Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Differentiated Instruction – A Peer's Self Reflection
I once sat in a meeting with one of my assistant principals and my principal, the purpose of which was to discuss a class that I was experiencing a lot of challenges with. My principal asked me, “What makes this class different than any other class?” As I sat there, reflecting, I could not help but think about my regular Wednesday night sessions spent learning about differentiated instruction in the classroom. In my head, I was thinking, “Yeah, what is different about this class?” Then I realized that not only was this class different from each of my other classes, but that each of my classes present a unique and different blend of individuals all with their own personalities, skill set, and experience. Furthermore, I boldly stated to my principal (for at this point, the voice inside my head had started to speak loudly enough for all present in the room to hear), all of my classes are different in their own unique way from any other class that I had taught during any other year previously. I then considered informing my principal that the idea behind differentiated instruction is that each individual student gets what he/she needs in order to succeed, even if that doesn’t mean doing the same thing every day and for every class, but I got the impression that perhaps she would not share the same sense of enlightenment as I just had while realizing that, yes, I actually can and need to apply the principles of differentiated instruction into my everyday approach to teaching.
Now I don’t want to give off the impression that I have been one to pooh-pooh the concept of differentiated instruction in the past. I haven’t. I know people who have. They claim it’s the latest new age/new wave fad in the teaching profession. They say it’s an author’s highway to being a best-seller in the “self-help for teachers” category. But I don’t believe that. Although I’m not going to say I’ve never been cynical. Anyone who went to school just ten years ago (and some teachers were in school a way longer time ago than that) will tell you that there wasn’t a whole lot of differentiating going on back then. The book was assigned, every night you were told to read about fifty pages for homework and answer about a million questions, the tests were all multiple choice, and if you screwed up on a test or had a bad day the teacher might laugh at you for asking for a retake. And forget about the whole 50% rule that MCPS is so (in)famous for these days. Believe it or not, after taking this class on differentiating, even I am a proponent of that rule now.
The thing I came to realize about differentiated instruction is that it doesn’t have to mean doing a ton of extra work (although you know those people who can make extra work out of anything – but I’m not one of ‘em). Anyway, the thing I love about differentiated instruction is that it gives teachers a chance to “shake up” what goes on in the classroom. One thing I’ve noticed about using more differentiating strategies is that I’m a lot less bored when I teach – and I can get bored quickly. My students seem to be a lot less bored, too. I’ve actually managed to implement some differentiating practices that are pretty simple, quick, and require little to no additional preparation, yet break up the monotony of a continuous lesson based on direct instruction into a more engaging and thought-provoking experience for my students. Doesn’t that sound great? Well, don’t congratulate me just yet. I didn’t say that I was differentiating instruction perfectly. I’d say more like near-perfect (okay, not even close to that but I’m a work in progress). There are still plenty of days that my lesson falls flat or that the mojo just isn’t there. The difference is that on those days, rather than being discouraged when I reflect on what didn’t go well, I also reflect on how I can “shake things up” and differentiate more in the next day’s lesson when I re-teach what I didn’t convey to my students that day.
Let me get back to that particular class I was telling my principal and assistant principal about. Just to give you perspective, this isn’t a story with a happy ending – yet. I say yet because this meeting happened earlier this week. And this class will be my class for another six months (but who’s counting?). Anyway, this group of talented and unique individuals lends itself to, in fact begs for, differentiation. And what I’ve come to learn about differentiation is that it’s as much a game of matching strategy to students, and students to learning style, and learning style to lesson format as anything else. In fact, coming up with different activities and modalities of presenting information and “shaking it up” is what I really get a kick out of. It’s figuring out what’s going to work best for who and when, and what I do for those who may not learn best a certain way on a particular day, that drives me crazy. So maybe differentiating is like cleaning house in that I love the way my home looks and feels when the floors are mopped and the bathrooms are clean, but getting to that point takes a lot of work, not all of it enjoyable (i.e. scrubbing toilets). So I’d say that I’m in the “cleaning house” phase with this particular class. I am digging in my proverbial differentiation back of tricks and trying to figure out what works for me and for my students and how best to incorporate these things into my lesson. It’s a growing process that lends itself to a tremendous amount of self-reflection (and, if I’m being honest, probably a slight increase in nightly wine consumption).
