Differentiating Classroom Instruction
- Grades: 6–8
At the end of each year, I reflect on my teaching and select a goal for the next year. This year, my goal is to improve my implementation of differentiated instruction. I already differentiate instruction; however, I feel that it is not one of my strongest skills. In the New Teacher Survival Guide, Jim Burke provides "Fifteen Ways to Vary Instruction." These are fabulous tips for teachers seeking to differentiate instruction in all content areas. Kechia Williams offers practical strategies for differentiating instruction in a Scholastic online article, “8 Lessons Learned on Differentiating Instruction.” She suggests that teachers begin differentiating instruction gradually. There is so much to consider. So I decided that my quest is going to be an evolutionary process, as Kechia suggests. As I proceed with my journey, I will return to this topic. Below are a few useful resources for planning and some examples of how I diversify instruction.
Student Interests Guide Instruction
Middle school students are undergoing many social, physical, and emotional changes. For some, the journey is more challenging, which distracts them from academics. In order to engage all students in learning and to get them to invest themselves, they need to feel connected to their teachers. In an ASCD video, Carol Ann Tomlinson discusses the pivotal moment in her teaching career when she realized effective teaching went beyond teaching content. Effective teachers know their students. Scholastic has a free printable "Student Interest Survey," which helps teachers become familiar with their students. Literacy Works, an adult education Web site, has an online multiple intelligences assessment, which helps students and teacher to identify a student's top three intelligences, from among the various intelligences:
In the Scholastic Differentiated Instruction Plan Book, there are two useful guides for designing differentiating learning activities: the "Elements of Differentiating Instruction: Modalitites of Learning" and an "Differentiated Instruction: An Overview." When differentiating instruction, consider the following criteria:
- Classroom environment (desk arrangements, instructional posters)
- Learning styles of students (Gardner’s multiple intelligences)
- Variety of teaching styles and practices (best practices)
- Scaffolding instruction to include varying levels of thinking (Bloom’s Taxonomy)
- Assessments (vary the format)
- Student grouping
Even if you acknowledge your goal verbally, many students need a visual reminder throughout the lesson. I think many students today are visual learners. Posting essential questions provides a visual of the goal and a reminder for those students who lose focus. Essential questions clairfy what you want your students to understand when they leave your class. Phrase this as a question. When my students walk in each day, an essential question or “Question of the Day” is displayed on the board. When I first started teaching plot, I posted a basic question, "What is 'plot'?" As we progressed through the fiction writing unit, the question was modified. They had to answer higher level questions about plot, such as "Why is plot important to us as readers and writers?" Scaffolding the level of questions is important in essential questions, just as it is in designing assessment questions. Ask thought-provoking questions that require critical thinking:
- “Why do we use capital letters?”
- “Why do we have to change our voice for different audiences?”
- “How does a matrix help us to compare and contrast a topic?”
- “How does reading folktales give us a window into other cultures?”
My 6th graders know that when the lesson is over, they will have to answer that question. They have a focus for the day.
Music, Movies, and Magic!
There are different types of learners in our classroom. This year I have discovered that many of my students like real life stories (linguistic), country music (auditory), movies (visual, auditory), acting (kinesthetic), and magic tricks (kinesthetic). Throughout the years, I have observed that many middle school students like music videos, movies, sitcoms, and reality shows. They also like lists of strange facts such as 10 Weirdest Foods. Here are some online resources that tap into middle school students’ interests:
- Hulu (watch favorite episodes of your favorite shows)
- YouTube (music videos, commercials, etc.)
- The New York Times
- WingClips (2–3 minute excerpts from popular movies; free for educators)
- MuseumStuff (online searchable database of museums)
- Guinness World Records (videos of world records in the making)
Recently, I used a music video to provide background knowledge on Stevie Wonder and Taylor Swift when for writing a compare/contrast paragraph. Many of my students didn’t know Stevie Wonder as a gifted singer and musician, but they do love music. The video was inspirational and motivational; it sparked all kinds of discussions. Many students developed an appreciation for music they had never heard before, and we added to our background knoweldge bank. Many students knew Taylor Swift; however, I still used the video because it connected with their interests.
We did this activity three weeks ago. Last week, I overheard one of my students talking to another teacher about Stevie Wonder. There is no doubt in my mind that we are teaching a generation of visual learners.
