Monday, September 24, 2018

The D Word

     In the course of my work with teachers, I'm often asked about a little something called differentiation.  Maybe you've heard of it.
     They might say something like:
     Admin is requiring us to have differentiation options in our lesson plans.  What's a good way to account for all the levels of learners in my class?

    More often than not they won't use the d word.  They'll say something along the lines of:

    I've got a lot of low kids in my class.  It takes them forever to solve a problem.  Some of them can't even read.  The high kids finish right away and then just sit around and wait while I try to help the others.  What can I do?

    When I hear comments like this, I set aside (for the moment) my concerns about labeling learners as high and low.  I compliment the teacher on her observation that something is wrong, that not all needs are being met, that precious class time is being wasted, and that she wants to do something about it.  But what? 
     Sometimes teachers will assign certain groups of students certain problems, or adapt assignments, like this:

    One common method I've seen employed is dividing students into ability-based groups.  Teachers might call this guided math, or math workshop.  After a whole-class lesson, the teacher will meet with the so-called struggling students and lead them through the problem set while the "high fliers" work through the problems on their own, and then move on to some game or other activity.  If there's time, the students in the teacher-led group may get to play a game.  There's rarely enough time.
   While I do believe there is a time and place for teachers to meet with small, skill-based groups, too often this model becomes the daily, default structure.  The groups calcify, and all the inherent social, emotional, and academic implications manifest themselves.  So what's the answer?
    Here's a differentiation template that I've used.  I take no credit for inventing it, only experimenting with it in some of my elementary classrooms to good effect.  I've written about this before, but as we begin the 2018-2019 school year I feel it's a good time for a revisit.  It goes like this:

Step One:
   Grab a scissors.  Take whatever problem you want the kids to solve and remove the question.  Keep just the text.  If the questions are generated based on a chart or some other graphic, keep just the graphic.
   Some examples:




Step Two:
     After a quick notice and wonder, ask the students to write their own questions, questions that can be solved using the information in the prompt.  First in their notebooks and then, after vetting, on chart paper.  Ask students to vary the question type between "thin" and "thick" questions.
   Some examples:

Gr 5

Gr 2

Step 3
    Select a variety of questions and post them around the room.  Allow students freedom of choice to solve whichever problems they want, using whatever strategies they want.
     Some examples:

     I like this model because it avoids the stigmatization of students being put in high, middle, and low groups and it allows for students to self-differentiate, both in terms of the questions they write and the questions they elect to solve.  Engagement is increased because, rather than being told which questions to answer, students have been given the opportunity to pose their own questions and decide which they'd like to tackle.  It's the definition of a low floor/high ceiling task, and it provides opportunities for small group interactions within a whole group community setting.  The teacher can elect to work with whatever students she feels need guidance without the students feeling that they've been singled out in an ability-based group.  Most important, it's fun.
     If you'd like to know more about how this has played out in classroom settings, see posts here, here, and here.  Comments are open for your ideas, observations, and reflections.


Wednesday, September 5, 2018

For Those Going Back

      It's back-to-school week in New Jersey.  But not for me.  Over a million students and over a hundred thousand teachers.  Crossing guards and lunch ladies.  Principals and paras.  Bus drivers and van drivers.  Security officers and social workers.  LDTCs and VPs.  But not me.
     This is my second back-to-school as a retired public educator.  At my wife's urging, I put in one year past my pension eligible 30 years of service and 55 years of age.  One final year spent soaking it all up in the only school in the only district I ever worked in: the last teacher orientation, the last room set-up, the last first day, the last back-to school night, the last picture day, the last Halloween parade, the last holiday party, the last assembly, the last parent-teacher conference, the last field day, the last last day.  One year of closure.  I haven't been back. 
     I'm still in schools, but it's not the same.  More a hired gun.  If I miss anything it's the sense of family you build with your colleagues, with your students, with the wider school community.  That's what 31 years in the same school will do.  So I miss that.  That, and all the noise.  The commotion and the hubbub you get from 400-plus kids and 80-plus full and part-time staff together in a brick building not too far from Exit 9 off the New Jersey Turnpike.
     I want you to know I'm thinking about you all.
     So for everyone going back, in this season of going back, I wish you a school year filled with curiosity, wonder, and human connection.  Stay safe.     
          Across the open mouth of the tent Nick fixed cheesecloth to keep out mosquitoes.  He crawled inside under the mosquito bar with various things from the pack to put at the head of the bed under the slant of the canvas.  Inside the tent the light came through the brown canvas.  It smelled pleasantly of canvas.  Already there was something mysterious and homelike.  Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent.  He had not been unhappy all day.  This was different though.  Now things were done.  There had been this to do.  Now it was done.  It had been a hard trip.  He was very tired.  That was done.  He had made his camp.  He was settled.  Nothing could touch him.  It was a good place to camp.  He was there, in the good place.  He was in his home where he had made it.  Now he was hungry.

Ernest Hemingway
Big Two-Hearted River: Part I