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Thursday, February 5, 2015

On Differentiation: It's Not The Only Solution, But It's Part of It

My sixth graders sat up a little straighter when they saw the pink sheets in my hand. One asked, “Are those our verb contracts?” As I handed the papers out, students began calling out to each other. Questions like “What was your score on the pretest?” and “What does it say you need to work on?” rang through the room.
For many students, grammar is boring and irrelevant. In my classroom, much of what we do with grammar is embedded in our writing and reading; however, I handle some of the basics by giving pretests and then assigning activities and reviews for each student’s specific needs. This form of differentiation has worked well for my students and me for several years.
So I was surprised to read Dr. Jim Delisle’s column in EdWeek entitled "Differentiation Doesn’t Work."(link is external) This column shared Dr. Delisle's thoughts, along with supporting research, on why differentiation is NOT the cure for education's woes.
I'll admit—when I first read it, I found myself thinking, "Great. So what I've been encouraging and supporting colleagues in doing, as well as implementing myself, is really a waste of time and effort."
But here's the thing: it's not.
Ideally, in theory, differentiation is an amazing tool with powerful potential. Teachers identify the needs of their students and then plan tasks and activities at varying levels to meet the needs of the wide range of students in their rooms, and help those studentscontinue to learn and grow through these differentiated activities. This is the ideal.
However, the reality can be very different.
What Delisle was pointing out is that if we rely solely on differentiation to meet the needs of every single child, in every single classroom, we're doomed to failure in this effort. And he's exactly right. As Delisle notes, “Although fine in theory, differentiation in practice is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back.”
The reality is this: the spread of needs in general education classrooms is huge. Given the economic realities of the past eight or so years, most general education classrooms are larger, not smaller. Teachers know that in a class of 28, there is likely to be a huge range of skills, abilities, and needs. And it’s more challenging to implement strong differentiated lessons and activities for 28 or 30 kids than it is for 18 or 20.
Of course, most teachers are going to do their very best. That’s who we are. When kids need something, we do what we can to help meet that need—whether it’s adjusting or adapting classwork, or providing lunch money so they aren’t hungry all afternoon. Wework hard.
Those of us who have been striving to routinely implement differentiated strategies in our general education classrooms probably know better than any of us that this approach is not the cure-all for education’s woes. It can be useful for certain students and certain lessons, but it is not a “magic bullet” in education.
My point is this: if we view differentiation as the one cure, the one “fix” that will allow all students to grow and achieve their maximum potential, we’re going to frustrate ourselves, our colleagues, and our students.
However, there are times and places when it’s effective and useful. Classroom teachers need to carefully consider their students, their students' needs, the standards they're working with, and how best to bring all that together. There is research that supports the use of differentiation and points to some very specific situations where it is most effective, such as this study(link is external) about high-achieving third graders in low-achieving schools.
Resources and Supports:
There are resources and supports available to help teachers use differentiation as one of many strategies. And teachers don’t have to do all this on their own. In fact, a study(link is external) by the National Research Center on Gifted and Talented points out that it takes a great deal of time, support, and the right kind of educational community to make differentiation happen in a diverse middle school. Teachers who are still working to use differentiation with high-ability students can find some good suggestions and strategies here(link is external).
One of my colleagues whose expertise includes strategies for teaching students with Asperger's once told me, "Once you've met a child with Asperger's, you've met a child with Asperger's." Just because a particular set of strategies works with one student doesn't guarantee that set will work with another student.
That's not true only of students who have an Asperger's diagnosis—it’s true of all students. The strategies that work with one class and subject will not necessarily be as successful elsewhere. It takes time to set up differentiated activities and lessons, just as it takes time to get to know those students and their strengths and needs.
Perhaps the solution isn't to give up on differentiation. The solution may rest in how we structure our schools, classes, and teachers' work days. Perhaps with some innovative new thinking, we can arrive at solutions that will make differentiation and other teaching strategies more powerful and effective for students and their teachers. What do your experiences show you about differentiation? What do we need to make differentiation better?

