Posts Tagged ‘differentiation’

CCO public domain image from

CCO public domain image from

So, I’ve been thinking about our digital portfolio project. It started officially in 2014-15 with 6th grade and a few 9th grade courses. It continued this year in 7th grade, 9th and 10th grade, 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades.

A quick review–our portfolios are process portfolios (rather than showcases) where students will reflect on their learning and habits. We are using google sites set up announcement style (like blog posts) made with a school template. There is a drop down menu for posts in each division. In the lower school, the posts will be organized by grade level; in middle and upper schools the posts will be on pages by subject. We went back and forth about the organizing structure. If When the portfolios take off, there may be too many posts per page, but we’ll figure that out when we get there.

So far, some grades certainly ended up with a lot more reflection than others. As one of the chief cheerleaders and salespeople for this work, I spoke with colleagues about our ongoing digital portfolio use. I stressed the power of the pile. I admit this is not an elegant phrase, but as anyone who reads this blog knows, I am not always an elegant sentence maker. However, it’s not a bad phrase.

I think the it’s worth talking about the pile and how its power will grow as the pile grow. First of all, counting on one reflection to be powerful enough to carry this new work seems to be asking a lot. One data point is just a point. Anything that is going to become a habit is powerful as a habit not as the individual act. Second, once the reflections start to pile up there is the potential to see patterns and to see change. Even though I can always draw a line connecting two points, I will see much more with a bigger group of points. Maybe one of those first two points is an outlier that is not even close to the best fit line I see with a bigger group? So, to some extent the early posts, while they might turn up some interesting ideas, as some have, are building the pile. They are now there to be looked back on, to be mined for metacognitive wisdom, etc. But the work, both of building the pile and building the habit of reflection, continues. When the new school year starts, students can go to back to the posts from the previous year to jump-start their thinking about their learning.

Another thing that I stressed in my comments to my colleagues is that each reflection should include commentary on work habits, process, or social/emotional skills that are not exclusive to the particular content. So, a department or grade level might choose several habits of mind or process skills that they want to ask about routinely. Again, this would help students build that pile and make the individual posts worth reviewing. Seeing incremental progress is good for the brain (which I learned a number of years ago from Judy Willis) and motivating. We all want students to be motivated to learn, and of course it is motivating to see your own progress.

In thinking about the coming year, I notice that my colleagues fall into a few categories in terms of how they approach using digital portfolios. The folks who tackle this independently are set. I check in with them, throw a little something their way, and they are off. Those who like to work collaboratively with me are also set. I make a point to meet with them, or they initiate working together either in or out of their class. We make it work together. One group I plan to work more closely are department chair people to help them develop a few go-to questions that speak to the behaviors/habits of mind/skills that are critical for success in their disciplines and grade level. Although I have rather extensive collections of potential prompts available for teachers (in easy to access locations), for those who are not in either of the first two groups, I think it will be helpful if I am more prescriptive in my support.

I am excited that next year (2016-17) students in grades 3-11 will be reflecting on their learning, saving it on a digital portfolio, adding to their pile.


So, I’ve been thinking about graded class discussions and written multiple times about how I have been working this concept during the semester. My most recent twist was to have two smaller conversations to provide a space for the quieter students, which was a success. However, the ultimate goal is to have all the students participate in a single discussion. (The class is very small so there is time for all to participate.)

Since we are doing a little secret snowflake gift exchange at the moment, I thought about incorporating that into our discussion. In the past I gave each student an individual goal/job which was about what the individual student should do for him or herself to be successful. This time I gave students jobs that were for their classmates’ success. The idea was that as students did their jobs, they were giving gift to their classmates. Each student received a note with one of the following written on it:

  • Please invite _________ to participate in the discussion.
  • Please encourage __________ to give specific examples.
  • Please challenge ___________. (I gave this only to 1 student and chose the challenger very carefully.)
  • Please encourage ____________ to connect his or her ideas to those of other students.

Once again, the students stepped up. They asked others to participate. With a few absences, I didn’t hear anyone ask for examples, but I did hear students asking for their classmates to engage. These are things I usually do, but it’s so much better if the students ask take this responsibility. Also, the quiet people had a task to do to get them started talking. Great.

