How can I create opportunities for effective learning and development that reaches a diverse population of students? It is important for each student to feel like they belong. They must know each day that they are valued and respected in the classroom. The classroom teacher must differentiate in order to support many individual learners. Differentiation can take many forms. Throughout the three schools I worked in I developed my own principles for differentiation. I decided it is critical to consider each student as a whole child, provide students with rich opportunities to develop an identity as a learner of a particular subject, foster individual identities, develop listening skills and observational skills as a teacher and to provide opportunities for writing every day.
Strengths and Weaknesses, Interests and Talents
Over the course of my fall placement at the International Charter School my mentor teacher, Crystal, shared with me the many tests used by ICS to evaluate and organize student data. I learned a great deal about AIMS Web, WIDA and the Fountas and Pinnell BACs reading test. In the Spring, at William D’Abate, I saw quarterly use of STAR testing and monthly use of Reading Street assessments. Although a wealth of data existed for each student in both placements I was most inspired by one conversation with Brooke in the Fall. She told me that in terms of test scores from previous years, she chose not to look at them until several weeks after the start of school. She shared with me how this helps her make up her own mind about students before the information from a test has a chance to influence her view of the child. This is a practice I would like to continue in my own classroom because I think in order for meaningful differentiation to occur, the teacher must know the students better than the test does.
As Thea Abu El-Haj states in her powerful article Constructing Ideas About Equity From the Standpoint of the Particular: Exploring the Work of One Urban Teacher Network “Commitment to the recognition of the person contains within it the belief that one root of academic inequality lies in the educational imperative to evaluate children in narrow and comparative terms.” (Abu El Haj p.828) As a teacher it is important to me to hold high expectations for all learners and help them accomplish the curriculum standards of the host classroom by focusing on students’ developing thinking skills, and conceptual understandings.
I think about Delila. She was the only student in my Fall class with an IEP. She reminded me of what Oakes writes about under the heading Intelligence is Acquired and Multidimensional: “Although innate and universal predispositions may enhance the development of some abilities, people are generally more concerned about whether children develop those particular abilities deemed most important by the dominant culture…differences among groups of people in IQ actually explain little about what those people can and do learn.” (Oakes p.165) Delila continually worked with a sense of wonder, earnestness and dedication. Near the end of November I assigned my class the project of a Moon Journal. Each night, for 28 days they were to go outside to look at the moon and draw what they saw. Yesterday, I collected all 36 journals to do a midway assessment and see how people were doing with their drawings. Many students did not complete the assignment fully, several had a drawing for every night but almost none of the student’s drawings mirrored the exact conditions in the lunar phases taking place over Providence that month. Students consistently drew the crescent of the moon backwards or flip-flopped it from day to day. This is actually scientifically impossible, and to me represented inadequate observational skills. Delila however, was one of two students who completed 100% accurate drawings each night. Each moon she drew was carefully observed and recorded. It’s shape increasing gradually and the crescent maintaining the same direction throughout. Oakes later probes in the same piece: “What should count as evidence of learning? Of understanding?”
How could I understand Delilas moon journal work while also bearing in mind her recent reading test score of a first grade level? The snapshot of Delila’s moon journal was a gold medal winner, but when I considered the full photo album of my two months I had worked with her, the picture became less clear. The moon journal showed me both procedural and dispositional skills above those of her classmates, yet many other aspects of her school’s assessment placed her below grade level. These two pieces of data must be coalesced to form a true and accurate picture of the whole child. In order for real, meaningful differentiation to take place, both pieces of data must be equally honored.
“Although innate and universal predispositions may enhance the development of some abilities, people are generally more concerned about whether children develop those particular abilities deemed most important by the dominant culture…differences among groups of people in IQ actually explain little about what those people can and do learn.” (Oakes p.165)
This story is important to me because I think we must always approach students with a fresh set of eyes. We must believe in them in order for them to believe in themselves. Delila showed me the necessity for educators to consider student strengths and weaknesses. Noting Delila’s strength in scientific observation allowed me to more thoroughly reconsider her reading abilities.
Content vs. Skills
While juggling in the air many disciplines (and finding connections between all of them) the teacher must also pay attention to the needs of individual learners. How does this play out in a multilevel classroom? How does the teacher mediate tension between content and skills demands for each student? During Summer Prep I began to learn about this process from my student Soraya. As we dug into our personal narrative writing workshop I saw that Soraya spelled many words phonetically and often constructed sentences in unusual ways. When I read over Soraya’s stories I had a gut instinct that it would not be a good idea to circle in red every error. There were simply too many. I would often ask her to read things aloud to me and found that to be sometimes an easier way to understand her ideas. Just like I did not want to cover Soraya’s page of writing with red pen, I also wanted her to experience the writing process and our Final Performance Task with the other students. An overemphasis on skills would have prohibited this process.
Ultimately, I accepted Soraya’s final draft with many unconventional sentence structures and incorrect spellings. I also saw her speak her lines beautifully during her groups Choral Reading. Upon reflection with my mentor teacher I realized that her performance was one of the most captivating moments of our whole program. As educators we must continually work to see our students as whole people and have faith in their abilities to connect to thematic content even if they face significant barriers in literacy (or other) skills.
