Differentiation in the Classroom: Creating a System That Works

differentiationMy school is unique to a lot of public academic institutions.  Because we are a classical academy, we focus on primary ancient texts. In addition, our program is rigorous.  Most classical documents are difficult for students to access for many reasons–vocabulary, historical context, syntax, etc.  In addition, we expect students to read these complex works as well as synthesize them with their cultural understanding and discuss them in meaningful conversations. This can be intimidating for already nervous freshmen students.

Most high schools offer two courses for core classes.  There is an honors or preAP course and an academic or on-level course.  Some larger high schools have more division than that.  My high school offers honors courses, but it’s markedly different than most high schools.  I teach my on-level and honors classes at the same time in the same room.  How does this work?  Well, it’s a work in progress, but I’m going to share what I’ve learned in the last two years.

At its inception, the honors course work became synonymous with more work.  The problem was that more work doesn’t necessarily mean honors work.  For the past year, I watched my incredibly smart and capable freshmen collapse under the demands of extra projects.  In many cases, I felt like they were punished for being smart, well-read, and high achieving.  Students would do everything an on-level student would do plus prepare for a science fair project, read a history novel every quarter (plus what they’re already reading for history, English, and science), create video tapes teaching math concepts, and reading or writing a paper or keeping a dialectical journal for English.  This wouldn’t be horrible except these students also play sports, dance, or act in theatre productions.  It was just too much.  Last year, I watched a talented girl almost fail English because she spent all her time on the science fair.  I emailed parents; I visited with her often.  I talked to her science teacher.   She was within one point of receiving an F on freshman honors English. She didn’t deserve that.

Many of these projects are independent.   They are all done outside of class because our class time is already packed full.  Students could come in during advisory, but they were doing that for four (sometimes five) classes.  Advisement class is only forty minutes long.  Most of them are involved in sports after school. As a result, most of the time they were offered limited support, and most of it was through email.  It just didn’t seem like the best way to get their best work.  Honors students need support too.

I learned that this was not working. This is not differentiation.  I had to do it differently.

Midway through last year I began experimenting.  It required more time on my part, but my results were better. I started writing multiple tests and designing multiple levels or projects.  I began instituting the use of google docs so I could interact and collaborate on writing projects with all my students.  I utilized preassessments to group my students according to needs.  For example, if a student already knew three of the words on the vocabulary list for the week, they would be given an advanced list.  If they didn’t know the words, but they were honors students, they’re test required much more than knowing definitions.  It would include SAT/ACT style vocabulary questions and sophisticated usage questions.  On-level students would have easier usage questions based on being introduced to a word.  IEP students who required less would be tested over fewer words.

When teaching argument writing, I would work on levels of writing with students.  If students struggled with thesis writing, they would receive a writing prompt that would help facilitate building that skill.  They would have graphic organizers and manipulatives to help formulate structurally strong thesis statements.  For those who had a handle on three-pronged thesis statements, we would work on making stronger, more sophisticated theses.  Honors students would be required to devote a paragraph to answering or countering objections (a skill new and not covered in middle school). Utilizing Google Docs, students would receive real time feedback on their essays from me.  I could point to a specific struggle in an essay long before I received the final product.  It felt more like an editor/writer relationship than taking away points for mistakes. Student writing improved exponentially in some cases.

Projects also received makeovers. They weren’t major, but using Bloom’s Taxonomy, I would create three objectives for each project.  IEP students (depending on their needs) would be expected to reach objective 1, on-level would reach objectives 1 and 2, and honors would reach be expected to reach all three.  (See Personal Mandala Project).  For IEP students who seem to master the first objectives easily would be encouraged to attempt the other objectives that way they were also extended in thinking and encouraged to try without added pressure.

Without piling on the work, my honors students reported feeling challenged, but not overwhelmed. My on-level students and strugglers were growing measurably. This is what I wanted.

To be clear, this is what true differentiation requires.  Offering multiple ways for students to show their work is not true differentiation; that’s appealing to learning styles. True differentiation isn’t more work.  True differentiation is figuring out student needs and designing lessons and curriculum that meets student needs.  Does it require more time?  Yes.  Do I spend my weekend writing multiple tests?  Yep. Is it worth it for my students? Absolutely.

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