Jun 22, 2011

Creating A Differentiated Clasroom To Help All Students Learn (All Teachers Know This)

Angela taught in Columbus City Schools where she enjoyed a short tenure as a kindergarten and first grade teacher; due to the "Last In, First Out" policy, she was forced out after two years. After leaving Columbus, she got a job at one of the best elementary schools in the greater Columbus area. Courter taught for two years in the Los Angeles Unified School District in one of the lowest rated middle schools in California. Together, they have seen the best and worst of America's education system.

Critics of the education reform movement have a few en vogue talking points. One of them centers on the following line of logic: teachers can't possibly move kids along when they have 25 kids working at tremendously different ability levels. To be sure, it is difficult to differentiate instruction. But it's not impossible. Even more, it is absolutely essential. A teacher's ability to differentiate could literally make or break a child’s school experience.

As we see it, there are several key ingredients to successful differentiation in the classroom: mindset, creativity, hard work and organization.

First, the mindset. Quite simply, a teacher needs to believe two truths about his or her classroom in order to implement effective differentiation. First, she has to believe it's her job to reach every student. And second, a teacher must believe that all of his students can learn. They may go about learning in different ways, but ultimately they can all get there. When we talk education buzz words, such as "differentiation," we must not forget that we're talking about real students who rely on teachers to help them grow and learn. While it's obvious on its face, it bears stating: If we don't actually believe we should be helping everyone, we won't; and if we don't think kids can learn or are worth our time, they won't be. Because thoughts so closely inform our actions, the right mindset is crucial to good differentiation. If a teacher believes in these simple yet fundamental truths then his actions will align accordingly.

Creativity is also crucial to differentiation. Innovation can help teachers adjust to meet the needs of their students and can help students feel engaged in a dynamic and engaging learning process. The creativity doesn't need to be otherworldly. It's as simple as finding a few interesting ways to diversify instruction and adjust for learning levels and styles. For example, teachers often differentiate by utilizing groups. Grouping students according to learning pace, either homogenously or heterogeneously, can help. If homogenously, a teacher can simultaneously reach his or her kids on the same level; if heterogeneously, slower and faster learners can work collaboratively to help each other.

The classroom "buddy" program is another creative example. Older and younger classrooms (elementary to high school, for example) can partner and work together on a regular basis to help teach social and scholastic skills, as well as allow a teacher to focus his or her time elsewhere (while every student is staying busy and learning). Whatever the actual approach, the point is that options for creative and effective differentiation exist.

Finally, there's hard work. Think about what differentiation really is: finding a way to meet the actual needs of your students. Hard work by both the teacher and student can help do this. In practical terms, this can look like differentiated sessions 20-30 minutes before school starts in the form of a "breakfast club"; or a group that meets on lunch or after school. And, for the student furthest behind, it can mean leveraging parents, friends, and other influencers to put in time to help him or her improve.

Again, differentiation is not easy. But we as educators and/or people involved in education should fight the mindset that teachers can't help every student. The right mindset, a focus on creativity, and hard work can help create an environment where students of all levels can and do learn. The ongoing debate about education reform has reinforced that this type of differentiation is necessary. And strong public schools across the country, many in our lowest-income communities, have shown us it is possible.

The views presented on our guest blogs are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of StudentsFirst. We thank all of our guest bloggers for their thoughtful perspectives.

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