10 Instructional Strategies for the Differentiated Classroom

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In a Differentiated Classroom, teachers begin where students are, not from the front of the textbook. They recognize the strengths and areas of growth in each individual and use multiple instructional practices to meet student needs and boost them up a level. No student’s roadmap for learning is identical to anyone else’s and differentiating in Process, Product, & Content recognizes these differences.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is a leading expert in this field and I often draw upon her work to support literacy learning in the classroom and with teachers. Her methods and instructional practices are practical and applicable to any grade level or discipline. It is the teacher, not a set of curriculum materials, that makes the difference in the learner’s achievement. Teachers who differentiate shape what is learned, how it is learned and the learning environment based on the student.

The “How” in a Differentiated Classroom is often the area most educators find most challenging. Because of this need, I highlighted 10 Instructional Strategies (based off of Tomlinson’s work) that promote differentiation in the classroom. Just as all learners are different, so too are instructional practices and a classroom full of individuals may require the savvy teacher to employ multiple practices simultaneously.

 

7 Virtues of a Blended Learning Teacher

Adobe Spark (17)This blog post is part of the CM Rubin World Global Search for Education which poses a question each month to leading educators for reflection and sharing. This month’s question is “To what extent is this a new model of learning in a digital age? Is blended learning becoming yet another overhyped myth?  What lessons learned can you share from your own school community?”

Blended learning is a disputed term among academics and one may find what it is NOT, rather than what it IS. In 2009, I entered the world of blended learning after the school I taught at implemented a 1 to 1 laptop initiative which placed computers in the hands of all students (grade 6-12) that they used in the classroom and brought home with them each night. Because of this experience and through conversations I have had with other educators in similar education ecosystems, I believe that blended learning is a combination of traditional teaching methods and digital ones, this in different languanges.

Educators who are sound in content and pedagogy are often high-impact blended learning teachers as well. Through reflection and conversation, blended learning teachers possess similar virtues:

Teacher Virtues:  

  1. Uninhibited Creativity in delivery and content of learning
  2. Sees Failure as Opportunities for Growth and gains achieved through perseverance
  3. Seeks out Opportunities for Improvement
  4. Reflective in Practice and on student achievement
  5. Student-centered and Relinquishes Control of elements in traditional teaching
  6. Sees Technological Differentiation as a Way to Meet All Students’ Needs
  7. Recognizes Multidimensional and Multimodal Learning as Relevant and Engaging

Teacher virtues in both a traditional or blended environment extend across both and most, are interchangeable in either environment. Technology or blended learning does not automatically make one better. In fact, through experience, it does quite the opposite, magnifying poor classroom management or lack of understanding of content or pedagogy. Effective blended teachers are always effective classroom teachers but the opposite may not be true. To be a high-impact blended teacher it takes creativity, understanding, resourcefulness, and reflection in a digital learning space.

10 Ways Parents Can Support Their Young Readers

Adobe Spark (15)This blog post is part of the CM Rubin World Global Search for Education which poses a question each month to leading educators for reflection and sharing. This month’s question is When it comes to fostering a lifelong love of learning,  parents who support you in your role as a teacher are important;  so what are the Top 10 (or less)  things you want to tell all parents?

One of the greatest gifts a parent can give their child is to foster the love of reading. It is through books that young readers can travel to faraway places, develop empathy for someone different than themselves, or learn how to build the ultimate fort out of things they find in the garage. While most parents agree that reading is important in all areas of life, how to foster a love of reading and support their young readers remains a mystery.

Here are 10 Ways Parents Can Support Their Young Readers:

