My day begins at 7:20 am. My classroom is right by the back door of the school. As soon as the back door opens I am immediately greeted with questions and concerns, good news, and bad news! I hit the ground running every single day! Sometimes it amazes me of all that happens before 8:00 am! Through it all my goal is to keep every one calm, do damage control, and get everyone taken care of and back on track ready to learn at 7:38 am! Most days we make it on time! This is my normal and I love it!
So, what is normal? In my world there isn't a normal. There shouldn't be a normal. We are all different, unique individuals with beautiful gifts to share. The same goes for teaching. There isn't a "normal" way to teach and there shouldn't be. All teachers attend college, and attend more college, and go to many conferences. We all earn diplomas, and certificates, and more certificates and most of the time more degrees. In all of these classes, and courses, and conferences we learn strategies and then newer strategies, but in the end do all of these degrees and strategies make us better? Okay, my answer is yes, but sometimes best is still the old way sometimes. Why sometimes? Here is where I tell you...
Sometimes the old way is better because no two students are the same. Sometimes a student learns best with a routine, using rote memorization, and lots of structure but other students can't handle structure and need hands on learning. This is where differentiation comes in. Yes, I have finally made my point!
Differentiation means adapting instruction to meet each student's individual needs. Let me tell you about my students. I have eleven perfectly wonderful students they are at six different reading levels and an equal amount of math levels. Every day is somewhat of a balancing act. I have to create an environment that is conducive to learning yet keeps each student focused, engaged, and interested. There are four key components of differentiating instruction. They are differentiation in: content, process, products, and classroom environment. In a way, I must calculate every aspect of every lesson throughout the day while taking into accounts student behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses. Since my students schedule is a six day cascading model, I must look at each of the six days individually and balance out the day in terms of how each student will respond to each lesson given the classes that they've have at each given part of the day. For example, I know that at 7:38 am after we've settled all of the initial worries of the day, that I have a group of students that are rested, fed, and eager to learn, so the rigor of the subject can be optimal. However, if it's a day where there is English, reading, science, math, and social studies with no academic breaks in it for physical education or technology class then I need to plan more hands-on activities with movement to keep the students motivation and thinking level high. I also always provide a snack and a drink to keep energy levels up. How do I do this?
First, I make the most of our physical space. Each student has a tandem desk for two, for large group work. We also have a kidney shaped table where we do group activities. Often we break into smaller groups, not always by academic needs. Sometimes the groups are set by student academic level but other times the groups are designed to have stronger students to lead students who have more difficulty in the given assignment. Often students bring the chairs to the smart board area to give them a break from their desks. We sometimes also go outside to break up the monotony of being in one place. Just yesterday we were outside testing out the anemometers that we made in science class. Sometimes we go for a walk with a clipboard in the school building for example to search for shapes in the school that are congruent! Yet still, we have learning centers where students rotate at different intervals signified by a bell. Another strategy that works on academically challenging days are brain breaks were we may stop for a moment to do a short exercise or solve a puzzle. This leads me to my "puzzle center" where I allow the students to go work on a jigsaw puzzle while they wait for their peers to finish their work. We will beginning our fourth puzzle tomorrow!
Content, is the next significant area to consider when differentiating for the students. Content is what skills or information the student needs to gain and how the student will get access to the information. Also, process which is how the student engages with the content in order to make sense of it. We are living in exciting times in education with the influx of all the new technology. Sadly, I'm old enough to remember getting my first computer in my classroom and fearing it with all my heart! The maintenance man made a wooden armoire to keep it in to lock it up at night! Today we can deliver content by: textbook, worksheet, whiteboard, voice, CD player, computer, smart-board, Elmo, chromebook, i-pad...etc! The options are almost endless! I use them all! Again, like the physical space in the room I take into consideration the students daily schedule, time, of day, and personal learning styles such as: visual, auditory, or kinesthetic, when planning for content. No longer is there a one size fits all, cookie cutter education! I develop three separate spelling lists each week with work designed specifically for each student. I have a student with visual needs so the font I type in for this student is larger. I have a student who is still learning sight words so his program is completely different than everyone else's. The beautiful part is that when I pass out the spelling work on Monday, it is all delivered in the same method so that no one really realizes or even cares that their work is different than their neighbors. I also create three separate lists on Spelling City so that all students can practice their spelling words at home on their computers. In math class we have group lessons with calculators to work on higher level math but on certain days I assign individualized work with handwritten notes specific to each child's needs. It is in these lessons that we build foundational skills that are needed to support the higher-level math. Does all of this take time? Yes, of course, but all kids deserve to have an education that is suited to their individual needs.
Finally, the last place to differentiate is in products. The product is the culminating project or assessment that allows the student to rehearse, apply, and share what he/she has learned in a given unit. Sometimes the best approach is to allow students the option of how they'd like to share what they have learned for example:with a skit, a puppet show, a portfolio, or art project such as a diorama, or cereal box report. Another strategy is for the teacher to use a rubric to appropriately rate each students work with the ability to take into consideration their varied skill levels.Sometimes the end product can be delivered individually or in a group of two or more. Still sometimes the best way to assess what the student has retained is with a plain old-fashioned test. Well, not really, today students with IEPs or 504 plans are allowed individualized accommodations and modifications to level the playing field between them and their non-disabled peers. Some examples are tests read, a scribe, large print, or a quiet, separate location, plus more. In the end the best product is produced by differentiating for each student's individuality.
In my opinion, it's an exciting time to be in education from the perspective of both a teacher and a student. There are as many ways to educate a child as there are children. Just remember every child is unique and every education is special!
The Ultimate Survival Guide for the Technophobic Teacher
Are you Babying Your Special Needs baby (Child)?
Mitt Aubin's Book Review:
Tonight's book review is appropriate for the season: How Leaves Change by: Sylvia A. Johnson. This is a very detailed picturesque book that offers a wonderful, complete science lesson on how leaves change! It has won the New York Academy of Sciences Children's Science Book Award.