While effective teachers have been differentiating their instruction to best support and help all of their students for years, it’s only become known as differentiation in the last 20 years or so. Before, it was just called good teaching: When a teacher noticed that some students seemed to be grasping the content or curriculum faster or slower than other students, the teacher created alternative tasks or or mini-lessons for those students to help support or challenge them. Great teachers have always been doing this. Now, good teaching has been provided a catchy name and seems to be the in-thing to do. While I’m all in favor of promoting good, evidence-based teaching practices, I wonder if branding differentiation as a new approach to teaching is really the best way to help all teachers see the value in good teaching. Perhaps, regardless though, differentiation is a good teaching practice for all teachers, at all levels. Just like snowflakes, no two students are alike, and in order to best help each and every student, we need to treat them as unique individuals.
While I do try to differentiate my instruction at every turn in the classroom, I find that sometimes I struggle to do this with whole-class instruction. I sometimes treat each student the same and lump them together for instruction that should be differentiated based on ability-level and prior knowledge. One of my informal goals for the year is to work at differentiating my full-group lessons. Students who are proficient in English don’t need to participate in a lesson in which I explain, step-by-step, how to complete an assignment or task. This lesson would not engage students who have a strong understanding of the English language. Therefore, it would not be in the best interest of my students to force them all to participate in a lesson that would bore them. This year, I’m working at making sure that I best engage and support all of my students.
Yesterday provided me with an opportunity to work towards meeting my goal of differentiating full-group instruction. In my Humanities class, five students struggled to meet the objective of being able to write about their reading recently, and so, I had them participate in a mini-lesson on creating effective Goodreads Updates. I want those five students to completely understand how to think critically about what they read so that they can write about it in an explanatory and interpretive manner. Now, the rest of the students demonstrated their ability to master this objective on a recent assessment and I felt as though they didn’t need to be a part of this mini-lesson; however, I also didn’t want to exclude them if they felt like they needed more practice on the skill of writing about their reading. So, at the start of the lesson, I gave the five students who met or exceeded this objective two options: Stay at their desk and participate in our mini-lesson or move to the back table and work on the historical fiction story they began in class yesterday. All of those students chose to work on their story in the back of the room while I worked with the other half of the class in the front of the classroom.
This differentiation provided me with ample time to help these students who are struggling to write about their reading in a critical manner. I reviewed the requirements for an effective Goodreads Update by asking the students to list them. I was impressed by how much they remembered. Lack of effort isn’t what caused most of these students to struggle with this recent assessment. They care a lot about completing quality work. Unfortunately, their English proficiency is limited and so they are unable to fully comprehend what they are reading at grade-level, and thus, they unable to write about it in any sort of meaningful manner. This differentiated mini-lesson freed me up to work with this small group in a supportive and relevant manner.
I then discussed two examples of exemplary updates other students in the class had crafted. We talked about what allowed them to exceed the graded objective. The boys seemed to understand this. I then went over the next topic on which they will be updating for homework due on Thursday, as setting can sometimes be a difficult concept for ELLs to grasp. Next, I worked with the students to craft an effective Goodreads Update for a novel one of the students is currently reading. I had every student in the small group add to the update so that I know they understood the expectations for the graded task. I closed the mini-lesson by fielding the few questions the students had about how to write about their reading in an appropriate way. I had these students spend the final ten minutes of class working on their next Goodreads Update so that I could offer assistance and feedback as they worked. This helped me keep the students focused on the task at hand and allowed me to provide the students with guidance as they began working.
Meanwhile, the other group of students in the back of the classroom were working very well on adding to their historical fiction stories. They seemed very focused and accomplished quite a bit in the short time they had to work. When I observed them during the final ten minutes of class, it seemed as though some of them had a hit a writing wall and were in need of some inspiration. So, I suggested an alternative task that they could work on: “One of you create a shared Google Document and each add two sentences from your story to this new story. Once all ten sentences are in, work together to revise, restructure, and bring sense and order to this new story.” While not all five students partook in this new activity, those who did seemed very engaged and excited about it. This was yet another way I was able to differentiate my instruction to best support and help all of my students.
At the end of the period, I felt as though I had provided the students with just what they needed to be supported and challenged as we work through the Humanities curriculum. Those students who struggled with the skill of writing about their reading, received the help they needed, while those students who mastered that same skill were able to work on their writing piece, which kept them engaged and challenged in a meaningful manner. While I know there are many other ways I could have differentiated this lesson, this approach seemed to work for me and my students yesterday. Moving forward, I want to try this same approach with other mini-lessons or whole group instruction lessons so that I can support those students who need the extra attention while helping those students who master a skill to jump to the next level of understanding. Like great teachers of the past, I’m just going to utilize the good teaching practice of differentiation as much as possible. It’s not a passing fad or new trend for me or other great teachers, it’s just good teaching.