Category Archives: Differentiation

The label isn’t the individual

A colleague, Jason,  has been experimenting with teaching grade 9 applied and academic math in a combined class*.  It has been going well and he has learned a lot.  His goal has been that all students have the opportunity to achieve the expectations of the academic credit but to offer the flexibility to all students to attain whichever credit they earn.  It is not a matter of teaching the academic course and then just “granting” the applied level credit for those students who are unsuccessful.  Expectations for each pathway are tracked and students earn the credit they earn.

All the ins and outs of how Jason organizes his course are beyond the scope of this blogpost (and I’d be happy to introduce anyone who is interested).  As Jason was presenting his findings to a group of administrators the other day, he made a comment that has stuck with me.  This is his second semester with the combined class and while reflecting upon his experience he said, “I don’t even think of the students as applied or academic any more.”  This wasn’t part of his slide presentation.  I don’t even know if he remembers saying it.  But I do.

How do labels we use to describe students affect our expectations and perceptions of them?  I wonder if the students in Jason’s class also now feel like students and don’t classify themselves as “academic” or “applied”.

I have been working very hard lately to avoid saying things like “applied kids” or “autistic kid” or “IEP kids”.  Even though I have always tried to see each individual student’s strengths, I have begun to wonder if the label I casually apply, more for expediency than anything else, actually does mean that I tend to group students with a label under an umbrella of similar traits.

My journey started, as many do, on a personal level.  I was sitting in a system level meeting of administrators and the presenter was talking about how difficult “applied kids” were last period on Friday afternoons.  At the time my son was taking applied level credits.  I was surprised at the force of my reaction to that simple statement – one that I had probably said myself on occasion.  That was my kid someone was generalizing about and I didn’t like it; I didn’t like it one bit.  Yet I know that had I asked the presenter if he felt that all students in applied level courses misbehaved on Friday afternoons he would have said, “Of course not.”

We all do it.  We take some experiences and generalize.  In math, we want this very ability to generalize the pattern or the rule.  But in dealing with people, students included, the labels and generalizations are detrimental.  They cloud our judgements and our ability to really see each student as an individual.  As soon as we put students under a label, consciously or subconsciously, we begin to assign the perceived attributes of that group to them.

I read a lot of Individual Education Plans.  Often they don’t sound very individual.  Part of this has to do with the format and sheer number of them (another blog post to be written).  But perhaps some of it has to do with our belief that once under the IEP label, all students are sort of the same and therefore we should respond similarly.

So, I have been catching myself in my language.  Although it is more words to say, I try now to talk about a student who is taking an applied level course or a student who falls on the autism spectrum or a student who has an IEP.  I challenge my thoughts to see to what extent I might be presuming that all these students share similar characteristics.  It is hard work.  I catch myself a lot.  But I think it is worth the effort.

Back to Jason’s math class.  The student who got the highest mark in his class, and achieved the expectations of the academic credit, was originally enrolled in the applied level course.  The label isn’t the individual.

*In Ontario when students hit grade 9 they choose either the applied or academic pathway.  Other jurisdictions may refer to them as college/workplace vs university  prep courses.

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Filed under Differentiation, school culture, student behaviour

100% of the kids, 100% of the time

This week I participated in a webinar hosted by a principal from Toronto, Emma Nichols (  A number of times throughout the webinar she mentioned that their guiding principle was “100% of the kids, 100% of the time”.  Her school is a diverse, inner-city school in Riverside.  I like her motto:  it is inspirational.  It is also over-whelming.  I began to wonder if that could also be my motto and what would that mean if you really tried to reach 100% of the kids, 100% of the time.

The rationale behind the motto is valid.  If you don’t have this mindset then, by default your motto has to be something like 75% of the kids, 100% of the time or 100% of the kids, 75 % of the time, or 75% of the kids, 75 % of the time.  Would you really want to be the parent of the child who fell into the 25%?  Would you want to be that kid? When you start to think about it like that, of course it is true.  But is it doable?  How would a school go about living the motto of 100% of the kids, 100% of the time.

Upon reflection I think it is a lot about mindset- if we approach each day, each task, each period, each kid believing that we can reach 100% of the kids, 100% of the time, then we might have a better chance of achieving that goal than if we begin the day believing that we can’t.  But as with all great educational ideals, what might it look like in our practice?

