How We Teach
Students who learn differently need to be taught differently. This means individualizing instruction. At Compass we teach the student, not the book or the content.
We are always seeking the sweet spot of learning, that place where students are challenged and stimulated but not frustrated and overwhelmed. In order to meet students where they are and challenge them to reach their potential, we group students according to their academic strengths and weaknesses. We offer two distinct pathways for our students. One pathway offers students a college preparatory curriculum that leads to a high school diploma and prepares them for two- and four-year colleges. The other pathway gives students an opportunity to master high school courses by exposing them to modified curriculum, allowing them to work at a slower pace, and focus on intensive remediation and skills development. This latter pathway leads to a certificate of completion and transition to a trade program or supportive work environment.
Even within individual classes, we individualize instruction to offer students challenging assignments, honors options, and advanced on-line courses with teacher support. Conversely, Compass offers students who are struggling with course materials remedial classes, access to tutorial support from teachers, and reduced homework. Because homework is an area of difficulty for most of our students, the homework load is reduced by about half of the typical high school homework expectations; in other words, homework should take 1 to 1½ hours per night. We also schedule in homework breaks because we want to encourage our students to leave room for quality time with friends and family and afterschool activities that enrich their lives and reduce stress.
We also believe in differentiating instruction based on the interests of our students, encouraging students to pursue literature, writing, research reports, and projects of their own choosing. We believe that if adolescents are engaged and passionate about what they’re learning, they will make more progress.
Our teachers avoid the traditional textbook and lecture style of instruction. Students with auditory processing difficulties, attention problems, receptive language delays, and comprehension weaknesses simply cannot be expected to learn best by listening to lectures. Similarly, textbooks are rarely what we choose first as a source of information. Movies, diagrams, pictures, websites, and demonstrations are examples of alternative ways to demonstrate concepts visually.
Art, experiments, field trips, and skits also make learning experiential. Students can teach a class, design a product, take on a leadership activity, or get involved in a community-based organization or project in order to apply their learning. We use several excellent research-based instructional tools (such as our Orton-Gillingham based reading remediation program and assistive technology tools) that incorporate multisensory instruction into their designs. This is not to say that our students are not expected to read textbooks, take exams, and write research papers. But these activities are the culmination of multisensory instruction, not the starting point.
Because our students have executive function challenges, comprehension difficulties, and gaps in their skills, we cannot assume that they will come to a lesson with adequate background knowledge or master concepts without the teachers’ careful scaffolding of instruction. In addition, students need extra review and practice to retain information. For these reasons we don’t assume that students will make connections and inferences, especially with sophisticated and advanced material. Teachers break concepts down into steps. When they assign a project, they assist students with organization and check to ensure that they are meeting deadlines and producing a cohesive product. We focus on the process of writing a paper or studying for a test, not just on the product.
Although we make every effort to strengthen areas of weakness in our students, our goal is to ignite their passions by teaching to their strengths and interests and allowing them to take in information and demonstrate mastery through their strongest channels. How does this work? When reading, we allow students to listen to and absorb literature through audio books and text to speech software. We encourage students to read books of their own choosing, not just assigned readings. We also encourage students to write for purposes that are relevant to them and to dictate some of their writing. We give them an opportunity to pursue projects that allow them to deviate from the assignment and follow a line of investigation that excites them. We offer a variety of elective courses in which students can be creative, be active, build things, and use technology. And we approach all assignments and deadlines with a philosophy of flexibility and individualization.
Accommodations and Modifications
Accommodations are variations in the way content is taught without changing the academic standards. We offer students many accommodations and we don’t insist that students ask for them. We promote self-advocacy and a growing awareness of what strategies and accommodations work best for each student. Accommodations include: extra time, space to work alone, alternative tests, readers, scribes, supportive notes, texts written at a lower reading level, many supports for time and assignments management, assistive technology, checks for understanding, as well as alternative assignments. Modifications are changes to the content that significantly simplify instruction. Some students require alternative curriculum, problem sets, tests or courses that do not satisfy college entry requirements. With our robust accommodations, modifications are often not necessary. When we think a student requires a modified curriculum, we confer with the family to make the decision together.
Many practices of progressive education are complementary to best practices of special education. Progressive practices that we believe in are:
- A holistic approach – we don’t see our mission as being wholly academic. We also support our students social-emotional, physical, and character development.
- Community – although we give our students a lot of individual attention, we also believe that students learn from each other. We nurture a positive school culture and interdependence among our faculty and students.
- Collaboration – we believe that our students and families have as much to teach us as we have to teach them, and we work as a team with families and students. We also value an interdisciplinary team approach, in which on-site service providers with expertise in speech and language, sensory and motor development, and psychology work alongside classroom staff to create a consistent, multifaceted educational program for students.
- Intrinsic motivation – we constantly stress students’ need to push through frustration, be resilient, have a strong work ethic, be role models, and find fulfillment in learning and achieving rather than stressing grades, rewards, and competition.
- Deep understanding – we do not believe that covering a high volume of material will necessarily prepare our students to be creative, problem-solving adults. We would rather teach a few essential things deeply than approach subjects using rote memorization or shallow skimming.
- Active learning – we believe that students should help us make decisions about what they learn, how they learn it, and how our community works. Hands-on, experiential learning is a hallmark of the Compass approach.