Friday, October 28, 2011

Everyday Differentiation

Everyday Differentiation

There are so many ways to differentiate, from the complex multi-text tiered assignments with flexible grouping (the “Martha Stewart”) to very low preparation options. A great list of high and low preparation options can be found in Carol Ann Tomlinson’s How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms. Here are some of my favorite low preparation options:
Ø  jigsaw
Ø  multiple levels of questions
Ø  homework options
Ø  choice options

In the last week, I have employed the following low preparation differentiation strategies to meet the diverse needs of my students.
Ø  I used a “Caught Ya” as my warm-up in class. A “Caught Ya” consists of a few sentences with grammatical mistakes that students correct. After reading the sentences, I usually give the students one hint about a mistake that is easy to correct (“Look out for un-capitalized proper names!”) and one hint about a mistake that is harder to find or correct (“For those of you who want a challenge, we need a semicolon, too.”)
Ø  Homework choices that focused on either writing or social studies content knowledge
Ø  Student choice concerning which learning targets I would assess
Ø  My students summarized The Declaration of Independence and then re-wrote it as a break-up letter to King George III. Every student listened to a recording of the DOI and read along. They then chose different options to rewrite the letter. As they started to take summary notes, some students used the DOI with explanatory notes, some students used a simple English version of the DOI, and some students used a Spanish version with explanatory notes.
Ø  Multiple levels of questions. Williams Model is an excellent source of questions for your TAG and highly capable students. (

BOTTOM LINE: Low preparation differentiation is a great way to get started immediately to meet the needs of all the students who will show up in your classroom tomorrow!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Characteristics of a Differentiated Classroom

This was supposed to be a closing activity for class on Tuesday, but all the amazing conversation and sharing of ideas put us off schedule. 
Listed below are some characteristics of a differentiated classroom. Some of these characteristics are from ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development), others are from Ilana and myself. Feel free to comment to add more characteristics. 

Differentiation PLC
What are characteristics of a Differentiated Classroom?  
    Differentiated classrooms can take many forms, and no one class will contain all of the following characteristics. Feel free to add your own ideas and observations.
  • Proactive, not reactive- differentiation is planned for up-front
  • Flexible groupings
  • Students’ needs are met
  • Respect for diversity
  • Respectful student tasks
  • Positive classroom climate
  • Student centered learning/learner-led
  • Student-teacher partnership
  • Student Choice
  • Knowledge-centered- the teacher has a clear understanding of the material
  • Focus on academic growth, not competition
  • Scaffolds growth
  • Addresses student readiness, interest, and/or learning profile
  • Students taking responsibility and ownership of work
  • Stretches the student academically (ZPD)
  • Derived from ongoing assessment
  • Variety of materials to address student needs

Homework for Humanities PLC "Design for Differentiation - Theory into Practice"

Homework for Humanities PLC "Design for Differentiation - Theory into Practice"
Tuesday, October 2011
1. Try one (or more) of the strategies we discussed and be prepared to report back in our next class. 
2. Bring a writing unit, lesson, or assessment to our next class. 
3. Comment on one post on this blog. 

See you November 8th!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Using Depth and Complexity as a Differentiation Strategy

Just want to share a link to one of my mentor's wiki sites about the Icons of Depth and Complexity. These icons provide a great entry point for higher level interaction with material in any subject area. They're very adaptable and stimulate divergent and higher level thinking.

Here's the link:

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Quote of the Day - "Same donkey!"

I teach most of my students for all three years of middle school, so I get to know them and their families very well. Some of my twice exceptional students (exceptionally gifted and exceptionally challenged in one or more areas) require very individualized differentiation, as in try anything that works!

I just met with the parents of one student who struggles mightily with work completion for various reasons -- ADD, anxiety, avoidance, and more. Following my own advice to "Try something and then try something different," we were brainstorming new systems of incentives and consequences for using her planner to record assignments and complete them.

"New year, new carrot, new stick," I commented.