  • Understanding and believing in differentiation. Do we always differentiate or do we sometimes say “I’ll just see if they can do this before I change it”.  When designing a learning opportunity do we look at it through the eyes of each of our students?  Does your school’s special education model help or hinder in the support of 100%of the kids?  Is anyone getting left behind?  Do you believe in multiple entry points into learning?  Differentiation is not just giving the kid a B because of an IEP–it is reaching 100% of the kids, 100% of the time.
  • Relationships.  Sometimes it is hard to like 100% of the kids, 100% of the time.  I usually can sense when someone doesn’t like me.  I bet kids can, too.  I think that sometimes my frustration may be interpreted by kids that I don’t think they can be successful.  We know that kids who are successful at school feel that there are adults who care about them.  Wednesday wasn’t my best day for that. I keep working on trying different approaches for different kids.  Figuring out how to be firm and consistent and kind and caring to 100% of the kids, 100% of the time!
  • Engagement.  When you look out on the sea of faces are they rapt? Attentive?  Are kids eager to get going on the activities you set out?  Do they feel confident to begin or are willing to give it a go?  School is not a birthday party.  You do not need to “entertain” your students.  However, if you look out, day upon day onto a sea of sleepy faces, I’m not sure your students are engaged.  Do you like workshops or meetings where you are not engaged?  Do you learn in those situations?  Best guess if your students are not engaged is that either you are talking too much or the task is not challenging.  Just because you might remember that school was boring doesn’t mean that it has to be.  And sometimes, I think that we fall into the trap of thinking that it is the kids who have to do the engaging.  But, if they are not engaged that is pretty clear feedback for you about your lesson.  I know that if I am leading a meeting and no one is paying attention that it is not an engaging topic for my staff.
  • Small group instruction. Kids are complex and learning stuff is hard.  The easiest way to meet the needs of 100% of the kids is to teach them in smaller homogeneous groups within a flexible model.  You will never reach all of your students through whole group instruction alone. As you begin to value small group instruction more, you will begin to be purposeful in how you plan for them, intentionally, instead of accidentally, reaching 100% of the kids.

It is a lofty goal:  100% of the kids, 100% of the time.  But most goals worth striving for are lofty.   I know that I will keep it in mind when I am thinking about our more challenging students and reflect upon whether I believe it for that kid, too.

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Letting go of teacher control is not chaos

Today I had to really think about why we integrate technology so well into our program at our school as  I had a visitor who came to observe and ask questions.  He was impressed by the fluidity of the technology use in all the classrooms.  He was impressed with the level of engagement of the students.  We talked about how using chrome books or ipads was not an event at our school but just part of how we do school.  How did that happen he wondered?    I think there aremany of reasons but the main one is pedagogy.  In all things about teaching, all the pieces have to complement each other:  teaching style, resources, assessment, classroom management and technology.  One of the questions that our visitor asked was how did the teachers feel about giving up the computer lab two and half years ago?  My response was that by the time we started to think about doing so, the way we taught had changed so that a computer lab really didn’t mesh with how we were teaching.

In a traditional classroom environment, the teacher had all the control:  all the students did the same assignment at the same time with the same due date; all the students created the same art project; all the students read the same book finishing at the same time.  And, all the students used the computer lab for the same purpose at the same time.  This gave the teacher a sense of control, and comfort.

As we move toward more student voice and choice, toward a more workshop environment, we find that kids are working on different assignments, at different times.  They are reading different books at different speeds.  They are writing different genres and on different topics.  They may be working on an Ipad, on a chrome book or laptop, on their own phone or in a workbook.  Some students may be using voice to text software.  Some students may have the google document translated to a different language or different reading level.  Students may be working individually or in groups.  A traditional teacher, thinking about this might think it sounds like chaos.  But it is not.

The trick to teaching is not in control but in intentionality.  When you, as the teacher, know exactly what you want your students to be able to know and do then it is easier to allow them to arrive at that learning goal in a multitude of ways.  Your intentionality will lead the way.  It is important to realize, though, that student voice and choice is not the same as “anything goes”.  If you intentionally want students to be able to write a well-crafted and organized paper they may be able to choose the length, the topic and the format.  But, a diorama will not meet your learning goal.

