Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Differentiating....How do You Explain It?

I'm currently teaching a class for our local college that focuses on an introduction to the exceptional learner.  I love facilitating this class because the questions that are generated from my students often help me to clarify and articulate what I believe and what I practice in my classroom.  Sometimes it's nice to have to formally explain what you do and why you do it.

This week we have been focusing on strategies and differentiating.  There have been quite a few questions along the themes of how do you implement a strategy and not embarrass a child who has difficulty; or how do you do something different for one and not others; or how do you plan for a child with a speech impairment during read alouds.

Since these questions were addressed and clarified my for my class, I thought the information would be of interest for this blog, too. 

To me, these are brilliant questions.  They get to the heart of  "What does that look like in the classroom?" and I'm interested but I don't know how to do that yet.  "How do I do that with all of the other demands?"

The following is what I shared with my class:

".........Not every strategy is going to work with every child. That's why it's important to know how to research strategies and methods. You may come across a child who exhausts your "bag of tricks" and you need to find a new way to teach him/her a skill or concept.

HOWEVER, sometimes a strategy WILL work if you think through the challenges and set your classroom climate to be supportive. When your thinking starts with a problem solving and supportive approach, it will often help the child succeed.

So what does "a problem solving and supportive approach" look like? It can look differently in different classrooms. I'll share with you some of the methods I use.

When I think about a strategy and a specific child I think may have a challenge with it, I try to problem solve by thinking about questions like this:

1) What skill or concept do I want the child to master?
2) Is this strategy going to help him/her master that skill or concept?
3) What is the challenge I think he/she is going to face? Is there a way to adapt or modify the strategy to adress this challenge BUT still help the child master the skill? If so, this is usually the method I try first.

Here are a few things that I do to set a positive classroom climate at the begninning of the year:

1) We hold a class meeting and set our rules for the year. I pose them as "agreements" and explain to the kids that this is like a promise. This year the teachers agree to: be respectful to everyone, make sure everyone is safe, help everyone learn new things. This year the students agreed to: listen to the teachers, be kind to each other, keep hands and feet to ourselves.

Please note: If the students don't generate an idea for an agreement that I think is necessary, I usually try to guide them to it by posing questions and scenarios about if I let someone do something to them. For example, if they didn't generate an idea similar to being kind, I might ask them: What if someone kept calling you names? Would you like that? Would you want me to help you if you couldn't solve that problem by yourself? Is this important to us as a group? If it is,maybe we should come up with an agreement about that.

2) We talk about leaders. The United States has a leader, it's our president. Our school has a leader, it's our principal. Our classroom has a leader, it's the teacher. The leaders job is to make sure that everything works together smoothly. I remind them that I am the leader in our classroom and it's my job to make sure everyone is learning what they need to be learning.

3) We read lots of literature about differences. The books we revisited many times this year are: "It's Okay to Be Different" by Todd Parr; and "Little Louie the Baby Bloomer" by Jose Aruguelo.

These two books were chosen this year for specific reasons.   The first one addresses differences in general, not related to a disability. The second one addresses how a tiger can do things, it's just that the way he does things is a little bit different than how the other animals do things (which in a very indirect way teaches kids about accomodations).

4) We have a class discussion where I explain to them that not everyone is going to be doing the same thing or have the same work. That's okay! (Establishing the role of the leader and then talking about differences establishes a foundation of knowledge for my students to fall back on when I start differentiating lessons and assigning different children different work.) I hold up our books and remind them what we learned from each of those books. Then I simply tell them those are the things we need to remember when we do our work.

5) If you were ever to come into my classroom, you would hear me redirect somone by saying "Try again, please and remember we are a kind class." or "Oh gosh...try that one more time and remember, you are a kind person." I want them to internalize that we treat each other with respect and kindness. We support and encourage each other when we master something that was hard for us (even if it would have been an easy task for someone else).

When children have this kind of positive, supportive climate every day, it becomes a little bit easier to take an academic risk because you know that your classmates are not going to laugh at you and your teacher is going to help you. And when you can do it on your own, you will be proud of yourself and others will celebrate and encourage you.

The way that I believe this relates to the questions my college students generated is that it creates a climate that allows a child to take a risk and not do well; but be able to take that risk again and do better; and finally take that risk again and master a skill. These steps attempt to support the child towards growth both academically and emotionally.