1 Comment

Carl Draeger commented on February 4, 2015 at 10:55pm:

Tomlinson fan

I, too was flustered by Dr. Jim Delisle’s column in EdWeek. Why was I spending all this precious time so foolishly. Fortunately, Carol Ann Tomlinson wrote a passionate, yet graceful, rebuttal.  Ok, it was a bit more 'in your face'. Tomlinson wrote:
 She also included a zinger: 
I absolutely understand that differentiating instruction well is not easy. But then, I've never felt that teaching should be easy.
 You spoke so eloquently about who teachers are. You also asked the million dollar question about how can we do differentiating better. I am pretty sure that the million dollar question has an even more expensive answer. You said, "The solution may rest in how we structure our schools, classes, and teachers' work days." I think that the best answer lies in transformation of schools as opposed to a mere reformation. I don't care if you have the shiniest, longest-lasting and efficient telegraph ever made. No amount of re-engineering is going to make it relevant again. Similarly, the 19th century institution of public education doesn't need a face lift. It needs a resurrection.
The School District in which I work spent a hunk of money on creating and supporting a "Transformation Task Force" made up of community members, employee union representatives, teachers, and administrators. Our charge was to design the optimal school day for students and teachers. We were instructed to disregard costs and current contraints. We spent 2 years talking/dreaming/planning about 'what could be'. In the end, costs and current constraints ended the discussion. All we had to show for our time and effort was a shelf document.
The good news is that our teachers (myself included) felt empowered to have bolder conversations with other stakeholders. Although no physical changes are evident, the political culture is more open to innovation by the experts in education (teachers). It's my hope that this ending has yet to be written.
The Five-by-Five Approach to Differentiation Success
Two 9th grade boys kept falling asleep while reading. "If you're sleepy," we told them, "you could ask for a hall pass to get a quick drink of water, stand in the back of the room and read, or sit on the desk behind you as long as you are reading." They perked up at the chance to sit on the desks and were soon engrossed in their books.
"What can I do to move this student forward? Is he processing the concepts? Is her thinking being stretched?" As teachers who differentiate, we try to keep these questions in mind at all times. If we didn't, then our "sleepy" students would have wasted valuable reading time. For us (and for many teachers), differentiation is a philosophy. We believe that all students can learn and be productive, and we recognize that our job is to build on what each student brings to the classroom.
The following "Five-by-Five" approach to differentiation contains ideas that we have found effective in our classrooms. It is not a road map: It doesn't offer step-by-stepdirections. Instead we think of it as a compass: It is a set of strategies that guide our work with students.
Our first five points are about "setting the stage" for effective differentiation, while the other five highlight actions teachers can employ daily.

5 Ways to Set the Stage

 Assessing: At the start of the year (and, in fact, throughout the entire year), we want to find out more about where our students’ skills are, a process that informs our differentiation approach. Education researcher Robert Marzano has called formative assessment "one of the more powerful weapons in a teacher's arsenal." The word "assessment" comes from the Latin "assidere," which means "to sit beside." This origin is reflected in the process of formative assessment, as teachers work alongside students, evaluating evidence and making adjustments to teaching and learning.
More From the Authors on Differentiated Instruction
In his Classroom Q&A blog, Larry Ferlazzo collects and offers advice on differentiating instruction.
Katie Hull-Sypnieski will be presenting her ideas in our upcoming PD webinar Making Differentiated Instruction Work for You.
 Building Relationships: Marzano says positive relationships with students are a "keystone of effective teaching." Plenty ofother research concurs, as do we. The knowledge and trust we develop with individual students can make or break our differentiation efforts. For example, if our students are writing persuasive essays, is it necessary for all students to write about the same topic? Instead, if we know a struggling student is a football fan, why not suggest that she write about why her favorite team is better than another one? Or let's say we are working with a reluctant reader who loves video games. When assigning reading, why not identify a challenging book on that topic that he will feel self-motivated to push through and enjoy?
 Keeping Students Moving Forward: This priority drives everything we do with students—even small moves like inviting sleepy readers to sit on top of desks. Studies of "The Progress Principle" have found that a key to intrinsic motivation is feeling that you are making progress in meaningful work. We can reinforce intrinsic motivation by emphasizing small wins (and using catalysts like the ideas we include in this article).
 Teaching Life-Skills Lessons: Along with many of our colleagues, we front-load our school year with what we call "Life-Skills Lessons." These simple, engaging activities can help students see how it is in their interest (in both the short-term and long-term) to try their best at all times. For example, a lesson might highlight how the learning process physically alters the brain. (This particular lesson was eye-opening to a student who had claimed, "We're born smart or dumb and stay that way.") Other lessons might focus on self-control (including examining the famous "Marshmallow Test") or goal-setting. The publisher of Larry's most recent book has made these lessons plans, including hand-outs, available online for free (click on "sample pages"). As important as the lessons themselves are the frequent opportunities throughout the year when teachers and students can refer back to the concepts and reflect on their applicability.
 Creating a Community of Learners: We do a lesson at the beginning of the year in which students decide if they want to be a "Community Of Learners" or a "Classroom of Students." Working in side-by-side columns on an overhead or whiteboard, a teacher and students work together to outline the differences between the two options. For example, in a "classroom," people might laugh when others make mistakes, but in a "community," people are supported when they take risks. We also discuss the fact that people learn at different speeds, and in different ways, and discuss the meaning of the title of Rick Wormeli's book, Fair Isn't Always Equal. Time after time, our students have always chosen to be a "Community of Learners," and we refer back to this decision as we use differentiation strategies throughout the year.

