Differentiation and passion

I have been thinking about my classes in the spring.  As usual, I am not sure who my students will be or what I will be teaching, but I am convinced that I need to differentiate instruction and tap into students’ passions.

I was happy this morning to see a post on The Innovative Educator that linked to a post from Education On The Plate on the subject.   I could really relate to what that author Deven Black said:

This has not been my most successful year as a teacher.

I have been feeling like that a lot lately.  In spite of that, I feel like I have been helping my students learn.  In every case that I feel good about, it is the personal touch that has made the difference.

That personal touch involves me really caring about my students and trying to assist them both as learners and as people.  It also has involved a lot of individual and individualized  instruction.  One-on-one mini-lessons and providing students with more choice have been big parts of what I did in the fall.  In planning the spring classes, I know that I want to increase both those aspects of my teaching practice.  And these posts have helped me see more ways to do that.

Black, for instance, writes about how he differentiated according to student interest in the tasks:

To begin my lesson I made a grid of nine possible tasks my student could do in the next two weeks.

I assigned each task a separate spot in the classroom and asked students to stand in the spot of the task that most appealed to them.

I immediately noticed that my group of six girls who always wanted to work together did not all choose the same task. Interesting.

I looked around the room and noticed that three of the tasks did not have a single student interested in it.  They all seemed like good tasks to me, but it has been a long time since I’ve been a 12-year-old.

What would have happened had I assigned one of those unpopular choices as the assignment for everyone? Or if, thinking I was offering differentiation, I had given my class a choice of those three unpopulated tasks

I shudder at the thought, especially since I’ve been guilty of both approaches more often than not.

He goes on to describe a two-week project that became a four-week project and left the students feeling pretty good:

The students clearly demonstrated they had learned a lot about the colonies and, in reflections they wrote afterwards they said they had learned about cooperation, about process, about how when they realized one approach was not working they were able to switch their work to a new one because they had discussed various approaches at the beginning. …  These kids are very high achievers who are not used to failing. Some of them were a little dejected by their less-than-perfect work until one very sharp boy said that he was thrilled with his project no matter how bad it was because he finally felt challenged by a school assignment.

Black was happy that his students did not need him during these four weeks, that they could work in their groups and help each other learn and find solutions to problems.  He continues:

I needed them, though.

I needed them so I could learn to let go, to get out of the way and to trust my students to work on their own.

I needed them to show me that students know how they learn best even if they can’t put it into words-

I needed them so I could realize that even an old teacher can learn new tricks.

I needed them to help me discover that if you just point kids in the right direction you might be surprised at how far they travel on their own.

Most of all, I needed them to let me have one great lesson this year.

I needed that most of all.

So how can I translate Black’s experiences into my own class?  I have thought a lot about having students choose topics that they are interested in and maybe work individually reading and writing about them.  But I like Black’s use of groups.

The Innovative Educator has tips for differentiating instruction:

Determine your student’s talents, interests, passions, learning styles, and abilities
Allow students to own the learning
Allow students to demonstrate learning using the tools they choose
Allow students to follow their passions when demonstrating learning

She says:

Begin units of study explaining to students what the learning goals are and ask them, based on their individual preferences, how they might best demonstrate this learning. Encourage them to talk to others they know share their talents, passions, interests, and abilities. Let them know they can work independently, in pairs, or in groups. Once they’ve developed their plan let them present it to you for approval. Give students ownership of how they will demonstrate the learning with you as a guide, facilitator, and final approver of ways in which they can do so.

OK, this is the blueprint.  How do I do it?  In a vocabulary and grammar class, for instance, what does that look like?  I am starting to get some ideas.  But I am not there yet.

So thanks to these two bloggers, I have lots of new ideas and even more understanding of what I need to be thinking about. I am excited to think about the possibilities.



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