"Same donkey!" responded her dad.

Well, at least they haven't lost their sense of humor!!

Friday, October 7, 2011

A Very Different-iated Day

from The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg

Phew! I'm feeling a tad less like a fraud after a fabulously differentiated day in my room this week. I've been implementing the writing pre-assessment protocol Kacy and I talked about at the OCTE conference, which has lots of choice elements for the kids, a far cry from the "What I did on my summer vacation" style prompt for a fall writing sample. I did have the students all write in response to an Oregonian opinion piece about students taking responsibility for their own learning, but that was the only draft that everyone wrote on the same topic.

Each day, the students had time to begin a draft in a different writing mode. For imaginative writing, I used Chris Van Allsburg's Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a fabulous set of pictures with a title and caption for each, which the students had to incorporate as the story's first line. That book provided the students with at least a dozen choices of prompts. For narrative writing, the students brought in a photo of an event or experience they took part in. It added a level of excitement that they were actually allowed to bring the photo on an electronic gizmo like a phone or iPod. And for expository writing, the students had about 10-15 minutes to read any non-fiction writing in my classroom -- from National Geographic articles, to history books, to teacher resource books, and much, much more. Then they summarized what they had read.

So now the students had four unfinished drafts. They got to choose which one they wanted to revise and polish into final form. We have decided to tier the traits this year, with highest priority on Ideas & Content and Organization as the most crucial writing skills. We spent time reviewing the rubrics for both traits before the revision process. I have to confess that the rubrics are difficult to get the students to engage with; they are so wordy and sometimes vague. At least we only had to look at two of them rather than all six traits.

Before finalizing and scoring their final copies, we spent two partial periods scoring State writing samples for the traits, one day for each trait. We often ask students to score their own work, but without practice, without looking objectively at strong and weak examples that are not their own, the activity is of marginal use, in my opinion.

At last, the day for self-scoring had arrived. After explaining the process, I turned the students loose to work at their own pace. Some students, reluctant writers who had not completed a final copy, were working on that. Students scored themselves and finished at different times. Once they were finished, they began a journal response to a couple of quotes by the founding fathers as part of our Revolutionary War/Constitution unit. And when they finished that, they began to quietly discuss their responses. Four different activities happening concurrently, smoothly, and actively. It was a highlight moment of the school year so far!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

“I want to differentiate…but I can’t!”

Kacy Smith 
“I want to differentiate…but I can’t!”

         I say, “Excellent! You can!”

         This weekend I presented on differentiation at the OCTE (Oregon Council of Teachers of English) with my co-diva, Ilana. We were surprised to see how many of our fellow teachers turned out for our presentation!  They were attentive and asked questions during the presentation. When Ilana and I designed the presentation, we made a conscious decision to address roadblocks early, and not wait for questions or save it for the end. Indeed, more than one teacher approached me after the presentation about various impediments to differentiation. We know there is opposition. We know there is resistance. I have been that opposition, that resistance. Once upon my twenties, I told an administrator, “I don’t need to differentiate because I have a little something called high standards.” The fact that I wasn’t corrected shows how much resistance there is.

         With that in mind, and maybe as somewhat of a penance, here are some common roadblocks (and possible solutions) to implementing differentiation in your classroom.

“I can’t differentiate because it take too much time.”
         Yes, it will take time. It will take time and thought up-front, before you make your first xerox or even decorate your room. Remember that this is an investment of time. Also, you can start slow. There are many ways to differentiate, including low-preparation options. One lesson per unit? One product per semester? Even a few high-order questions written with your TAG kids in mind is a start.

“I can’t differentiate because the grading will be crazy.”
         If you can align assessments under the same learning target, that will help. Rubrics help a great deal. Explore your grading software for ways to enter a narrative for parents about the assessment if you have different learning targets or assessments. With my software, I can enter one comment and then “copy first comment down.” Also, don’t grade and enter everything—even if you aren’t differentiating.