Developing Identities as a Learner
As a teacher I want to find a way to support each individual to develop an identity as a learner. Much like it is strategic and necessary for teachers to provide frameworks in which students are able to “shape a self identity as a reader” (Miller p.28) it is also important for them to shape identities as scientists and mathematicians as well. Reflecting on my own experience as an elementary school student I remember I had my “favorite subjects.” Moving forward I would like to steer students away from this habit because I feel it is detrimental to the “growth mindset” (Dweck p.38). My “favorite subjects “ were always the courses I was good at and I liked them because I found success in them. This is why I “hated math.” However, I was lucky enough in eighth grade to have a math teacher who built up my confidence enough and explained things clearly enough for me to feel as though hard work would actually lead to success in math as well. Unlike arithmetic, algebra somehow became part of my identity. I remember how I used to do math homework to calm myself down sometimes. The careful process of writing out each step became almost ritualized for me. In this way I brought myself into the material. I developed an identity as a student of math.
I want students to bring their whole selves into the classroom not only because I want them to feel like they belong but also because I want them to learn with both their hearts and their minds. Too often school becomes segmented out of “real life” and class material remains dry and boring. When students have the opportunity to exist as individuals within a discipline this can be avoided.
In addition to allowing students to develop identities as learners of different subjects it is also important for students to bring their own identities into the classroom. Project based learning becomes a key way to facilitate student growth and encourage motivation in all learners. During my time student teaching at William D’Abate in the Spring of 2015 I chose to use a map project as my culminating assessment for the social studies unit i designed on the Caribbean. Each student chose the specific country they wanted to research in the region and then were asked to design a map displaying different things they learned about as they researched their country. Towards the end of the unit we would work each morning on our maps. These class periods were remarkable to me as students worked with more focus and diligence than I had previously seen in any other subject! I know this is because they were creating something on their own, rather than regurgitating facts. Just as students feel purpose and autonomy in a special job for the week, they feel purpose and autonomy when they are asked to create something their own. This can motivate all learners to produce their best work. In fact some of the highest grades I gave for our Social Studies maps went to students who normally struggled with written assignments and tested at a below grade reading level.
A final aspect of differentiation that I find impactful is the requirement to listen carefully and respectfully to students.Too often in inner city schools where the curriculum, the texts and the teachers reflect only the dominant European background of much of the U.S, students of color become forced to compromise their backgrounds in order to assimilate subject matter: “Issues of power are enacted in classrooms. These issues include: the power of the teacher over the students; the power of the publishers of textbooks and of the developers of the curriculum to determine the view of the world presented; the power of the state in enforcing compulsory schooling; and the power of an individual or group to determine another’s intelligence or ‘normalcy.’” (Delpit p.24) Working at ICS allowed me to further deepen my knowledge of the ELL experience. It was incredible to be able to move between Ms. Frances and Ms. Brooke’s classrooms and see the shift in confidence in certain students. Many boys and girls who were less vocal in Brooke’s classroom took the lead when they could speak Spanish in Frances’ room. Language and culture affect one’s ability to express themselves and be understood. Often, I reconsidered participation and writing samples from many students with the question is this a conceptual issue or a language issue?
In roles of power it is easy for a teacher to assume they are always right and that students who don’t follow easily possess some sort of deficit. I want to step away from this mindset and toward a more nuanced understanding of what it means to exist as a learner in my classroom. And also to consider perhaps, what it means to be bilingual in a dominantly English speaking system. Listening and observing ones students is an essential part of differentiating effectively within the classroom. The essential mindset for the teacher becomes not “ how must this child change to meet the demands of schooling [but rather] how must my practice change to expand possibilities and opportunities for this child?” ( Abu Haj p.823)
Many of of the principles I discovered in summer prep and my fall practicum classrooms became more developed as I worked differentiation into my Spring placement. As an extension of my book bag project on The Mysteries of Harris Burdick I designed a narrative writing unit. Viewing many drafts of student created stories shed a new light on differentiation for me. Principally, this unit provided a forum with space for students to share their identities: “Valuable and beautiful stories exist in the lives of students in our classrooms. By inviting students to create text, the curriculum honors their ideas and voices.” (Landay p.26) The stories also brought some very clear literacy issues to the surface. I now am certain that creative writing assignments are one of the clearest and most direct ways to simultaneously incorporate a meaningful expression of student’s individual identities while also generating work from which the teacher can learn a great deal from.
It was remarkable to me how closely students narratives correlated to reading ability. Those who wrote with a direct and succinct story line were some of the top readers in the class. Point of view, tense, grammar and punctuation were fluid and easy to follow in some of the best narratives. Several students from my Strategic Intervention reading group wrote creative and imaginative stories, however plot lines were hard to follow and I ended up discussing their stories with them in order to clarify my understandings. Some of these same students who had been historically been very resistant writers became more motivated when telling a story they themselves had created. I saw patterns and abilities so clearly through these student generated texts and almost found them more informative than any STAR testing or NECAP data we had previously received on these students. Reading shows up through writing in a perfectly differentiated way. Because students are in a way creating these assessments it is an extremely appropriate form of differentiation. In my future classroom I will commit to allowing time for student writing every day. Not only does writing surface many valuable assessment issues but it also provides a comprehensive platform on which the teacher can observe the student as learner.
Delpit, L. (1995). Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press :.
Dweck, Carol S. 2008. The Secret to Raising Smart Kids. Scientific American Mind. December/ January, 36-43
El-Haj, Thea Renda Abu. "Practicing for Equity From the Standpoint of the Particular: Exploring the Work of One Urban Teacher Network." Teachers College Record 105.5 (2003): 817-45. Web.
Landay, E., & Wootton, K. (n.d.). A reason to read: Linking literacy and the arts.
Oakes, Jeannie, and Martin Lipton. Teaching to Change the World. Boston: McGraw-Hill College, 1999. Print.
Miller, Donalyn. 2009. The Book Whisperer. Jossey Bass, San Francisco, CA
NEA Representative Assembly. 1975. National Education Association Code of Ethics of the Education Profession