One teaching experience that I remember very vividly didn't happen in a classroom, but I think it illustrates this point.  It happened at a cooking party we had with a chef at my sister-in-law's house.  We were all laughing and socializing and having a great time.  The chef was guiding us in preparing the meal and taught us some basic knife skills.  When it was our turn to try, one of us was chopping and the chef prompted her by saying "That was very good.  Can I show you how to do it better?"  I don't know that anyone else in the room really heard her, but I did and I thought: GENIUS!  What a phenomenal phrase that was non-threatening and encouraging, but also prompted her to do better....I'm so going to steal that.  And of course I have.  

I try to recreate that type of climate.....well, there's not any wine in my classroom, but you get the idea!  :-)  .........  It's safe.  It's supportive.  It's encouraging.   It's okay to make a mistake or not do something perfectly....the people around you will help you do it better!


Sheila Naylor said...

I enjoyed reading your blog and feel your input about creating a safe environment for students to explore and learn is very important. Studies have shown that students perform better in the classroom when they feel they are safe to make mistakes and take academic risks. I think that your thoughtful reflection of how to create this environment also demonstrates an important teaching practice. Being reflective, allows teachers to identify what went well in the lesson and why it worked, also what didn’t work so well and what can be done to change the outcome. This practice also encourages teachers taking responsibility for lesson outcomes, as well as the students. In the book, “What Great Teachers Do Differently- 17 Things That Matter Most” by Todd Whitaker, he suggests that good teachers hold their students and themselves to high expectations. When we are reflective of our teaching, we are holding ourselves to the high expectations that we can also improve our performance in the classroom. We can strive to provide what is best for our students, and learn from our own mistakes.
Thanks for the insights!

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kwoodruff said...

My thoughts on differentiation would be to think about each child individually and to think outside the box. I have been an intervention specialist for 13 years and like you I have a bag of tricks. However there are always new challenges that arise and we know that no two children are alike. Even though we may encounter a similar challenge, the approach that we take with the child to solve the problem may need to be very different.
When I am working with a classroom teacher on addressing how to differentiate a lesson, I ask them to have an open mind. I also ask them what is the learning outcomes that are most important for this child to have at the end of the unit. When they have to articulate what is really at the heart of the learning, they are more apt to let some things go and “pick their battles’. Once they realize that every child does not need to display their learning in exactly the same way the ball starts rolling.
One of my biggest tricks though to differentiate in the classroom is to collaborate with other teachers. It never ceases to amaze me how many times a year I talk with a colleague about a situation and am taught a simple strategy that makes me say “I can’t believe that I never thought to try that.” Sometimes being removed from a situation, where you are not emotionally invested, helps to open your eyes farther than when you are in the middle.
A final thought is that differentiation is just unlocking the way for every child to be able to show what they know. It may not look the same as everyone else’s but that is okay!

Jess G said...

The best example of being fair and implementing differentiation I heard was from one of my college professor. If someone is choking and couldn’t breathe, you would never say, “I am sorry I cannot give you CPR because the other person across the room doesn’t need CPR,” or give CPR to the person and save their life, but then give CPR to someone who doesn’t need it to be fair. The same can also be said with a Doctor prescribing medicine. I share these scenarios with my students in the beginning of the year. All students need different things at different times, and what works once, might not work again.
Yes, it is important to have a “bag of trick”, however I do not think that intervention specialists need to always be evaluating how they differentiate. What works one year might not work the next. What works for one student won’t always work for the other. Students need to feel that the classroom is a welcoming experience where they feel comfortable to be themselves. They need to understand from the beginning that everyone learns differently.
I want to end with saying I strongly believe what KWoodruff stated about the best “trick” when it comes to differentiation is collaboration. The power of collaboration is amazing and talking through situations with co-workers opens my eyes to new ways to best meet my students’ needs.

kwoodruff said...

I love your example of choking. I always tell my students that you wouldn't tell someone in a wheelchair that they should walk or someone who wears glasses that they can't because you don't have them. This is the same idea. When I put it that way they pause and think. Great example!

Lauren said...

Differentiation used to be one of the more difficult tasks when I was just starting out in my special education career. Now modifying and differentiating materials for my students with disabilties has become second nature!

Jacqui said...

I love your post on differentiating and creating a warm comfortable environment for your students. I use a lot of similar strategies. Anyway, I'm also a special education resource teacher, and your newest follower.

Jacqui said...

Love your post about differentiating. I'm also a special education teacher and your newest follower.