5 Day-to-Day Actions

 Applying The Zeigarnik Effect: Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian psychologist, identified what came to be called the Zeigarnik Effect: Once we start doing something, we tend to want to finish it. What can this teach us about differentiation? When we know a task will be challenging for some students, we can present a variety of ways to get started: a menu of questions to answer, the option to create a drawing or visual representation of a concept, the option to begin the assignment working with a partner, etc. We can also encourage students to get started by just answering the first question or the easiest one.
 Differentiating Assignments: Students can complete the same types of mental tasks while producing different end products. Douglas Reeves describes this as “not uniformity of work, but similarity of proficiency." The idea is that students can gain proficiency even when completing different types of assignments or a different number of assignments (one big project vs. five smaller assignments). This happens in our classrooms during free reading time, when students practice using similar reading strategies while reading different books. We have some students reading 300-page books while others read a series of much shorter texts. As long as the level of text is challenging and students are using reading strategies to increase comprehension and drive analysis, then the length/genre/topic of the book doesn’t need to be uniform.
 Using Computers: Computers can allow students to work at their own pace and ability level, make mistakes in private, and stay engaged and motivated. Of course we're not suggesting that teachers plop their students in front of a computer and call it differentiation. However, there are many free sites that allow students to work independently at their skill level and let teachers check on their progress. Some sites, such as the Free Rice game and flash card tools even use "adaptive learning" to adjust future questions based on student progress. A word of caution: automated "teaching" on computers should only supplement high quality curriculum and instruction, not serve as a replacement for it.
 Praising Effort and Learning From Mistakes: One way to encourage all students to work at their highest level of productivity and intellectual capacity is to praise effort and not intelligence. Carol Dweck has published research on the benefits of praising students' effort versus their intelligence. She recommends teaching children the difference between a "growth mindset" (the belief that intelligence can be developed through effort and practice) and a "fixed mindset" (the belief that intelligence is innate). One way to develop students' "growth mindset" is to encourage them to risk making (and learning from) mistakes. Some students are afraid of making mistakes and being ridiculed for it. We want to turn that attitude on its head, helping them learn that, as Dweck says, we should instead "celebrate mistakes."
 Flexible Grouping: Some confuse differentiation with the practice of grouping students by ability levels and teaching those small groups. While this is sometimes necessary and valuable, it is also important that students have the opportunity to participate in interest-based groups, mixed ability level groups, student-choice groups, and other variations. As Carol Ann Tomlinson explains, "In a sense, the teacher is continually auditioning kids in different settings—and the students get to see how they can contribute in a variety of contexts."
We've found that keeping this "Five-by-Five" strategy in mind has helped keep our students and us moving in the right direction—forward!

Schools With A Majority of African-American Students Are Like Prisons

Why Do Some Schools Feel Like Prisons?
Too Much Discipline Hurts Majority-Minority Schools

By Samina Hadi-Tabassum, Education Week

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Watching the protests and listening to the chants of "Hands up, don't shoot" following last summer's fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., fueled an argument that I have been making for some time with my graduate students and colleagues.

Rahm Emanuel
For almost two decades, I have been coaching and mentoring first-year teachers in Chicago's public schools; however, in the last few years, I have noticed a cultural shift in those schools with predominantly African-American enrollments. Some are turnaround schools that Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office has taken over because of low student test scores, as well as other complex challenges, including weak leadership and ineffective instruction.

When you enter these turnaround schools, there is often an eerie silence. You never hear children's voices in the hallways. Rather, you see lines of African-American children crossing the school with their hands behind their backs or their fingers pressed against their lips to indicate silence, and their eyes always facing front.

The monochromatic lines of uniformed children mimic prison lines, and the teachers' efforts seem focused on ensuring that students do not talk to each other and do not walk outside the line.

All day long, an immense amount of time and energy is spent making sure young African-American students are taught to obey.

In one K-12 school, when one of my graduate students had to go to the restroom, I walked her students to the cafeteria. Even in the cafeteria, children were not allowed to talk to each other.