“I can’t differentiate because the students will push back/feel bad/ask questions.”
         Even though we teach the whole child, and therefore need to keep the heart as well as the mind in lessons,  we need to be honest with them. I told my students on the first day that they could expect different assignments, groups, due dates, even texts. I told them that I couldn’t help them to the next level unless I met them where they are right now. I too feared resistance and hurt feelings. So far, it seems fine. I am hoping for more feedback for students and parents during conferences.
         You don’t have to group students only by ability. You can group students by interest or learning styles.

“I can’t differentiate because my classroom will be chaotic.”
         If you use flexible groups, it well may be chaos the first couple of times. Keep practicing! The first flexible group activity this year was so loud that the Vice-Principal popped in to make sure there wasn’t mutiny in my classroom! (I guess my second bit of advice is to keep some Advil nearby.) Also, I’ve had to be really clear about behavioral expectations in group settings. We even had to practice the basics, like listening for a signal to move, or using non-verbal signals for assistance.

“I can’t differentiate because how will I know if I’m doing this right?”
         Well, if you figure it out, will you let me know? In a way, I feel a little bit like a fraud sometimes on this blog. I’m learning, experimenting, and making mistakes, just like everyone else.
         Read. Keep up with best practices. Ask colleagues to observe— even an administrator—if you’re feeling brave. Students also provide wonderful and truthful feedback. Don’t judge yourself harshly in the beginning.

In sum, like Carol Tomlinson says, “[S]tart slowly, but start.” Or as Dr. Suess says, “If things start happening, don't worry, don't stew, just go right along and you'll start happening too.” Go get ‘em, Tiger!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Quote of the Day

"I taught 'em; they just didn't learn it."
heard in staff room at lunch

In other words, why we need differentiation!

True Confessions

Well, I've been presenting at conferences and staff development programs for the last year on various topics: Twice Exceptional Learners, Formative Assessment Strategies, and yesterday at the OCTE conference, Design for Differentiation. My confession is that I always feel like a bit of a fraud at these moments. After all, what do I know that everyone else doesn't also know? I guess the deal is that if you put your time and energy into learning about a topic that matters to you, if you put the ideas into practice in a way that works and makes sense for you, if you take the time to figure out what the key ideas are and how you can communicate them, then you do have something to offer your colleagues. Not a definitive end-all and be-all, to be sure, but a springboard or platform for others to use as they dive into the task of upping their teaching game to the next level.

At OCTE yesterday, the room was pretty packed, an indication that differentiation has found its time, that we educators know it's something we really need to do, that we know it's really challenging, and that we need to collaborate with each to figure out how to really implement it in our classrooms. Tim Gillespie, one of the keynote speakers at the conference mentioned three big ideas that he has extracted from his 37 years in the biz: 1) It's about the students; 2) Go blalah (Hawaiian for big) or go home; in other words, stick to the big learnings; and 3) Keep your enthusiasm. Presenting for colleagues who want to be part of the process, getting good questions and good feedback, and recommitting myself to the task of creating a truly differentiated classroom definitely fed my enthusiasm for this demanding work.

On to my second confession, which I guess I should let my co-diva hear before posting publically. It has to do with clarifying what that commitment looks like in my room. Kacy mentioned at the workshop that we were going to differentiate every lesson and every unit this year. I have to confess that I am not going to attempt this for every lesson. Every unit will have differentiation woven throughout - entry points arrived at through preassessment, different inputs in terms of materials, varying amounts of practice along the way, and differentiated products for the students to show what they have mastered. But I know there are some core lessons that are going to be whole group activities because they get at core knowledge that all the students need. I'll use student engagement strategies and formative strategies so I know where to go from there, to be sure, and allow students more than one way to interact with or respond to the lesson. But some days, I know we're all going to be doing pretty much the same thing at the same time. Again, it's about going big, not sweating each and every day, lesson, etc. It's a long journey and I want to get to June in one piece!