Amy Bunting said...

I really enjoyed reading your blog on how to differentiate instruction for individuals with specific needs. I like the use of the problem solving method. It is important to determine what the skill is and what strategy will be most effective. I think it is always important to monitor the student's progress over the next few days or weeks and if the child is still not responding, to alter the idea and try a new approach.

Kim @ Mrs. Hs Resource Room said...

Here is a blog post about how I describe differentiation and fairness to elementary students:

Mrs. H's Resource Room

Anonymous said...

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Chaille Burgtorf said...

I enjoyed reading your post. I, too,am a firm believer that students must be allowed to take ownership when developing classroom rules. I also tell them that while everyone will be learning the same concept, it may not look the same. I refer them to a poster that states, "Fair is does not mean equal". Thank you for the book suggestions. They will be beneficial. Also, it's important that students feel safe, supportive, and respectful. Encouragement through the increments of learning is really a great idea. The "ask don't tell" works so much better. I think it applies the accountability factor because students have a choice. And, anyone is more receptive to asking versus telling. I will remember the "Can I show you how to do it better". Thank you for the reinforcement and the insight.

anil sahu said...

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Brian H. said...

I loved reading your post on differentiating instruction and creating a positive classroom environment. I feel the #1 priority of a special education teacher at the beginning of every year is to establish positive relationships with their students and learn as much as you can about them and their background. If students feel they can trust you then they will be more willing to take risks and open to learning new concepts and new, or better, ways of doing things. We also talk about differences in people on a regular basis and I have a poster on my wall that lists a number of famous people who have had to deal with learning disabilities and/or ADHD. This shows them that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses and they can overcome any obstacles if they believe in themselves and give their best effort. I like your strategy for coming up with classroom rules at the beginning of the year and involving the students in that process. I usually do something similar but the #1 rule I always have in my classroom is that students are required to show the proper respect to their classmates and to myself at all times. If you can create an atmosphere of respect in your classroom, everything else will fall into place as a result.

Jessica Lynch said...

I am a recent college graduate in the early childhood education program and I found this blog post very interesting. It is true that you can never stop learning. I thought I had a pretty good knowledge base of differentiating in the classroom and how to run a smooth classroom, but I learned a lot from this blog post. I especially liked your problem solving questions about strategies and whether they could potentially work. I had never thought of it before, but before using a strategy, there are some questions you need to ask. While I have probably asked these questions to myself, I’m not sure I’ve ever verbally said them or put them into words. I agree that it is especially important that you identify the concept to be mastered, potential challenges, and potential adaptions or modifications that would help the child. I found this blog post to be very interesting because it is hard to explain in words how to do specific things such as choosing a strategy, but it’s great to see it in words to help verbalize how to use strategies effectively in the classroom.

I also agree with you that a positive classroom climate is essential and needs to happen and start at the beginning of the year. This is definitely something that I use when in a classroom as well, but I really enjoyed seeing examples of how you implement the positive attitude and caring classroom from the beginning of the year. I believe wholeheartedly that a positive atmosphere is an important part of having an effective classroom and gives children the most potential to reach their goals. When a child feels comfortable and safe in a classroom, they are more likely to express themselves and get out of their shell because they do not feel threatened by their peers. Once children can learn without fear, they will be able to reach their true potential.

Nercy A. said...

Creating a respectful and welcoming learning environment is very necessary in helping support our struggling learners. Our classrooms are becoming more and more diverse every year and we must be prepared to continuously promote a safe learning environment for all. Your blog contained some wonderful simple tips in maintaining such an environment. I loved the, “Lets’ try again, we are a kind class,” statement used in your classroom. Another thing that I really grasped from your blog post is the sense of community that exists out there via the internet. We always come across that one student who challenges us to learn new strategies to help us effectively reach out to our more challenging students. I usually try to meet with my work colleagues and engage in a brainstorm session with them. I find these meetings to be helpful and I believe it also promotes a supportive community within our school. There are times where individual’s hectic schedule or work day makes it challenging to arrange such a meeting. The next step I usually take is to conduct a Google search, where I come across websites that promise to have the most effective lessons for only a monthly membership of $$$. No thank you. Having explored this blog among others has opened an entire new avenue of resources. I think it is very valuable to have such a network available for special education teachers. I look forward to exploring more and filling up my bag a tricks with new ideas and beginning to share a few of my own.

Nercy A. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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