Friday, April 4, 2008

Deconstructing Differentiation

I’m not a special educator, so I’m not heralding myself as an expert on differentiation. I’ve been reading more about it, however, and I decided to challenge myself to try and explain what it is I do when I try to differentiate a lesson.

For me, differentiating lessons is a lot like cooking. I don’t hit every nutrient in each meal, and I don’t address every learning style or need in a single, forty-two minute lesson. Each week, I write a dinner menu and grocery list. (Yes, spontaneity is my strong suit!) Across a week, I try to hit a variety of proteins, vegetables, starches, and fruits. Similarly, I think about differentiation across a week rather than by a day. When I cook, I rely on some family favorites and pantry staples; not every week involves gourmet recipes I’m trying for the first time. The same thing is true when I plan a unit. I dress up the same strategies over and over again, which helps make differentiation a habit for me and a consistent pattern for my students. Here are some examples of my “pantry staples” for differentiating a unit:

  • Establish the WHY
    • I try to begin each unit with a frame of how I think the lessons correlate to students’ lives. For example, I began the poetry unit with a spiel about poetry in music lyrics, at weddings, and at funerals. I explained how every time we work on a skill it gets stronger, so our research on this project would prime the pump for the bigger research papers coming up in students’ academic lives and the hunt for the right mortgage broker in their adult lives. My reasons WHY are not always sexy, but students seem to appreciate the fact that I’ve at least given each lesson thought. Even if they don’t share enthusiasm for my reasons, it makes the assignments seem less arbitrary to them.
  • Provide choice
    • For example, my current poetry unit requires students to write a personal response to a poem from a collection of seven poems I provided. Students can pick any one of the seven poems, and they can choose to write about why they liked it or why they disliked it. When I compiled the collection of poems, I purposely chose poems with a range of accessibility. Besides including men and women and people of various races, I made sure I included some poems with easier vocabulary and more accessible imagery along with poems that required a higher reading level.
  • Provide clear objectives and scoring
    • When I begin a new unit, I provide students with a “track sheet” that lists each of the assignments within the unit, how much each assignment is worth, and a description of each assignment’s requirements. This “chunking” of the big project makes each step seem less intimidating.
  • Provide a mix of independent and collaborative work
    • Across a unit, I will have some activities that students do individually and quietly, like writing a personal response to the poem, and other activities that they do collaboratively with conversation. The poetry unit also requires students to research the poet’s biographies and create a Works Cited page for their sources in MLA format. Students can help each other use the resources for MLA and share good resources for biographical information. By having intervals in my lessons where collaboration and talking is appropriate, students find it easier to be quiet and independent when asked. Another way I use this element is to mix up my role across the unit. I led a guided discussion of each poem one lesson and provided a mini-lesson at the board on MLA another day while some lessons I simply floated around the room as students researched and worked on MLA.
  • Assess a range of skills throughout the unit (Bloom’s Taxonomy—Knowledge through Evaluation)
    • Across this two week unit, I’m asking students to write personal responses as they interpret a poem, find and evaluate websites for quality information using a checklist, write up sources in MLA format using a resource model, combine biographical sources into a summary, edit their work for grammar mistakes, and collaborate and troubleshoot with partners to put the information on a class wiki about poets. Students who don’t like to write (especially about poetry!) often love the structured reliability of a documentation format like MLA. I’m always surprised how a kid who rushes through almost every reading task will spend long stretches of time judiciously selecting the best of three websites on a poet. When I write assignments in a unit, I try to make sure there’s at least one component at which each of my students can really shine.
  • Provide a combination of quick/immediate feedback and deferred/in depth feedback
    • I try to collect something from students each lesson and provide short feedback on it even if I don’t score it yet. This way students know what they need to improve upon as they move towards the final product (in this case, the class wiki), and they have a sense of how they are doing along the way. Many times I will use “exit tickets,” which are just short assignments to be turned in as students leave. It might be a question asking them to assess their work on that day, or a sample MLA Works Cited entry, or the favorite/least favorite line in the poem about which they are writing. At the end of the project, I provide more extensive written feedback about the product and the student’s process in producing that product. The exit tickets give me an easy way to track students’ participation along the way.
  • Build in some flexibility with interim deadlines
    • Some students might get more done in class than others, so by planning in two week blocks, I can often move faster students right on to the next step while providing one-on-one guidance to students who need more help. I also try to build time for catching up into a unit, so that students who are absent or fall behind are not lost for the entire project.
  • Combine predictable activities with unpredictable activities
    • This point dovetails with the flexibility in interim deadlines. Creating the class wiki online is an example of an unpredictable activity. Oftentimes, I, too, am surprised by the technical problems we need to troubleshoot when we use technology. Students who finish work more quickly tend to get to the unpredictable activities first. They usually spend some more time figuring out the glitches, which arguably is an advanced learning differentiation. By the time other students join that stage, the students who have been troubleshooting can share the strategies they’ve developed to solve the problems. The later joining students may notice something else that can be done because the issues are fresh to their eyes. While the unpredictable element in a unit is often scary and sometimes stressful, watching students collaborate to fix it can be the most rewarding element of the educational experience.

I realize as I write these down that I’m listing the olive oil, black pepper, and salt of good teaching. For me, this combination of simple elements has improved my teaching the way the discovery that toasted walnuts taste wonderful with blue cheese changed my spinach salad. It’s the combination of good basic elements that makes a unit work so well. I admit, by allowing students to choose different texts and work at different paces, I sometimes feel dizzy. When I first started cooking, I couldn’t get the veggies, the protein, and the starch all ready and hot at the same time. However, since I didn’t want to eat just veggies or just potatoes for dinner, I kept at it and I learned the balance. Teaching with differentiation has been a similar journey for me, and just like cooking, there are days when I don’t do it as well as I’d like. Hey, I’ve served up educational dessert in the form of a film the day I collect the research essay, too. Overall though, as a mainstream classroom teacher, I think differentiation makes my lesson “meals” better for everybody.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher


Liz said...

What a great analogy! I loved reading your views on differentiation. I've been reading a great book on this topic, which has tons of hints, lesson plans, strategies and even assessments -- Differentiating Reading Instruction By Laura Robb.

You might want to give it a look to see how it could help you in your classroom. She's really shown me how differentiating reading instruction can work. And it's helped me to be able to reach every learner in my room, even helped me find materials that will further my abilities to do just that.

Kate Kellen said...

Thanks for the resource, Liz. I've never read anything about teaching reading that I didn't find interesting...

Take care,

Chris said...

Its interesting how differentiation is variously interpreted and described. I see it as a product of planning based on one key question - "do the students/pupils need to hear this?" if the answer is no, because they already can do this" or "no, this is too difficult for them" then that is the starter for true differentiation which is designed by activity and not by outcome. If teachers differentiate at the point of more able students/pupils achieving a task more quickly than others then is the differentiation not too late, as the initial task was too easy (and consequently too hard for those of lower ability)? My own experiences as teacher, head teacher (UK school) and inspector had enabled me to construct an approach to differentiation which delivers ability based tasks to students/pupils in mixed ability classes from the start of thier lessons - obviating the traditional experience of so many young people in so many classrooms ; its either too easy or its too hard. Pitching the work at the middle ability and expecting high ability to do it quickly and lower ability to do it more slowly is missing the point: true differentiation assigns tasks that are pitched at the right level for all groups of learners. I would be fascinated to hear what you think, as this is such an wonderful area for debate.