Differentiation is a buzz word you have hopefully heard about. I've been hearing it since college but it wasn't until last year that I really started to build a more complete knowledge of what differentiation means in my classroom. Last year I was chosen to be a part of an intensive differentiation pilot in my district where a specialist was in my room once a week, I observed other teachers in the district, went to cohort meetings, and eventually was a model classroom for other teachers in the district. It was an eye opening experience that overwhelmed, educated, and pushed me to really embrace and be an advocate for differentiation.
Before being in the pilot program, I knew that it was about meeting students' needs based on their learning styles and ability levels. I knew that it would mean more small group instruction and assessing students throughout each unit and changing my lesson plans based on what my kids need at that time. I knew it would mean more flexibility in my planning and that every year and every kid would be different. What I didn't really have a handle on was HOW to do it all and not lose my mind. (I'm still working on that.)
My principal recently gave me the book, Managing a Differentiated Classroom- A Practical Guide by Carol A.Tomlinson and Marcia B. Imbeau.
I love the section about what differentiation is NOT and I would like to share that with you.
Differentiation is NOT:
- new; They included a parenting example: it is something parents do with each child they have. (No child is the same at home or in the classroom) You don't parent exactly the same so why would you teach 20 kids the same.
-for a particular group of students; (gifted, special ed, or ESL) It is for ALL students.
-something extra teachers do on top of regular lesson plans; it is a different approach to planning with student needs in mind. It takes more time but is worth it because you really see the growth in your students.
- watered down teaching; it is an approach that teaches up from each child's point of entry.
- a specified set of tools; it is a way of thinking about the classroom that attends to students' needs
- extreme teaching that only few teachers can accomplish; it is described as a best practice for teachers and it is something that all teachers can and should do in some capacity.
- something teachers already do, most teachers do some things that differentiate for certain learners in the classroom but few differentiate for all students.
Differentiation IS a teacher's response to a student's needs. You do this by building a safe and comfortable learning community, following the quality curriculum based on standards, getting to know your students, using ongoing assessment, creating fluid groups that change with each assessment, and more flexible classroom management where you are a facilitator not the lecturer.
With that being said, here are some things that I have learned so far about differentiation.
- You can't differentiate everything all the time. NO ONE is perfect.
- You can use resources from the district and tweak them as you see fit. You can use a whole group lesson and turn it into a small group or independent activity.
- You do not have to be at your back table all the time pulling small groups. You can turn "guided practice" into you going to each group of students at their stations and give guided questions and informally assess.
- Pre-assessments can be formal or informal. You can pull questions from the standards in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd and make a formal assessment or you can do something more informal in their journal with open ended questions depending on the topic.
- Menus are not what differentiation is all about. Menus can be used with long units to reinforce a set of standards. They can be done by the whole class, or just a small group that is above level and needs something more long term and in depth than your other students.
- You should know what your students are interested in, how they learn best, and what type of products they like to make. This can be done by an interest survey. (We use renzullilearning.com in our district and it is incredible)
- Most importantly, you need to find a way to keep up with your data to back you up when making lessons. You can't just give pre-assessments and do nothing with the data. My problem was not that I didn't use the data, it was that I didn't have the best organization system to look at throughout the year. I have a binder this year and data collection sheets from my lovely differentiation guru friend Arianna.
This year, I am a differentiation coach for my school. I have to take what I've learned (still learning) and teach it to my teammates and other staff members. I'll keep you updated about how that goes. My plan is to include information about what I am doing with differentiation in the classroom, what comes up when working on implmentation with my teammates and any other interesting tidbits in these blog entries.