Monthly Archives: October 2014

Simple Ways to Differentiate for Students

The Individual Education Plan (IEP)  is our promise to the parents and the student that we will teach them something that is probably different from the regular program.  But that is hard to do.  Sometimes, often from a sense of being overwhelmed by the diverse needs in our classroom, we hope that students on an IEP will just “get something” out of the activity, task, or assessment.  The problem is that really they aren’t getting much out of that activity and we are not fulfilling our promise through the IEP.

Differentiation, popular a few years ago, seems to have gotten a bad reputation, probably because some of the early definitions were next to impossible to achieve.  As we discovered, differentiation is NOT:

  • Providing a totally different instructional program to each individual or even to those on an IEP
  • Having the Special Education Teacher provide you with a packet of worksheets for the student to work on independently
  • Going off with the Educational Assistant so that the work gets “done”

Here are some quick and easy ways to provide some differentiation within the regular classroom program that will support learners without being too much extra trouble for you or the student.  We will look at them again at the next staff meeting and have some time to discuss how they fit into your subject area and classes.

  1. Small group instruction is the definition of differentiation.  There is your chance to match your instruction directly to student need.  You do not have to have the same teaching points for each small group; in fact, you shouldn’t.
  2. Help them organize the page. Any time you have an assignment or activity with a blank piece of paper, it may overwhelm up all your students with learning disabilities, slow processing and/or organizational issues.  Students with ASD can also find the blank paper intimidating.  They have no idea where to begin or how to start.  They need more guidance with what to put down.  While you may be moving many of your students towards being able to organize their thoughts or having the freedom to choose how to reflect their thinking, some students still need your guidance.  A graphic organizer does not need to be elaborate or even photocopied ahead of time.  Try folding the paper and adding some headings, putting in how many points you need the student to make, adding the numbers.
  3. Don’t have students copy. For many students copying the question off the board or a short note is labour intensive and they never get it done or by the time they have copied it down there is no time to do the work.  Know who those students are and go around and put it in their book for them if it isn’t very long.  You will spend just as much time doing this as you will fussing with them to get it done.  If it is a note they need, instead of giving them a photocopy, give them a photocopy with the most important words as blanks to fill in.  That ensures they read the note.
  4. Change the format. If you want students to write a paragraph, differentiate by accepting a web or a list or point form.  Help create the outline for them to get started.  If you are giving a fill in the blanks assignment on a test, give students the bank of words.  If the math problem is long, give the work in smaller sections.  If most students are writing, but you have a student who is much stronger orally, have him speak his answer into Dragon Dictation or Explain Everything or even Garage Band!
  5. Talk it out. Almost all students will perform better on a task if they have had a chance to talk about it first.  Students with special needs require this more than anyone and do best if they have a chance to do it with you.  A short conversation about what they are going to do, AND record some words on a sticky note for them, will give students a starting point.
  6. Know your students. In an inquiry-based, learning community environment, we give students a chance to create, develop their own ideas, learn together.  That isn’t going to work for everyone.  Just because the current pedagogy suggests a direction, you are the professional.  You know your students.  If group work terrifies a student or causes the student to be socially ostracized, minimize the group work for that student.  If open-ended tasks paralyze a student, provide guiding questions.  If coming up with a creative idea is overwhelming, give them a choice of three, or two.
  7. Change the complexity of the task. In many of the content subjects, students on an IEP do not need to work at the same level of complexity.  After you have assigned the task or activity, go to those students and quickly jot down for them a simpler version of the task.  Ask them to define 3 words not 10 and give the page reference.  Change to simpler numbers in mathematics.  Have them make a list of character traits instead of writing a character description.
  8. Provide the vocabulary. Many special needs students cannot access the words they need to do the task.  Give them lists of words.  Give them sentence starters.  Give them fill in the blanks.  Give them multiple choice.  Lessen the vocabulary and word retrieval requirements.

Differentiation is about making the learning situation different based on different needs.  Sometimes, little changes can make a big difference.

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Student Engagement is More Than Having Fun

At a workshop last week, the speaker reminded us that “student engagement” is not the same thing as “having fun”.  Student engagement is one of the current catch phrases in education.  We know that engaged students are more likely to learn more.  But what is student engagement exactly and how is it different than having fun?