  1. Read Aloud – The single most important activity for building literacy experiences is reading aloud to kids of all ages. From birth to age 3, young children who are read to develop listening and verbal skills at a greater rate. They also start to associate reading with the pleasant sound of their parent’s voice, understand how books work, and begin to use early literacy skills in play. Students of all ages benefit from hearing books read aloud to them by building background knowledge, hearing good readers use the dimensions of fluency, as well as enriching their own vocabulary. (Inspired by Steven)
  2. Choice, not Chore – Another way parents can support their young readers is to present reading as a choice, not a chore. Encourage their literacy journey by giving them choice in what they read. Giving kids a choice in what they read not only improves their literacy skills but also increase engagement. When parents focus less on minutes read and more on providing book options in areas that interest their kids, everyone wins.  (Inspired by Mr. Vince)
  3. Find the Right Book – While not every book can be the one that hooks a lifelong reader, any one book can, so never give up. When a child loses interest in a book, has trouble reading for a sustained amount of time, or complains about a book it’s time to close the cover and find a new one. Children do not have to read every book they choose from beginning to end. In fact, children may abandon a book for a variety of reasons before finding one that captures their attention. The key for parents is to never give up. Continue to share books, articles, and magazines that may interest your child. Visit the library and find support in librarian who have a number of titles they can share based on interests, genres, or authors. Websites for finding books for kids: Biblionasium, Goodreads Kids List, What Should I Read Next, Common Sense Media Best Books for Kids, Children’s and Teens Choice Book Awards.  (Inspired by Helena)
  4. Fostering Curiosity – Another way parents can support their young readers is to demonstrate how questions can be answered through reading. Reading is both for pleasure and for learning. Ask questions, spark wonderings, and then turn to books and text as a way to find answers. This powerful process of answer-seeking not only demonstrates ways books can be used but also helps to make the thinking visible and hopefully transferable into their own life. Reading, writing, and thinking with their child promotes the recursive nature of the three.  (Inspired by Fran) 
  5. Model a Readerly Life – Parents, teachers, and peers influence a child’s life with parents and teachers having the most impact. When parents model a readerly life this transfers to their children. Making time to read each day with your child and talking about books models habits that readers do and in turn children mimic. Parents can model a readerly life by simply reading their own book at the same time their child is reading their book. When children see their parents valuing reading they understand the importance of a readerly life.  (Inspired by Amber)
  6. Make it Social – In school, reading is often times done in isolation. Minutes are tracked, tests are taken, and projects are done for an audience of one. As adults, when we turn the final page of a book that we can’t put down we immediately want to talk about it, interacting with others who may have read it, or sharing in hopes that someone else will be inspired to read. Parents can make reading social with their child in a variety of ways, ask questions and listen when a child finishes a book. Read a book together and use an interactive method (Dialogic Reading) of reading to encourage talking about a book. Parents can also make reading social by participating in book clubs with their children or sharing online interactions with other readers through websites such as  Goodreads (if a child is old enough have them create an account and start sharing). When parents think of a sharing good book as they would share and talk about a good movie, children shift from viewing reading as isolating to a social activity.
  7. Surround Children with Text – Good readers often recall being surrounded by text in the home. Parents should fill not only their child’s bedroom with books and other types of text but multiple areas in the home. Books on shelves, magazines on tables, poetry on the wall, and kindles on the sofas immerse students into an environment that promotes reading. Not all books need to be new or owned, garage sales are perfect for finding books and libraries help to keep new books in the home. When children have access to books and are surrounded by text they are more likely to pick it up and at least thumb through the text.
  8. Digital Text – Through digital text parents can also support young readers. Access to books, nonfiction, and poetry has never been easier than it is currently. While many parents are hesitant to use technology to provide access to reading material the thing to keep in mind is that it doesn’t have to be either print books or digital, but instead it is both. There are many apps, websites, and resources that parents can use to foster a love of reading with their child. Epubs, audio texts, and interactive books can all have a place in the routines established. Check out Epic, Storynory,  Project Gutenberg, Newsela.
  9. Interest not Level – Another way that parents can support their young readers is by making reading joyful and engaging by keying in on your child’s interest rather than focusing on reading level. While it is important to decide if a book is developmentally appropriate for your child, as well as being accessible, limiting what your child reads because of their designated Lexile or reading level doesn’t take into account the picture of the whole child. Children who are interested in a topic or have experience and background knowledge are likely able to read and comprehend difficult text. Listening to music and discussing song lyrics from their favorite artist is another way to spark interest in reading by recognizing your child’s interests. Have a child who loves to write and read poetry? Introduce contemporary writers whose novels are written in verse helps to ignite your child’s love of reading. By starting with something children are familiar with and passionate about instead of their reading level helps children enjoy reading. (Inspired by Erin) 
  10. Community Connections – Finally, parents can support young readers by taking advantage of community connections. Visit libraries and partake in their free reading programs for kids (This year’s summer theme is Build a Better World). Make time to stop into the bookstore and explore the shelves. Build your own Little FreeLibrary and place it somewhere in your neighborhood to spread the joy of sharing books. Reach out to schools and retirement homes to inquire about opportunities for your child to read to or with adults. Reading is a priority across the nation, in communities, and schools; making those connections with your child makes it a priority in your home as well!

Reading is joyful, social, and a lifelong skill that every child needs throughout their life. Parents can play an active role in their child’s literacy development through a variety of ways. The possibilities are endless and the above 10 are ones that were inspired by friends, fellow educators, and my own learning in the area of literacy. Please comment below with additional ways parents can support their young readers. Did I miss any of your favorites?