I made the foolish mistake of having a conversation with a table of 1st grade girls when another teacher came over to me and yelled out, "You do not talk during lunch." At first, I thought the teacher was being sarcastic, but it was disheartening to realize after a few minutes that this young teacher, who was white, had been indoctrinated by her school to think that African-American and Latino children should not be allowed to talk at lunch. When the students were given time to actually act like children on the playground, they were often admonished for "acting like animals" when they returned to their classrooms.

Of course, my first-year teachers do not buy into this ideology of repression. But when I asked them whether their schools would have the same rules if the children were white, the young teachers responded with a unanimous no, coupled with the fear of losing their jobs if they, too, did not obey.

"When I asked them whether their schools would have the same rules if the children were white, the young teachers responded with a unanimous no."

Caught between educational theory that advocates for the whole child and a school culture that resembles a prison's, my first-year teachers have to make strategic decisions daily about what is best for their students and what rules they may need to subvert while avoiding the administration's gaze.

On this front, one of my graduate students, whom I'll call Angela, stayed after my class one day, quite upset.

I had taught my first-year teachers a literacy technique in which students come to the board and circle letters and sounds they recognize in a message written by the teacher. Then the students are told to put a square around a word they recognize and a triangle around a piece of punctuation, and to underline sight words from their classroom's "word wall." The interactive nature of the technique is what leads to its success.

However, when Angela was implementing this technique one day, a school administrator walked in and informally observed her teaching.

When Angela was finished, the administrator pulled her aside and told her she liked how the students identified the different parts of language, but that they were not allowed to come to the board to do so. Why? Because 1st graders make too much noise while at the board. Angela knew the suggestion was counterintuitive, and she knew that the noise her students made was from the joy of learning—a sound missing in turnaround schools. She came to me torn about what to do next.

Many days, after supervising my first-year teachers, I drive less than five miles to pick up my own children from their schools in Oak Park, Ill.—a middle-class suburb known for its diversity.

In the hallways of my daughter's elementary school, there is the cacophony of children laughing, running down the hallways, and slamming lockers.

On the floors, winter wear is strewn all over the place along with forgotten worksheets. In the cafeteria, the noise of children eating and talking can at times become overwhelming; so, too, the sight of discarded food on the floor.

Do we find this chaotic behavior tolerable and less threatening because the school is majority white? If these were mostly African-American and Latino children, would many administrators in the Chicago public schools and elsewhere not have tolerated it and perhaps even found it threatening?

Finally, when will turnaround schools take school culture into consideration and produce a school that enriches the whole minority child?

Samina Hadi-Tabassum is an associate professor of education at Dominican University, in River Forest, Ill., where she directs the English-as-a-second-language/bilingual program and works with cohorts of first-year teachers. She is writing a book addressing race relations in public schools.