Vygotsky talks about engagement as a sense of “flow”.  That state when you are so engaged that time flies by.  It is described as an optimal challenge—not so difficult that anxiety kicks in but not so easy that boredom sets in.  When I think of “fun” activities, I don’t usually think of challenge as necessarily being part of the fun although I have often found challenges to be fun.  So what can teachers do to create situations in which there is high student engagement?

  1. Ensure sufficient background knowledge.  A grade 8 class will be starting literature circles in a few days.  The novels have themes that the teacher feels will be complex or foreign to the students.  He arranges for the students to do some background knowledge research on the topics before they start reading.  The students are surprised by some of the information they discover and now are keen to start their novels.  The teacher has ensured that the students will not get lost in the plot because he has provided the students with sufficient background knowledge.  Without the background knowledge many of these students would have ended up confused in their novels.  Confusion does not lead to engagement.
  2. Encourage curiosity. A 3 year old is curious about everything (Why? Why? Why?).  We see less of that as time goes by.  But I don’t think that people grow less curious. Perhaps the school system is too rigid to encourage curiosity and students quickly learn that school is about doing what the teacher wants, not asking questions.  Although, as the teacher, you need to follow the curriculum and can’t really go off in any direction at all, you can create conditions of wonder.  You can start the science unit with an experiment instead of the theory (I wonder why oil and water don’t mix but salt and water do); you can pose a question in geography (I wonder why people choose to live in cities instead of the country).  And your wonderings don’t have to be big questions.  You could bring in an odd object and have students figure it out (like a dragon fruit or an old rotary phone); you can ask a question (I wonder how ducks talk to their babies to warn them of danger) and have students use google to search possible answers.  Here is a great article about the power of curiosity and learning:  http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/feb13/vol70/num05/The-Case-for-Curiosity.aspx.
  3. Provide opportunities for social learning. When we are really interested in something, we like to talk about it.  We like to bounce our ideas off others and this helps us to refine our thinking.  Conversations which are the most engaging are those where there is a free exchange of ideas and no obvious answer.  Watch a group of kindergarten students trying to build the tallest tower with blocks.  They spend a lot of time talking about the problem.   When students work together to solve easy math problems, usually the faster student does the work.  But when students have a problem to grapple with and their collective math knowledge is required to solve the problem, they are very engaged.  When students engage in literature circles that mimic adult book clubs (I have never been handed a role card at book club; we never talk one at a time around a circle), they love their books and deepen their understanding.  One grade 7 class is so engrossed in their dystopian literature circles that the librarian has had to start a wait list for books that students want to read.  Not only are students talking about their books in their own literature circle but they are talking among circles about books.  In that class, reading is a social event (except when you walking in during reading time you can hear a pin drop).
  4. Tell stories: Everyone loves stories and when we can present content in story format, students tend to remember it longer.  We know that the narrative format helps to create visual imagery for students.  Use analogies; show movie clips or photos; tell them about your own experiences; think aloud as you are reading a novel.  Next time you listen to a good speaker at a workshop or on a Ted Talk, take notice of how he or she uses narrative to illustrate a point.  “Let me tell you a story…” is an engaging technique for everyone, even adolescents.
  5. Make it real. Kids know busy work when they see it.  They will do it because you told them to; they might enjoy it because who doesn’t like to do the occasional word search; but it isn’t the same as engaging.  Be careful that you aren’t just creating one “fun” or “cool” activity after another.  Engagement happens when students can connect their learning and know that they are developing their skills.  Not only do we want to create optimal challenges but we want students to feel successful.   Knowing that you are getting better at something that was challenging creates engagement and a willingness to persevere.  Sebastian, age 13, told me today that BEDMAS with integers was “easy schmeasy”.  I know that two weeks ago he did very poorly on the same assessment.  But his teacher continued to provide optimal challenges and returned to the concepts over and over.  Now he feels confident, successful and engaged in mathematics.

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Teaching is not telling

I was talking to a parent on the phone the other day who wanted to take her child on a holiday during school time and wanted us to send home the work her daughter would miss.  I was explaining how we could send home some things but that a lot of the work we do at school can’t be “sent home”.  I got the distinct impression that she truly believed we had big boxes labeled “Grade Seven Math” or “Grade 3 Language Arts” and we could just pull out the missed assignments and all would be good.

Of course teaching is much more complex than that.  If we had boxes like that it would just be “telling” the students what to do.  So what is the difference between teaching and telling?