Special thanks to the following who all contributed to this post in thoughts and words:

Steven Anderson

Amber Teamann

Erin Olson

Fran McVeigh

Helena Brothwell

Mr. Vince  

How My Genius Hour Mistakes Helped Students Succeed

Adobe Spark (11)This blog post is part of the CM Rubin World Global Search for Education which poses a question each month to leading educators for reflection and sharing. This month’s question is “How could this Google model be modified and utilized in schools? How might it harness the innate power of human curiosity, innovation, and creativity to build cognitive skills and enhance knowledge in students?”

Google’s “20% Time” has made its way into the education realm through such things as “Genius Hour”, “Passion-Projects”, and J-Terms. Conceptually all of these labels parallel the “20% Time” model which places learner’s passions at the center of their learning for part of the day/week/semester/year/etc.

When I first introduced the idea of Genius Hour to my students it was met with both excitement and fear. They were enthusiastic at the idea of choosing their own topic of study but nervous about two major things:

First, what should I choose to learn about?

Second, how will this be graded?

The traditional education model has little room for differentiation within the classroom. Students progress through grades by age, they are grouped together to learn the same content at the same speed and are “graded” with data from standardized tests where the results are mostly focused on measuring students against each other, not the individual growth one has made.

This factory-like model has done a disservice to our kids and highlights my first mistake; we have produced students who are problem-solvers instead of Problem-Seekers. Traditionally, educators feed information to students with an end goal or learning objective in mind. We ask kids to solve a problem that we have identified and deemed important. Asking a child to find meaningful discourse in which to study, seek out an issue that plagues today’s society in order to remedy it, is tough. If you don’t think so, start a class period off posing the question: Why are we studying Hamlet? (or any current classroom concept/unit/etc.) and see if you get anything different than the common response of – because we will need to know this in college (or other required demands to pass the class).  Creating a culture of inquiry that places responsibility back in the hands of our students takes time, continued support and modeling, and does not happen immediately as I so foolishly thought.

Finally, my second mistake was neglecting to use the common practice of gradual release which helps to set students up for success. Sure, we all have students who come to class with those innate skills that will propel them to be successful in school or career, but far too often we see students who don’t have these skills (and everyone can work to be better). Take for instance research skills. While most students know how to use Google to search for answers that are low level and offer little cognitive demands, most do not know how to tackle those higher order thinking tasks that demand research, synthesis, and analysis.

Genius Hour is not about a quick answer that is regurgitated in front of the class, instead, we are asking students to become experts in that particular field and have the audacity to manipulate their knowledge in ways that will allow them to construct thoughtful responses with threaded experiences and support in multiple situations. Because of this cognitive complexity, I found my students struggled in 2 areas when it came to their own learning: Identifying primary sources, evaluating the information they discovered based on relevance and reliability; and how to synthesize sources and information embedding them to their own knowledge base. Because of this early mistake, large group learning (my gradual release of responsibility) was threaded throughout the normal class period with the understanding that these skills would help aid in their future learning.

Genius Hour, Genius Time, 20% Time, Passion-Based Learning; whatever one may call it creates opportunities for students to take their learning by the reins and exhibit greatness that had not been exhibited before. Whether class-based or school-wide, long-range goals and careful planning must take place to help all students succeed in this foreign environment. Best of Luck!

Contemporary Literacy Practices, Go Where Your Students Are…

-Want to increase student achievement in reading and writing- Capitalize on the skills they use in their digital world.Education is slow to change. Before something is implemented it must be checked, researched, and statistically proven to impact student achievement before implementation occurs. While I  recognize the value of this system, it is the one that leaves professionals stagnant and places kids at a disadvantage. It also discounts the “gut-instinct” that teachers have when they recognize something is not working for their student and they need to change instruction.

The other day I was problem-solving with a building literacy coach at the middle school level. She spoke about a student, Allena (we will call her), an 8th grader who was classified as a struggling reader and writer by her teachers. The teachers wanted support in the form of strategies or programs that would help fix this child. A silver-bullet to implement that would magically make this student love writing.

In fact, the building literacy coach told me, all she cares about is watching YouTube and making videos for her own channel.

I paused, remembering a James Britton quote, “Go to where your students are – don’t make them come to you.” If you want to increase student reading and writing, go to where your students are in their “literary” worlds. Capitalize on the digital reading and writing that they do every day.

My question to the coach was How can we utilize YouTube to support this struggling writer? How can moviemaking and YouTube Stars be the vehicle in which she learns, practices, and demonstrates literacy skills? Could this entry-point then transfer to other areas of reading and writing?
Literacy is social, constantly changing, and impacted by the practices of a particular group. Contemporary literacy is multimodal, dynamic, and global. For students to be active participants in a global society it is essential to support student creation and consumption of 21st Century Literacies, even if it is driven by gut-instinct and has not had enough time to be deemed “research-approved.” Meeting students where they are does not only mean recognizing what skills they get and what they don’t, it also includes their interests, passions, and quite possibly YouTube.