Education Week

Where Do Biases Start? A Challenge to Educators

Earlier this year, I was invited to speak to a few hundred African-American male high school students in Jacksonville, Fla. The young people there were searching for answers in the untimely death of their fellow Jacksonville resident Jordan Davis, 17, who was shot and killed at a gas station in November 2012 after playing what perpetrator Michael Dunn called "loud thug music."
Like the shooting earlier in 2012 of Trayvon Martin, another unarmed 17-year-old black male, this death represented a shocking example of some teens' sense of being trapped by a new kind of racial optics, what I call the "hip-hop gaze." This is when signs, symbols, and images in hip-hop (e.g., language, music, style of clothing), associated with urban youths in popular culture, unfairly convey trouble or criminality about black males to the mainstream public.
This term emerged from my previous research via a series of focus-group conversations with African-American male teens at a hip-hop-based youth center. The young students I spoke with felt teachers unfairly judged them with suspicion and fear based on the sagging of their pants and their wearing of do-rags on their heads, hoodies, and puffy "bubble coats."
Ultimately, students argued that their sense of style and aesthetics prompted teachers' overzealous efforts to suspend them even as they gave other students lesser punishments for the same offenses. After August's deadly police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., legions of disaffected young people who also embodied a hip-hop style protested in the streets, facing off against heavily armed law-enforcement officers as the world watched. All of this suggests that these young people have perspectives we need to hear.
The tragedies of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Michael Brown remind me of what young people in places like the youth center in Jacksonville have been saying for years. They remind me that distorted racial representations in popular culture can influence a culture of punishment toward black males.
As a challenge to educators, I offer the following questions: How do we weigh hip-hop youth culture in relation to the punishment of young people's identity? Where do we, as educators, learn the stereotypes, prejudices, and biases toward students that need to be unlearned? What proactive, practical strategies might we as educators take in writing new scripts for how we think about African-American males, different from what the mainstream media tell us? What is the role and critical awareness of cultural context in relation to lessening punitive practices against African-American males in K-12 schools?
Preservice teacher education programs might be a great place to start addressing these questions. I offer the following recommendations:
"Distorted racial representations in popular culture can influence a culture of punishment toward black males."
• Study race and masculinity. The study of race and masculinity in relation to the punishment of black males must become an integral part of preservice teacher education curricula. There is a documented, patterned history in government, academia, and news media of developing racially coded narratives of black males being aggressive, dangerous, and menaces to society. These packaged narratives exacerbate negative practices toward minority youths in schools and the larger society.
Stop-and-frisk policies, stand-your-ground laws, and suspension and expulsion practices that filter students into the school-to-prison pipeline are examples of this. Subsequently, a historical analysis in the social construction of race and masculinity in relation to past and present punishment practices toward black males would give preservice teachers insights into the differential treatment of this population.
• Explore critical media literacy. A majority of the education students I teach at the university level come from isolated, segregated, affluent, white communities. Many desire to be teachers in urban school settings, but have had limited contact with communities of color. Subsequently, much of what they know about the black community comes from the radio, music, movies, or television. These media often provide a narrow characterization of black male identity related to crime, sports, and entertainment.
Therefore, teacher education programs should offer opportunities for students to engage in critical media literacy. Students should learn to examine how representations in the news and popular culture can intentionally or unintentionally reinforce stereotypical representations of black males as criminals in our subconscious. When preservice teachers develop the skill set for critically reading how the media as an institution possess the power to distort racial identities, they gain a new consciousness that counters the image of black males as thugs to humanize their perceptions.
• Pursue community engagement. Given the de facto segregated living conditions of many preservice teachers, social interaction with diverse populations becomes extremely important in urban teacher education programs. Unfortunately, the term "urban" has come to mean "black," and the term black has come to mean all that is dangerous, poor, and dysfunctional. Therefore, schools in urban areas have come to mean teaching dangerous poor black children and teens. These cultural-deficit labels come to typify how black boys and men are viewed within mainstream society.
To counter these narratives, I have developed relationships with community leaders in some of the poorest areas of Pittsburgh and host many classes and community forums in these areas. At these classes and forums, black youths become "teachers," sharing their experiences of institutional racism; the aftermath and effects in the trauma of poverty, violence, and racial profiling; and the impact of these challenges on their education experience in schools. Preservice teachers come away from these discussions developing empathy and understanding the emotions that emerge from institutional and societal neglect. These narratives become the unofficial curriculum to guide my students' thinking in how to develop positive pedagogical relationships with urban youths.
• Engage with hip-hop learning communities. For better and worse, many students see themselves through the prism of hip-hop culture. To disengage with it is to disengage with the soundtrack to their lives. Hip-hop is a culture upon which the very best of the social-political tradition, rather than its gangsta proclivities, can be mobilized into an educational medium. Being socially and politically conscious means expressing discontent with institutional inequality; promoting peace and unity; and empowering youth voices for social justice.
When young people recognize that teachers know something about their culture in a way that does not denigrate or demonize them, an immediate pedagogical bridge is made in the teacher-student relationship. For example, I have invited socially aware hip-hop artists from the community into my classrooms and students from my classes into local hip-hop communities. These invitations create co-learning opportunities. The artists perform, relate their lyrics to contemporary issues, and discuss the music's impact on urban education. These learning experiences open preservice teachers' minds about innovations in teaching and how to make the curriculum relevant to the lived experiences of urban youths. They also increase these future teachers' familiarity with the language, culture, community, and social and political context from which hip-hop emerges.
Moving forward, the challenge is to utilize contemporary events in popular culture as a canvas to educate preservice teachers about how race, representation, and masculinity in media can affect how we treat others, such as black males in urban education. When we do this cultural work in urban education, perhaps the Trayvon Martins, Jordan Davises, and Michael Browns of the world will not die in vain, and we will keep kids in schools rather than push them out.
Darius D. Prier is an assistant professor in the Duquesne University School of Education, in Pittsburgh. He is the author of Culturally Relevant Teaching: Hip-Hop Pedagogy in Urban Schools (Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2012) and is a consultant and speaker on youth leadership, popular culture, and urban education. He is working on a forthcoming book, The Media War on Black Male Youth in Urban Education.