  • Teaching is modeling. A baby learns to talk by modeling what he hears over and over again.  No one ever said, “Now baby, this is what talking is. Start.”  Students figure out how to write by watching their teacher write as he thinks aloud.  Students learn to connect to text by hearing their teacher do the same.  Students learn multiple strategies for mathematics by seeing how someone else has solved the problem.  Students learn how to play melodically by hearing the music played that way.
  • Teaching is scaffolding so that students come to an understanding of what to do gradually. So often when a task doesn’t go well, it is because the student was not clear about what to do.  The scope of the task was too big and there was too much information at once.  We need to break down tasks and show students what to do in bits and pieces.
  • Teaching is patience. Because, as teachers, we already see the whole, it is hard to remember what it was like to not know. It takes a long time to get good at something.  So, we can’t just “tell” students how to do something; we need to give them many, many opportunities to gradually strengthen their skills.
  • Teaching is giving feedback. Or perhaps it is better to say that learning is getting feedback.  And the feedback can’t just be telling either.  As teachers we give feedback that is so specific and so individualized that you get that “aha” moment from the student who has now moved further along in his or her understanding.  If feedback were “telling” we could just reiterate the original instruction.  Feedback is specific and pinpoints the very next step.
  • Teaching is knowing the content and the pedagogy. If teaching were telling anyone could do it.  But good teaching requires the teacher to know the subject matter so intimately that he or she can predict or determine where a student is struggling.  In speaking with a history teacher this week, she said that her struggling students could not imagine life in the past.  She understood that the study of history was more than just facts; it was the study of another time and way of life and her students just couldn’t imagine that.  And she had a plan to help them.

So, I sent home some textbook pages and worksheets to make the parent feel less guilty about taking her child out of school, even though I told her that the family trip to India was educational enough.  But I knew that the real learning on this family trip was not going to be the worksheets I’d given, but the interaction the child would have with her family in learning about a different culture.

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Multiple Entry Points into Learning: there is no such thing as average

We know that in any given learning situation students arrive at different places.  When I first started my teaching career at the intermediate level, I was quite convinced that if only the previous teachers had taught them better, my students would know what I needed them to know before I started with my part of the curriculum.  Really, how is it that they could arrive in grade 7 without understanding fractions, or the capital of Canada, or how to use quotation marks???

And then, I had to teach grade one.  I had to teach them how to read!  And, worst of all, everyone would know if I didn’t because I’d have no previous teacher upon whom to place the blame.  But, what I discovered was that even in grade one my students were entering the school system with a wide variety of skill, knowledge, behavioural and interest levels.  Despite all my efforts, some of them just weren’t ready to read yet.

For a while now I haven’t liked the term “diagnostic assessment” because when I was assessing my students at the beginning of a learning cycle based on the end-of-the-cycle expectations, mostly I figured out what I already knew:  they didn’t know much.  Leveling student achievement at this point wasn’t that helpful to me.  What is helpful is figuring out their entry point:  what do my students already bring to the table that will help them access the skills and knowledge I want them to learn?

When I begin to design the early tasks and activities that students will do, I want everyone student engaged, curious and be able to add something.  Each student needs to feel s/he is successful at the beginning of learning if I am going to have any hope of convincing them to keep trying and learning.  Let’s look at some easy ways to do that:

In science, I eventually want the students to learn about density.  If I start with having the students read definitions for density and scientific explanations about density I risk losing a bunch of them right away.  But if I begin, like a science teacher I know, by posing the question, does the weight of an object influence whether it will float or sink, every student in my class can participate.  Every student can create an experiment and observe what happens.  Every student is now intrigued and curious about what happened.  I can move into the science now, in whole group and small group lessons, with everyone on board.  I may still need to differentiate by reading the textbook, providing more guided practice to some and so on, but I have a much better chance at succeeding now that everyone is on board.

In math, if I give out a fractions worksheet, the students who understand fractions are bored.  The students who don’t are stumped.  But, if I present an intriguing problem about fractions such as how could we fairly divide 4 chocolate bars among 8 people? Or 3 people? Or 7 people? And even offer students a choice about which problem to solve, then everyone is involved.  Everyone is learning about fractions.  I also have the added bonus of being able to figure out a lot about what my students CAN do with fractions, not just that they can or cannot do the worksheet.

