I've been thinking back to when I first made the commitment to really differentiate to meet the diverse needs in my classroom. This was back before the standards-based, proficiency emphasis in Beaverton School District, so in some ways it was simpler. But it worked! My bright kids were challenged and my Special Ed and ELL kids were successful. It was a foundation to build on and add to as I got more training and experience.
For all major projects, assignments, and tests, I had three versions or tiers. I started with the basic assignment and added a challenge option for any student who wanted to take it on. And I modified "down" for the lower ability or language skilled students, in general, by reducing the assignment requirements, providing easier reading materials, providing more visual input, and providing a less writing-intensive means for students to demonstrate their learning. Whatever level of student I geared my tasks to, I provided some degree of choice. That little bit of student autonomy added a great deal of motivation and the payoff was well worth the up front work. Once I got in the habit of creating these three tiers, it really didn't add that much time or effort to the planning and prep process.
When it came time to up the level of sophistication to tiered assignments, flexible grouping, multiple rubrics for multiple products, I took it slow. If we try to adopt too many new practices at once, we end up back in our old habits before very long. So choose an area, a population that is near and dear to your heart, a unit you've taught many times and have time and energy to revise for differentiation. Choose a strategy or technique and make sure you teach the daily routine of it so the students have it down before adding the next layer. Take it at your pace and stretch your comfort zone a little at a time. And use your colleagues (and this blog) as resources for ideas and ways to vary your assignments. Lobby your admin for time to collaborate on worthy projects like this.
I have the good fortune to teach Humanities for Summa, a magnet middle school for highly gifted students in the Beaverton School District. When I helped start the program eight years ago, I thought I had it made in shade. Rooms full of high flyers, rip raring to challenge themselves and reach the heights of their full potential. With standardized test scores in the 99th percentile, the rationale was that even in a highly differentiated classroom, these students' needs would be difficult to meet. Coupled with the social stigma of high intelligence that is at its peak in the middle school years, the District created a program where students could have mind-alike peers, could engage in high levels of discourse, and could complete rigorous academic tasks.
I quickly learned that when you get to the higher end of the IQ continuum, you find a lot of idiosyncracies, not just in personalities, but in academic abilities across subjects, types of tasks, learning styles, communication skills, organizational skills, etc. The diverse needs of these students drove me back to school, first to learn more about Aspergers Syndrome and then on to Gifted Education and the Twice Exceptional Learner (students who are both exceptionally smart and exceptionally challenged in one or more areas).
Which puts me back in the position of creating a differentiated classroom. I know a few principles that drive my classroom culture:
1. If you don't plan for differentiation up front, it will not happen. 2. If you aren't clear on what skill or target you are assessing, you will not be able to provide differentiated options for assessing the skill or target. 3. Even in high ability classrooms, there are students who need additional instruction and support. 4. There are many, many ways students can demonstrate their learning and proficiency. 5. Written expression is one of the hardest modes for many students. If you are assessing content knowledge rather than writing as a skill, provide alternative means. Incorporate technology such as speech recognition or dictation. 6. Provide alternate means of presenting information, especially visual media such as graphic organizers, video clips, illustrated materials, etc. 7. Students (most of them anyway) want to be successful. If they aren't, be a detective and help figure out the obstacles and how you can help overcome them through differentiation in your classroom. 8. You set the tone that lets students know they can ask for alternate assessments, for help, for extensions, and for challenges.
Learning Targets: Social Studies: Knowledge & Contextual Understanding, Social Studies: Interpret History
Guiding Question: When is it necessary for people to rebel against their government?
Time: Two class periods
Differentiation: Groups based on reading ability
Whole Class: After covering the causes and events leading up to the American Revolution, I used the following debate activity to process and analyze the material from the textbooks. This processing and debating activity is from the History Alive! textbook. I differentiated for reading ability.
