country. Unlike many others, this game-changing curriculum will be available free of charge, thanks to its support from the National Science Foundation.

“We want the curriculum to be tested by teachers across the country,” Shipley says. “With these units, every teacher will have the ability to teach every student in every class, regardless of their learning level.”

– Nancy Fowler