Aarti Sawhney is a humanities teacher at The International High School at Lafayette. In this post she talks about her struggles with and the rewards of differentiation.
If you were to survey our teachers about their reasons for working at an Internationals High School, I’m sure most of us would include the opportunity to work with a diverse population somewhere near the top of our lists. If you went on to ask about the most difficult challenges we face in the classroom, I’m also sure that providing instruction that meets the varied needs of that mix, would rank high. As a result, differentiation — teaching that engages, challenges, and supports each learner’s individual needs – is one topic we never tire of. It is often the focus of professional development workshops, team meetings, and observation conferences. But for some reason, even with all the help, some of us (like me) still struggle to get it right.
It’s not that I’m a differentiating disaster. When I’m a success, my classroom hums with engagement. Students are focused, each of them knowing what they have to do, pushing themselves to discover, analyze, question, create. These moments often occur when the product being generated is significant and weighty, forcing students to move through multiple steps to apply learning in multiple ways. They can also occur during less complex projects where the task is innately differentiated – a “point of view” writing assignment, for example. Most importantly, however, they occur when each student has genuine responsibility for a key component of the assignment and is able to access the resources, skills and support needed for its completion.
Of course even the most successfully differentiated projects can contain deficiencies. For example, a poet study project offers a varied menu of differentiated activities for students to apply their learning, but provides no opportunities for students to collaborate. On the other hand, when students work in groups to teach a mini-lesson about punctuation, those who spend time coloring or pasting visual aids sometimes miss out on opportunities to critically engage with content. One of my students’ favorite projects this semester involved creating a journal for a character in a wordless graphic novel. The opportunity to use the author’s images as text facilitated writing at all levels, but provided no outlets for kinesthetic learning.
Each time I reteach a unit, I try to address those gaps. Some projects have gotten better over time, but I have yet to create that project that meets all needs for all learners. As such, I’ve taken a broader approach to differentiation. Throughout the course of both semesters, I vary my assignments and approach constantly, focusing on elements that were absent in one project in a subsequent one. Students write literary essays after performing scenes from a play, draw comics after teaching a lesson about grammar, or make short films after writing a memoir. Structuring the year this way can take me far from my comfort zone. It means getting over my own reservations about performing and drama, engaging with multiple resources (the arts teachers!), and sometimes giving up my own ideas about what’s most important to teach.
But it’s well worth it. Every semester, when I survey my students about which projects they most enjoyed, the one I most struggled to implement always wins. For example, students still talk about the suspenseful short film – a final project for my 11th grade English class two years ago. I hate technology and horror films. I have no idea how to use the editing software. I get very uncomfortable when students have to be outside the classroom to complete their work. But nonetheless, it came together, largely because the students’ enthusiasm for the project matched my anxiety.
Hopefully, remembering this lesson will help me take on other challenging, and fear-inducing projects or instructional approaches . Maybe someday I’ll even have the guts to try learning stations. It’s only fair that I offer a rich and varied curriculum to the rich and varied population that brings me to this network.