Differentiation is critical to accommodate the needs of learners so that each is being uniquely challenged. Most teachers are already working hard to develop their practice and taking the time to reflect after a lesson or unit wraps up so that they can improve for next time. If you’re in a secondary setting, you may have time to reflect and improve after your first period or block of classes; or you may have to wait a whole year to see improvements. I sometimes referred to my first period as “the experiment” because what I was able to learn in 47 minutes of teaching benefited the rest of my classes. Even with the best laid differentiation plan, teachers need to be ready to adapt so that all students are engaged, supported, and challenged. But let’s face it: differentiating can be complicated, and even with your reflections, your planning, your discussions with other teachers, and the support of your administrators, it can be a struggle.
In my experience, the best teachers I’ve seen were able to place differentiation into the students’ hands. This may be tricky in certain situations, but allowing students to make their own choices and implementing strategies like genius hours or 20% time can make a valuable and long-lasting impression on differentiation. Give students the creative freedom to make certain decisions when covering key topics, and don’t be afraid to incorporate art or music into the menu of options. Sure, it may be beyond your own expertise, but it’s an opportunity to collaborate with other teachers in your building who you may not work with on a regular basis. Two quick examples of incorporating art and music come to mind. The first is a colleague who used paintings by Jacob Lawrence during the Harlem Renaissance to inspire students to create their own artwork with the art teacher in the building as part of the curriculum for social studies. The teachers tied music into the unit and stayed true to the curriculum requirements while also letting students decide the direction they wanted to take. Another example is from my own classroom where I taught history. After playing the song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel, students were asked to write their own verse to continue the song (from the 1990s to the present). It was a fun way to tackle some complex issues, and it gave students the autonomy to research events that interested them. And yes, performing the new verse to the song was optional.
Giving them the freedom to decide what to focus on and how to tackle the requirements you set forth is empowering. From where I sit, the best ideas come from collaboration and expertise within the school where you work.
For more differentiated instruction resources, log onto ASCD’s website.
Kevin Scott is director of member engagement at ASCD and works with members and constituent groups to increase awareness and action for educators. He spent seven years in Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools as a middle school history teacher and has been a director of education and membership manager at other associations in Washington, D.C. Connect with him on Edu_Kevin_.