Our fluid use of technology in our classrooms is not because we are tech-savvy (although many of us have become so).  It is because our pedagogy allows for fluidity.  We are intentional in what we want students to be able to know and do and we create an environment in which technology supports those goals.  Had we tried to implement this degree of technology into a traditional teaching practice it would not have worked.  It is not about the technology.  Technology is not a thing.  It is all about the intentional learning and teaching in the classroom.

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Filed under classroom environment, Differentiation, learning golas, pedagogy, technology

Managing Differentiation in the Classroom

The question came upabout how you get students on an IEP started in class.  You have given the assignment, you were clear in the instructions but the first 10 minutes are busy and you realize that the students on the IEP have just been sitting, or sharpening their pencil, or in the bathroom, or causing a disturbance because they don’t know how to get started.  What to do?

Here are some suggestions.  There is no easy answer and different solutions might work in different situations:

  • Planning for differentiation has to be part of the initial planning process not an after- thought. Sometimes we think that we will just wait and see how a student does with the class assignment and then if he or she is stuck, then we will differentiate.  It is better to have decided in advance how you will differentiate and start with that.  From the student’s point of view, it is easier to understand and do more than to be frustrated from the get-go.
  • When thinking about differentiation, think about the concepts not the task. Often it is that task that is too complex, not the concept; the task is too open-ended, not organized enough, the reading level is too high.  By determining, in advance, what concept the student needs to focus on and determining what the barriers to learning that are, you may be able to differentiate easier.  It is not about task completion.  It is about learning.
  • Know your subject matter so that you can see the continuum of learning. No matter what concept you need students to learn, there is something they had to learn first to get there.  Think about what knowledge the student might be missing that is inhibiting their understanding.
  • Have a rule that NO ONE can ask you questions for the first 5-10 minutes after you give a task. Lots of students ask questions that they can actually figure out on their own.  That gives you some peace and quiet to check in with those students you know need you right away.
  • Small group instruction is your first defense in differentiation. If you predict that some students are going to need extra support or a different assignment, call them to the guided learning table first.  Support them right from the beginning of the task so that frustration doesn’t set in.  You may need to use that few minutes to activate background knowledge for them, create a graphic organizer, reduce or chunk the amount of work.
  • Talk less, show more. Most of your students can process verbal instructions but many students on an IEP cannot.  Make sure that you are writing the instructions on the board as well as saying what they are.  And, identify that you are creating the visual support by saying “Everyone point to the instructions”.
  • In the first few minutes of the work period, find your struggling students and create a quick checklist of 3 (no more) things that they need to do to get started. Put it on a sticky note.  They need to come and let you know when those three things are done.
  • Strategic grouping of students can help. If you know that you will be available to work with a group of students, group your students homogeneously and work with the group that needs you most.  If you don’t think you will be able to work with students right away, group them heterogeneously so that everyone can get started.  Later in the period, pull students who may need support from their groups to check in with you.  If you don’t do this last step then you risk that those students are not getting the concepts.
  • Model with graphic organizers and then have them be optional. Students can choose the organizer or not.  Most students will choose what they need.  You may be surprised to see who needs what.  And, you are still the teacher.  If someone doesn’t choose the organizer who needs it, you can insist.
  • Create tasks that have multiple entry points into learning. The curriculum does not indicate how “hard” the work needs to be.  Tasks that are accessible to all are easier for all students.
  • You wrote the IEP. It gives you permission to have the student learn differently, less content or show the work in alternative formats.  It is fair to do that.  When you are planning, think of those IEPs and how you will manage those students. Differentiation becomes more difficult when we have not planned for it.


Filed under classroom environment, classroom management, Differentiation, pedagogy

Maybe Assessment for Learning isn’t the right term?

The term “assessment for learning” (educational acronym AfL) was coined by Wiliam and Black in their 1998 article “Inside the Black Box” (  The research shook the educational community:  how teachers reacted to student learning as they were learning was incredibly important to student achievement.  The used the term AfL to describe those activities that teachers could undertake during the learning phase to help students achieve higher results.  Their research was impressive and educational scholars since have also determined that the stuff that teachers do during learning makes the biggest difference.