In trying to determine how best to practice different aspects of differentiation with my classes, I have come to realize a few key things: 1) Rome wasn’t built in a day, so I’m not going to become the “mix-master” of differentiation in just a few weeks, 2) There are factors beyond my control which, as a teacher, I just need to do my best to work with despite the additional challenges they pose, and 3) I need to match my level of readiness when it comes to incorporating differentiating to my students’ level of readiness. When I collected comic book hero trading cards (yes, I was one of those kids), I was always too impatient to actually collect the whole set by getting a few at a time and would, instead, save up my allowance and buy the entire set at once. Not surprisingly, I’m also the type of person who gets so excited by being presented with a bunch of new ideas and new strategies that I want to go out and try them all at the same time on the same day. Well, if that’s not a recipe for chaos, I don’t know what is (refer to #1 on list in the beginning of this paragraph). Patience, so I’ve been told, is a virtue. Turns out that when it comes to differentiating in the classroom, that couldn’t be more true. I have learned that in order to become proficient with using a particular strategy, I need to learn how to use it effectively before it can officially be added to my arsenal (oops, I mean bag of goodies) that I choose from in the classroom.
Accepting that there are things beyond my control that any and every child may deal with outside of my classroom is imperative to being able to effectively differentiate instruction. I have to be able to accommodate my students’ needs, and they don’t all have the same needs. This requires building relationships with my students, being explicit in stating my expectations of my students, and helping them to realize the important of what we are doing in the classroom. The good news is that this is what differentiation is all about. By differentiating instruction in the classroom, I might reach a student and he/she might open up to me about themselves rather than remaining seemingly distant and aloof. A student who would otherwise fail my class, not turn in assignments, and not participate might excel, succeed, and become actively engaged in classroom discussions and activities because of “mixing it up” in the classroom through differentiation. When I differentiate instruction for my students, I can show the quiet girl who always sits in the corner and hopes to go unnoticed that she is smart, she can figure out the answer, and she is an important member of our class. Differentiation allows me to reach out to all of my students, if I am just patient enough to let it.
Being someone who likes to try new things, likes to stay moving, and gets bored easily, I need to be careful about matching my level of readiness to my students’ level of readiness when it comes to implementing differentiating. We’re not all equally comfortable with taking risks. Some people need more preparation and guidance than others. I’m prone to jumping in the deep end of the swimming pool without thinking about the possibility of having to tread water while there are plenty people out there who want to cautiously start in the shallow end and wade their way down towards deeper water. Some people don’t even know how to tread water or swim at all and the last thing I want to do is cause my students to drown (figuratively speaking, of course). So all metaphors aside, I have learned that although I may be the one leading the show when it comes to differentiating in my classroom, it’s not something that I can just spring on my students without somehow preparing them for it.
Just as I needed time to take in and process the information I have learned about differentiation, students need time to do the same when they encounter new ideas and ways of doing things. They need to make sense of something and to understand its relevance before truly buying in. Unless they understand and accept instruction, they will lose the ideas I’m trying to teach them or I will only succeed in confusing them. By working towards becoming a practitioner who incorporates differentiated instruction in my teaching, I am doing my best to be proactive in my teaching and to focus on the quality of instruction. Differentiated instruction allows me to approach content, process, and product in multiple ways and it is centered on my students and their individual needs and learning styles while simultaneously being a blend of whole-class, group, and individual instruction. I’m not going to claim that I successfully differentiate instruction to my students every day. I don’t. But I’m sure going to do my best for the rest of my teaching career.