In reading, I could have my students all read the same novel and do the same reading assessment tasks.  Except, my classes have always had students with a wide variety of reading and interest levels.  Even if it is my favourite book of all time, chances are there are some students who are just not interested in that text.  Are their assessments really a valid representation of how well they read if they hated the book so much that they didn’t finish, or didn’t attend?  And what if the book is too hard for them?  What if it is too easy, or they’ve seen the movie, or read it before?  If I give students some choice (not complete choice because it has to be manageable for me, too) I am much more likely to get a truer sense of my students as readers because there is a much better chance that they will actually be reading the book.

When we talk about multiple entry points to learning we are talking about two main ideas.  One, I need to recognize that my students come to the table with different background knowledge, interests and abilities.  If I don’t start where they are, I risk losing them all together.  Think about learning to ski.  If you had never skied before, and started on the black diamond hill, would you really learn?  Would you go back for lesson two?  And secondly, I need to create activities, tasks and problems that will allow all students to access the learning at the level they are starting at, not the level I wish they are at.  Open-ended tasks will work much better for that than closed.  Our goal is to get every student to the same end expectation, but if we don’t begin the journey at each student’s beginning, we risk not getting them to the end at all.

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Assessment Conversations

Assessment is the hardest thing you do.  You need to think about myriad of things all at the same time:

  • What do I assess? Content?  Process?  Everything?
  • What is fair? Is it fair to have questions ahead of time?  Is it fair if I think some kids can’t do the assessment?
  • When do I assess? Are they ready yet for a summative?
  • How do I assign a level/mark/grade? Do I assign a level/mark/grade?
  • What do the students get out of this assessment task? What do I learn out this task?
  • How do I communicate assessment results with students? Their parents?
  • What did I learn from the assessment? What will I do next?

At this point you are probably hoping that I will give the answers to all of these questions and you can then have a great weekend.  The problem is that assessment is really hard and I am not sure that there are always hard and fast rules that you can use.  However, it is important that we are always asking these questions.  This week I had a lot of conversations about assessment. Teachers were asking some great questions.  They were reflecting on their practice.  When we take the opportunity to ask these questions we deepen our understanding, even if we don’t come up with all the answers.

A math teacher was puzzled because her students had not done as well on an assessment as she had thought they would.   Over the last few days they had been demonstrating a solid understanding of the concepts.  Why had they not done as well on the test?  We discussed whether tests need to be long.  Could the questions of a test be given out over the course of a few days?  Would that work better?  Did her students not have the stamina to do the test well?  Did they get nervous because it was a TEST?

A group of English teachers were meeting to discuss the “end-of-the-novel” questions.  There were four excellent questions.  Do we give all the questions?  Do we give students a choice of questions?  Since it is still early in the school year, do we allow the students to do some practice questions, deconstruct them, and then give them a question to do?  We talked about how assessment needed to be both fair and tell you something about the students that was true.  If they weren’t sure how to answer the questions, would it mean that they didn’t understand the novel or just that they weren’t good at writing down their answer?  Teachers left the discussion ready to try a number of different strategies with a promise to meet up later and look at student answers.  Which strategies would prove to help students be successful?

A number of reading teachers knew from a reading comprehension assessment that some students struggled in reading.  But, that didn’t really help us know enough about the students to plan appropriate interventions.  So we needed some assessments that would pinpoint the difficulties:  was it decoding, fluency, comprehension, motivation, vocabulary, stamina?  Unfortunately, the results of some assessments require us to delve more deeply before we understand where a student is struggling.

A number of teachers are experimenting with giving no levels or grades on work submitted.  Instead they are giving descriptive feedback either through written comments or individual conferences.  It is a bit trickier for the teacher because you really do need to identify just a few things for the student (strengths and next steps) or the kid will be overwhelmed.  It is tricky to identify strengths and next steps instead of just editing or identifying errors.  And some of our students are feeling a tad uncomfortable.  They are used to evaluating themselves based on a mark.  Feedback forces them to think about their work in a deeper way.  Teachers are wondering how this will motivate and engage students.  They are experimenting with the types of feedback that result in the greatest gains.

These are the conversations of professional teachers.  They recognize that when thinking about assessment a variety of factors are at play.  Although there are no easy answers, we if we don’t keep asking the questions, we won’t get close to the truth.  And in the assessment of students, the truth is what they can really do.  When we really know that then we know what to do next.

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