So, I’ve been thinking about differentiating recently. Partly, it’s something that as a school we have talked about. Partly, it’s an area in which I could improve my teaching practice. Partly, the awesome @LisaCinPa posted this on FB the other day (I asked her if I could post this screenshot.)
To backtrack a little in time, I learned to teach, for real, in the Chicago Public School system on the Westside. There were rules in my school. One of them was: language arts happens in reading groups, always. End of story. That meant that for 30 minutes I sat at a table with 1/2 the class (usually more than a dozen students) and the other 1/2 had to have something to do that was independent. Then we swapped. I got good at groups. I got good at determining what was independent work and insisting that kids figured some things out for themselves. Otherwise, I would have been answering questions during my entire reading group. I got good at mixing and remixing the groups of readers. I didn’t talk about it with the term differentiation, but sometimes that was what I was doing.
Then I moved to my current, suburban, independent school, and we had smaller classes and more whole class reading discussion. We had books that kids took home and read! How great is that?! Not all actual reading had to happen at school. My 5th graders read for homework, and we talked or did skill based lessons based on the reading the next day. Group work happened on projects, which I did spend a lot of time thinking about and carefully planning. Instruction did not have to be tied to groups. My entire class was only a little bigger than the size of my “small group” from before. Then I moved to Upper School and there was even less group time that was instructional time. I have to admit I got out of the habit. It’s not that I never had students in groups or that I never grouped based on skill or need etc, but I don’t think I did it enough. I’m trying to change that.
Let me tell you what I did the other day.
First, we had some whole class discussion about a few things. Then, I grouped students based on what they chose to discuss in a an online forum post the previous night. We are reading Slaughterhouse-Five and the prompt for the online discussion for chapter 8 was this:
Free choice today. Pick something that you noticed in the chapter–a big idea, an interesting detail, a pattern–and share your thinking on the topic. What issues did this raise for you, what other parts of the book did it make you recall?
Students brought up all different topics, but they also fell into groups. So, after our big group (of 12!, sometimes I still pinch myself) discussion, I met with students based on their interest from the forum. Other students were working on creative writing (which I will write later, because it is a going well). I got a chance to extend the conversation that each group had started. No group was larger than 4, a few were individuals.
It was great to sit right across from a person or three or four and have what seemed like a very personalized conversation. I made a few notes before coming to class–what did each person mention, what did that bring to mind for me, details they should connect to the chosen topic etc. Some conversations were more basic, calling attention to important information that might have been missed, but others extended the conversation well beyond the basics. But because it was on a topic the student chose, I knew I would have more interest, attention, buy in, etc. For a few students who are not big talkers and are easily distracted in class, this represented prolonged interaction.
I’m a glass 3/4 full type of person, mostly, but I swear every student appreciated the personal attention. Plus, I connected with each person around ideas and academic work. Seriously, who doesn’t want to think that he or she is the one having the important conversation and adding that key idea?