In an interview with Dylan Wiliam in 2012 ( he states:

“The big mistake that Paul Black and I made was calling this stuff ‘assessment.  Because when you use the word assessment, people think about tests and exams. For me, AfL is all about better teaching.”

Given that the article Inside the Black Box was published in 1998 and we are still, in 2014, struggling with formative assessment, I wonder if we have misinterpreted because of the term name.  And I worry when I see teachers spending all of their time collecting “assessment data” because there are now three kinds of data to which we need to be accountable.

Let’s take a collective deep breath and think about the role of assessment in teaching.

You should have an idea of where your students are at before you decide exactly what they need to know.  But, your diagnostic assessment does not need to be a copy of your summative assessment.  In fact, you probably already know they don’t know all that; you haven’t taught it yet.  However, based on what you have already observed about them, and based on how they do on a carefully designed introductory activity, you will want to identify some specific gaps.  And, you will want to recognize that those gaps may not be the same for all students.  Your “diagnostic assessment” does not need to be a test, or a quiz, or something that is onerous to mark.  You do not need to hand it back to students.  You do need some way of knowing what your kids can and cannot do.  In most instances your diagnostic assessment comes from the work they have already been doing.

At the end of a learning cycle or unit, you do want to check in and see what your students can do independently based on the learning goals you have been working on.  Sometimes this summative task will really be summative; you are moving on.  You are not going to read the novel again, learn about rocks and minerals any more or study the area of parallelograms.  But sometimes this summative task will also be the diagnostic task for your next learning cycle:  you will read other novels, you will write more, you will learn more about testing the hypothesis, you will use those math concepts again.

But it is the teaching time in between the diagnostic bit and the summative bit that tends to cause all the confusion.  The term “assessment for learning” made us think that we had to have a lot of quizzes; we had to mark everything against a rubric;  we had to level (and communicate those levels) all work students did.  We amassed lots of data.  But Dylan Wiliam, himself, says that it is really just about better teaching.

So, we have our learning goals for the next bit of time, we have an idea of where our students are entering the learning and then we begin to teach.  And as we teach we are using multiple ways to figure out how kids are doing as they move towards reaching those learning goals.  We talk to them; we work with them in small groups; we give the occasional quiz or ticket out the door; we watch them; we ask questions; we encourage students to talk to each other; we make.  As our students are learning we are constantly trying to figure out how they are doing, what are the sticky bits, where are they confused.  And then we help them to get unstuck, to master something new, to make the connections.  That is “assessment for learning”.  That is just good teaching.

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Filed under assessment, Differentiation, Effective Feedback

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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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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Filed under assessment, Authentic Tasks, Differentiation, pedagogy, Uncategorized

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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Curriculum design that is messy (but research based?)

Traditionally curriculum is designed in units: persuasive writing, short stories, fractions, cell theory etc. In order to make the content easier for teachers, (and textbook writers-or perhaps it is the other way around), to organize, we chunk it into start-and-finish units of study. We teach, teach, teach and then we test the students AND THEN WE MOVE ONTO THE NEXT TOPIC. Do we give students the “percolating” time suggested by distributed learning? Do we “interleave” topics so that students have opportunities to see connections between concepts and ideas? Do we often insist that students over-practice a skill even after they know how to do it (think about math textbooks)?

What would happen if we adopted a more recursive method of curriculum design? Let’s take a year in math as an example. Many students struggle with fractions. Most students learn about fractions sometime in the spring, usually because it is placed in the latter half of the textbook. And then they don’t study fractions for an entire year. The same thing happens with long division, area and perimeter, and how to find the mean, median and mode of a data set. We teach addition separately from subtraction and multiplication separately from division. Then we are distressed that kids forget what we taught the year before. We are distressed when they don’t understand how to solve a problem. If we designed a year- long math program that touched a little bit on fractions every month, a little bit on data, a little bit on operations and so on, students would have distributed learning opportunities and by interleaving concepts, students would be able to see how mathematical concepts are inter-related.