In a Colonial Town Hall simulation, each group reviewed events leading up to the American Revolution. Each group discussed the events from the viewpoint of colonists and the British government, and then voted on whether to comply, oppose, or rebel against the British government. As a group, they wrote a prepared statement on their choice and a spokesperson read it to the members of the other town halls.
Group 1 (lower ability readers) explored the earlier events of the period: the Proclamation of 1763, the Stamp Act, and the Quartering Act. They had graphic organizers for the discussion and sentence starters for the written statement.
Group 2 (on target learners) discussed the effects of the Proclamation of 1763, the Stamp Act, and the Quartering Act, and then focused on the Townshend Acts and the Boston Massacre. Questions were provided to guide the discussion, but not graphic organizers or sentence starters.
Group 3 (higher ability learners) briefly discussed all the acts listed above, as well as the effects on Boston, Massachusetts. This group then explored the Tea Act and the Intolerable Acts. There was less structure to the directions for this group.
For groups that finished early an extension activity was provided about the battles of Lexington and Concord.
Successes and Challenges: This activity went well, but it was LOUD. I’ve been teaching middle school for a decade and a half, so I’m used to working in noisy work spaces. This exceeded even my tolerance for noise at times though. Despite this, the students were pretty focused and worked together well. No one asked how I set up the groups. I was only required to remove one student that was so unfocused and distracting in order to allow her to work independently on the assignment.
The most noticeable success was that the students preformed better than last year’s students on the assessment. Not everyone performed well as there were some low scores and a few who refused to write anything for the short answers or essay question. Overall, I saw an improvement in scores though.
One of the biggest challenges was managing the groups. I appointed a facilitator for each group, whose job it was to ask the questions and guide the activity. The facilitator communicated to me throughout the activity by using a green cup (everything is okay!), a yellow cup (I need some help, but it’s not urgent), or a red cup (HELLLLLLLLPPPPPP!). This helped a great deal by creating tight boundaries within which they could interact.
The other challenge was that in Group 1, the writing slowed down the process for the students. I was hoping that by having the facts written down, the students could make an educated decision more quickly. Instead this often led to the other two groups finishing earlier. Next time I may spend more time in the beginning with Group 1 to give them a stronger start.
How do you set up classrooms for a year of differentiated instruction?
My goal for this year is to design, deliver, and modify instruction to meet the diverse needs of my students. I teach 8th grade Humanities (an English/Social Studies integrated class) at Whitford Middle School in Beaverton, Oregon. I have students all over every continuum—readiness, willingness, ability, interest, and/or language. It is already very apparent, even on the first day of school. These differences have made getting to know the students interesting and enjoyable, but teaching them difficult.
The other factor for the first week was the heat. Summer had not shown up in Oregon until school started, and every day the first week was in the 90’s. In addition to first week jitters, there was no air conditioning and rooms full of sweaty 8th graders! There are only some many times one can say, “Is it hot in here or is it just me?” or “Yes, correct answer. You’re on fire. Ha!”
Against this backdrop of warmth, I introduced the students to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I have already prepared preliminary student groupings for readiness/ability for each class based upon:
·State Reading scores
·State Writing scores
·Anecdotal information from previous teacher
I also plan on using some on-demand writing pieces, student self-reflections, and other assessments to modify these groupings in the coming weeks.
How did this information affect the first week in my classroom? I’m better prepared for the students who may need more support and more challenge. I already had different versions of a reading assignment and was more ready to assist students.
I did discuss differentiation with each of my classes. I told the students that sometimes the whole class would work together, other times in groups, partners or alone, and that sometimes their assignments or reading material would be different. There were a lot of nods, but no questions or comments. My hope is that the students will ultimately expect flexible groupings or different versions of an assignment as what happens in my room. My fear (or one of my fears, really) is that students will be comparing themselves or being frustrated/upset by being placed into a lower group.
Next week promises to be cooler (hooray!) and more challenging as I delve deeper into the curriculum.