Of course, for some it was obvious who their “secret snowflake” was right away. However, I don’t think that the student who was “challenged” realized what was happening. It came off as very natural and created some actual back and forth where there was not agreement. This does happen at other times, but with different folks, and it is sometimes less graceful. And, because of who I assigned to be the challenger, the challenged could hear it, and the rest of the group took the lead from challenger and engaged in more of a debate. I just took notes and giggled to myself.



So, I’ve been thinking about my graded student discussions. After our first discussion and reflection, I planned a second discussion and tweaked the format a bit.

If you will recall, in the first discussion I gave the topic to be discussed the night before, set up the big table, made a chart to take notes, and did not engage in the conversation.

This time, I thought about each student and what he or she needed to work on for a next step. I created 5 roles for this second time around.

  • Major participant: please come ready to be a major voice in the discussion. This does not mean that you have to have “the right answers.” It means you have some ideas to throw out there, some passages or examples to share, even some questions you think should be explored. Come ready to say a lot.
  • Restate and Extend: your job in the discussion will be to build off of the ideas of others. Anytime you speak you must first restate (briefly) what another person has said and extend that idea. In addition, your goal is to have a slightly different opinion at the end of the discussion than you had at the beginning.
  • Connector: your job is to listen and hear the ideas that either go together or are opposing viewpoints. When you notice this, you should share this connection and ask if your connection is something the group can agree on or if the difference you have noticed is significant, etc. You are looking for the big ideas and the building blocks to get there.
  • Inviter: your job is to listen for what is not being left out. Is there a part of the book that is being overlooked? Is all the conversation around one idea? If so, please invite the group to change course, or look in a new direction. Please come with some ideas that are a bit out of the box that you can throw out there when necessary.

I assigned ‘major participant’ to students who did not join in enough last time, pretty obvious. The restate and extend folks were people who had a lot to say, but tended to say their idea and leave the discussion. The goal for these students was to force them to say what others said, thus forcing them to engage in more of a discussion rather than serial monologues. The connectors were ready to see the bigger picture and needed the challenge. In some ways they were leader voice in that when I lead the conversation, I point out the similarities and intersections between and among ideas. The inviter was a wildcard. There was only one person assigned to this job. This student made some really interesting connections last time, so I thought I would give this part of the traditional teacher role to this student.

The students did a good job nodding to their particular roles, some more so than others. Again, it was a great discussion. I wrapped it up with a few summary statements after about 25 or so minutes when it seemed the topic was pretty well played out. This time I kept track of participation and “job completion”. Here’s what my notes look like.


Conversation 2 notes

Again, I asked the students to reflect on their performance. Here are some of my favorite comments:

  • Talked a lot more this time and went off on other points.
    • My take :good improvement a student who contributed single, independent ideas last time.
  • I wasn’t as stubborn this time and I think I added more even thought I spoke a little less.
    • My take: VICTORY!
  • It was harder to be a connector, but I did my best.
    • My take: yes, connecting different and potentially divergent ideas is harder, and this student is ready to do that. I appreciate the struggle and recognition of the work it takes.
  • I think I was able to invite new ideas and move the conversation along well.
    • My take: Very true. This student did a great job brining up related ideas that needed a champion.
  • Brought ideas to the discussion, just had trouble with all the other participants trying to speak at the same time.
    • My take: yup, it’s hard for those who are quiet. I noted that this student came ready with notes and pages for reference.
  • I think that I did a lot better this time…and I respected peoples’ opinions.
    • My take: this is a big deal for this student to respect the opinions of others.

Once again, a big success. These are lively discussions that let us talk about big ideas, but at the same time use textual support. Because I do not participate, there is no looking to me to approve comments; students must take on that role. And, because I am not trying to keep conversation going, connect ideas, write on the board, etc, etc, I love just getting to sit back and listen and take notes, but I also get to watch body language, attention, group dynamic. Not only to I learn a lot by watching, but it takes me down off whatever stage I may or may not be on. (I’m really not a fan of being sage on the stage anyway, but sometimes just by being the one standing up, that’s what happens.)

I think they are proud of themselves. They should be.

We have another conversation planned for next week on Logicomix.

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.)

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 9.09.44 PM

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?