A workshop approach to curriculum allows students to revisit topics on a regular basis. Teachers can easily employ small group instruction within a workshop environment. Mini-lessons to the whole class and small groups form the basis for direct teaching. There is more freedom for students to revisit topics of interest, or topics of confusion. In a writing workshop students can explore writing formats throughout the year based on their audience and purpose. In a reading workshop, students read a wide variety of texts and become more proficient at discussing texts critically as they have multiple opportunities to engage in authentic conversations and work about their reading. In a math workshop, students work at different problems from different strands every day, thus developing flexibility in mathematical thinking as opposed to memorization of algorithms. In an arts workshop, students have the opportunity to explore concepts and work with different mediums multiple times of the course of the year.

The spring is a great time in teaching because we begin to think about next year. We want to refine those lessons that worked well this year and toss those that didn’t. In teaching you always get a do-over. As you begin to do some preliminary thinking about next year, think about how you could design your year to be more recursive:
• How often do you come back to the big ideas?
• How can you organize content so that students have percolating time?
• How can you sequence content so that you come back to ideas multiple times?
• Which concepts in your subject are similar or go together? Can you teach them in an interleaved way? How can you help students to make those connections?

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Proactive Teaching vs Reactive Teaching

You plan the lesson. You have the ideas. You can see how it is going to go in your head. And then it doesn’t. Somehow the students don’t respond the way you have anticipated and you have to react, quickly. The more experienced you are, the easier this gets. You make small adjustments as you go along. You quick think of a better strategy. You have the kids get out their silent reading or do jumping jacks while you regroup. The reactive nature of teaching is part of the teaching profession.

However, there are some areas of our teaching practice which are sometimes reactive which could actually be proactive. You learned early in your career that you could react to students not having a pencil, needing to go to the washroom 6 times a class, or not having their homework done OR you could have proactive procedures and routines in place.

Small group instruction is another place where you can be proactive instead of reactive. Often during work time students require help, reassurance or feedback. Often a long line of students develops at the teacher’s desk. Kids are self-identifying that they need help and you, the teacher, are reacting to their plea. While those kids who ask for the help usually get it, this reactive process has several drawbacks:

– While students are in line, they are not working
– You might not get to the end of the line
– Some students who need help, do not self-identify
– The student who wants to ask if he can sharpen his pencil gets in the line when it is really long.

A better, but still reactive method for helping students and providing feedback, is to invite students who are struggling to the guided learning table. As spots become available you can add more students. In this way, you are working with more students at a time, have avoided the line-up problem and can still pay attention to the rest of the class. However….

– Some students who need help, do not self-identify
– The problems facing you at the guided learning table can be diverse
– Students who are waiting may spend most of their time watching for a spot to open up instead of continuing to work

A proactive response to providing students with help and feedback is to actively plan for your guided instruction/feedback during the work period. Based on your observations of students the previous day or a glance at their work, you have already decided that group X needs some support on concept Y and group A needs support with concept B. Once the class is settled in, you pull your groups in anticipation of their needs. Like with any method, there are problems you will face:

1. I think I will be seeing the same groups of kids all the time and not everyone. Remember that fair is not equal and some kids don’t need your help as often. Be ok with seeing your neediest students more often.

2. What about the kids I am not working with who are having a problem? Create structures in your class so kids know what to do when they are stuck. Who are the student “experts” in your class? Do they have permission to put it aside and go onto to something else? Plus, even though you are working with the small group, your sightline will be towards the class and if someone is really struggling, you could probably deal with it quickly. If you are seeing two groups, set a few minutes in between groups to check in. Don’t start your group for the first 5 minutes of work time to make sure everyone is on track. If your group is working, get up and check in with the class and then come back to the table.

3. Won’t the kids I see a lot feel centred-out? Maybe, especially in the later years. So, mix up your groups so that they are homogeneous by skill (all need to work on punctuation) but not by ability (some need help with periods; someone else is learning the semi-colon). Or, start the work period by seeing a higher level group and then call over a group you see more frequently. It won’t be as noticeable then.

4. Even though I am working with a small group, other kids interrupt me at the guided learning table. You make the rules in your class. It is ok to say that you don’t get interrupted at that table unless it is an emergency. But, make sure that all your routines and procedures for dealing with problems are taken care of.

You won’t be able to be proactive all of the time. The nature of teaching is that it is reactive. However, do think about those places in your practice where you can be proactive. A proactive plan for conferencing, providing descriptive feedback and small group instruction will enhance your ability to close achievement gaps and reach all of your students.

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Filed under Differentiation, small group instruction