There is a strong correlation between low socioeconomic status and a lack of background knowledge. Background knowledge levels the playing field.There is also a higher retention rate of new information if students can connect it to prior knowledge. Developing background information provides an equal opportunity for all students to learn. When teaching students how to use a matrix for compare and contrast writing, I built upon my students’ prior knowledge of Venn diagrams. They began using Venn diagrams in elementary school. I explained that a matrix is a graphic organizer used for comparing and contrasting — like a Venn diagram. A matrix is a little different because it allows us to compare and contrast many points or topics, while organizing supporting details into paragraphs in a chart at the same time.
When I taught them how to use a matrix, I provided guided practice using a topic that we were all familiar with. We are a farming community, so I tapped into their knowledge of pickup trucks. I used the example of comparing and contrasting attributes of pickup trucks: Ford, Chevy, or Dodge. The debate that followed was inspiring. When we finished, they understood the relevance of using a matrix as a compare and contrast tool for real life decisions, not just for writing an essay. We even discussed using a matrix for comparing and contrasting careers and colleges, planting seeds for future decisions.
No Answer Keys Allowed
Every lesson I teach has a consistent lesson format: teacher modeling, guided practice, and independent practice. I don’t use answer keys. Whenever I assign a reading and writing piece, I complete it myself. As I do this, I track my thought processes so I can explain what my brain was thinking. I provide a model of all written assignments as well to give them an example of my expectations. Providing a think-aloud and a visual of assignments meets the needs of all my learners, and, as Jim Burke says, modeling “demystifies the assignment.”
Jim Burke aims his writing models at the higher-level learners, and he explains why in the video embedded in the article “Content Area Writing in High School” (Content Area Reading, The Teacher's Essential Guide series, 2009). After watching the video, I think you will agree that Jim is impressive at meeting the needs of the all the learners in his inclusive classroom. I write at higher levels, too, but I also leave my rough draft errors, so my students know writing is a process. It creates a risk-taking environment. Moreover, it sets the stage for them to share their writing later on. This also provides the opportunity for me to show what I revised and edited and why. Evaluating my writing and not a student’s paper alleviates the stress of having their own paragraph critiqued in front of the class.
Color coding supports the visual learners. In the video above, Jim Burke also illustrates the importance of color coding text. In my classroom, we use highlighters to analyze our writing. It helps students assess areas of strength and weakness in their writing. I project my model paragraph on the SMART Board and highlight the text, using the traffic light colors. This is something they learned in elementary school, so I build upon their prior knowledge. Green, which means "go," is the color of the topic sentence. Yellow, which means "slow down and use caution," is the color of specific details. And, red, which signifies "stop," is the color of the closing sentence (See illustration.)
Many effective teachers use an overhead projector or a computer with a projector to provide visuals. I use a SMART Board in my classroom to engage the visual and tactile learners. Students touch the screen to move, delete, and add information, thereby engaging in the revision process. With a swipe of a finger, they highlight text green, yellow, or red. They can stamp a smiley face by a passage they like, or they use editing symbols to edit a passage. Most students are motivated to engage because they want to use the SMART Board. Because I foster a risk-taking environment by projecting my writing for peer review, my students are more than willing to use the document camera and share their writing with the class as well.
Mini Lessons in Writer’s Workshop
Mini lessons are designed to target the needs of the largest population. However, they do not always require lecture format. Sometimes kinesthetic movements will suffice. For example, after assessing their latest work, I noticed many students struggled with the rules for capitalizing titles of books, articles, albums, and songs. The next day, I have all my students stand up and put their arms at their side. As I extend my right arm at a 45-degree angle I say, “When writing titles, I capitalize the first word . . .” Then I extend my Ieft arm saying, “The last word . . .” Quickly, I clap my hands together in front of me saying, “And all the important words in between!” I identify words that are not “important”: "a," "an," "the," "or," etc. We chant the rule while doing the kinesthetic movements repeatedly until they have it memorized. When we finish, they apply the new knowledge to their writing, making corrections to the final copy. Combining kinesthetic movements and chanting increases retention for all students.
Please feel free to post how you differentiate your instruction. We all want to add as much as we can to our bag of tricks.