Teachers are busy people. On top of planning lessons, finding interactive activities, and creating assessments, we are then asked to add one more layer our job–and that layer is a little something called “differentiation.” Don’t take my sarcasm for cynicism. Differentiation is something that all teachers, including myself, want to do. We all wish we had a magic wand that we could flick so that in the blink of an eye, each and every one of our precious little cherubs could have exactly what he or she needs in that very moment. And sometimes it feels impossible. Sometimes it feels like we’re being set up to fail.
But the weight that comes with differentiation isn’t always necessary. While differentiation could mean planning 25 individualized lessons, that is neither sustainable nor scalable within the confines of a typical classroom. Differentiation could mean something much more manageable than that, meanwhile being just as beneficial as the idealistic 25 individualized lessons. Here’s a couple ways to embed differentiation into your room without creating a lesson for each student, but I have a feeling that, after you read them, you’ll realize you’ve been doing these all along.
(1) Provide lots of choice and lots of options. Believe it or not, it is possible to teach the same skill to a bunch of kids, without having to choose everything for them. Take, for instance, one of my units on text structure and summarizing. I chose a wide breadth of e-articles, attached them to my website, knowing that they encompassed a wide variety of content and reading levels. The targets and outcomes were the same for all students: (1) Identify the main idea and key details; (2) Identify and construct the text structure for each text. However, the differentiation was embedded through the amount of choice I provided. Not only were students able to exercise their evaluative skills in relation to their interests, but they could very easily decide that an article was too difficult for them, taking a great deal of the pressure off of me, and adding more responsibility onto them. This also gave me the time to provide focused instruction to the kids who really needed it, while the rest thrived in the opportunity to guide their own learning experience.
Providing lots of choice also works in writing. When my students were writing stories this past year, by widening the number of options for story writing (i.e., real experiences, imagined experiences, short memoir, etc.), the students were able to guide their own experience and tend to their respective comfort levels by choosing their own genres and premises for stories, allowing me to meet them where they were, instead of my dragging them up to where I wanted them to be.
(2) Make your technology work for you. While technology can help you use less paper, the point of infusing technology into the classroom is not to “go paperless.” Instead, it is to increase teacher efficiency and help you take your students to deeper levels of thinking through concrete activities. Technology, when used well, can help you achieve both of these things in addition to embedding differentiation into your classroom.
First and foremost, create a classroom website. On this, you can provide the aforementioned menu of choices for your students, with less energy than it takes to make copies for your kids. Further, on the classroom website, you can provide multiple types of media (i.e., videos, infographics, links to e-texts and webquests) where students can choose their own path–or their own “language,” if you will–to the predetermined outcomes you’ve already set. Finally, through the plethora of documentation capabilities that technology provides, you can very easily help students track their own progress, helping you to assess more consistently and create shorter feedback loops (through using electronic communication like forms and e-mails). All of these capabilities are great ways to make technology work for you and increase the independence of your students, which leads me to the last way you can embed differentiation into your classroom.
(3) Build resilience and autonomy in your children, so they can give themselves what they need.
Building routines is critical to any classroom, especially one where differentiation is embedded into the culture. By building routines and structure, students are not only able to orient themselves in the culture, but they can constantly self-assess, try new things, and take risks.
In a technology-rich classroom, it’s more important that students are learning how to utilize the technology to help them work smarter, as well. Oftentimes, it’s tempting to become what I like to call “app-tastic,” and find apps for various content areas and subjects. However, by finding apps that help to target certain types of thinking, like what is denoted in the Digital Bloom’s Taxonomy, students learn how to use the tools to help them think critically and organize their thoughts so that they may move forward with their learning. In fact, I’d argue that placing this power in the hands of the students is your best bet for embedding differentiation, because their metacognitive skills are truly the best gauge for how challenging or easy a task is.
This became especially clear to me this last year when my students were finishing their TED talks. We were working on structuring their papers and revising them for meaning and clarity, a skill for which I had provided many types of activities such as Popplet organizers, taking notes on the desk, and my favorite, the writing strategies that we had been building for quite some time. I can’t remember the learning target I posted that day, but I can remember that I encouraged the kids to use each other, use their strategies, and use me if necessary. After finishing a one-on-one conference, I got up and walked around, and the differentiation I had infused into my classroom practically began screaming out at me.
Some students were modifying their text structure organizers in Popplet, while another student had created a form for herself so that she could continue to collect survey data for her talk. Another was writing in dry erase marker all over her desk, using the “Try Ten” writing strategy to help revise a sentence she didn’t like, while two other girls were doing something similar in order to find good titles.
Through two years of providing lots of options, building routines and strategies around using technology, and placing more responsibility in their hands, my students became resilient and autonomous and began to solve problems without my help. More importantly, they saw that they could help themselves, building a positive disposition towards learning and a “can-do” attitude that permeated each of our projects and became an integral part of our classroom culture.