My Journey Toward a Differentiated Classroom

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By Kristina Doubet

On the journey toward differentiating their classrooms, teachers are bound to take missteps. This was certainly the case for Kristina Doubet and Jessica Hockett, authors of the forthcoming ASCD book Differentiation in Middle and High School: Strategies that Engage All Learners (due out in late spring). Read here as Hockett describes her journey to effective differentiation on TeachThought and below as Doubet does the same. For more, listen to this recent Whole Child Podcast episode with Doubet, Hockett, and Carol Ann Tomlinson.

Doubet QuoteMy teacher preparation was less than comprehensive. I entered my first classroom armed only with an English degree, an M&M get-to-know-you game, and Madeline Hunter’s seven steps. I made it through exactly four weeks of students falling asleep and drooling on their desks before I decided to shake things up a bit by assigning “acting” projects to get through Beowulf and using song-lyric analysis to spice up poetry. Those were wonderful moments; I felt as if my head emerged briefly from the water. Gasping for breath, I looked around and saw what teaching could be. But the flood of the curriculum I was to “cover” would inevitably sweep me away as I floundered for ways to engage my students.

Then the lifeboat of Cooperative Learning sailed by and threw me a lifeline of strategy and structure, which I grabbed with both hands. I formed heterogeneous groups of three to five students and planned everything within those configurations. We built teams in our groups, checked homework in our groups, and reviewed for tests in our groups. For the most part, both my students and I were active, engaged, and moving forward. But not all students were thriving as much as I wanted to believe they were.

The downside to my “cooperative” heterogeneous classrooms was that my students’ strengths and weaknesses were being magnified rather than addressed. By asking the students who “got it” to almost always be the teacher and the students who struggled to almost always be peer taught, I was inadvertently setting up status issues in my classroom, which, admittedly, I often chose to ignore. When the quarter ended, I would breathe a sigh of relief as I changed the groupings, hoping that the new heterogeneous formations would somehow combat the “status hierarchy” tensions I sensed were building.

But the new groups merely changed the geography—rather than the reality—of what was happening. The same kids were the tutors and the same kids were the tutees, and everyone knew who fell into each role. I had, in essence, created the “bluebird, buzzard, and wombat” phenomenon that Carol Ann Tomlinson frequently discusses. The only difference was that my buzzards, bluebirds, and wombats were spread throughout the groups rather than being placed in the same groups.

One day, the parent of one of my students asked me how I challenged her son. The only answer I could give was that I let him teach his classmates, which we both knew was an insufficient response. At that point, I confronted the reality that I needed to do more than create mixed groups and let the kids take care of themselves.

My initial steps toward change were clumsy, at best. I administered reading assessments and moved kids out of their home groups into similar-reading readiness groups to wrestle with texts that were the appropriate fit—a much-needed step. But my management was off. I was so used to controlling the class with a single set of instructions that I felt the need to make these new groups big—groups of six, ten, and twelve students, for example—so that I could easily move between groups to orally present different sets of directions.

The students, of course, were very aware that the “game” had changed. They looked around and saw all the tutors in one group and all the tutees in the other and knew exactly what was up. They shut down—and with good reason. I had blindsided them with this upheaval, and they were confused. So we retreated to the safety of our old cooperative groups.

Here’s what I should have done:

  • Explained to the students that I was going to be trying new things and moving them in and out of grouping configurations to make things more interesting
  • Experimented with student-chosen and random groupings/pairings in order to help students grow accustomed to working with all of their classmates
  • Occasionally placed students in groups with classmates who shared similar interests so they would be bonded by those commonalities and motivated to succeed
  • Subdivided those huge readiness groups into more manageable groups of 3 to 5 students
  • Provided written directions to groups who were working on different tasks

Fortunately, we can learn much from our failures. The next year I started out with flexibility as the goal and prepared my students for it with full-class community building exercises and lots of different groupings. I still used the cooperative learning groups, but I instead used them as launching pads for other (small) groupings based on interest, readiness, student choice, etcetera. I provided all groups with directions and resources so they wouldn’t need my guidance with every step they took.

But, wanting to be the best teacher you can be means that you never fully “arrive.” My revised approach led to new challenges, like how to effectively monitor student growth, how to collect and record different assignments, etcetera. Each year, I learned to tackle the new obstacles that arose from teaching more responsively. Although it has taken time and I’ve stumbled a lot, my missteps have never really taken me off track; rather, they have served as necessary detours for moving me—and my students—forward.

Kristina Doubet is an associate professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and Mathematics Education at James Madison University and a member of the ASCD Professional Learning Services faculty. Doubet and Jessica Hockett are coauthors of the forthcoming book, Differentiation in Middle and High School: Strategies that Engage All Learners, due out this spring.

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