Thursday, April 29, 2010

5 Ways to Differentiate

In response to Rebecca Alber’s blog in Edutopia ( about defining differentiation, there has been some discussion about how to differentiate for GATE students.

Often when I am out working with teachers, I hear it is the GATE students they struggle with the most. Many teachers have ideas about how to meet the needs of students at the other end of the spectrum but they aren’t sure what to do with GATE students. Many teachers tell me they differentiate by having the GATE students help other students. Other teachers allow the GATE students work on more difficult material but those students must teach themselves since the teacher is busy teaching others.

To help those teachers who are wrestling with this issue and to help those parents who want more for their GATE children, I hereby offer five quick suggestions to help GATE students in the elementary school classroom. My hope is that every day every student will be given the chance to move forward on his or her own learning journey. GATE students need opportunities to learn, just like other students.

1.Curriculum compacting. This concept is simple. Give the posttest for a unit before you teach the topic. Maybe you only give it to five students whom you suspect already know the material or maybe you give it to the whole class. If any student scores 90% or above on the post-test before you have even taught the material, that student already knows it and can “pass out” of that unit and work on material that is more meaningful to them. (See suggestions below for what that might entail.)

2.Writer’s Workshop. I thought word about Writer’s Workshop had spread and everyone was using this for his or her writing program but I have recently learned that is not the case. Many schools are still using formulaic writing frames in which there is little room for a gifted student to go beyond the boundaries of the assignment or let their imagination soar. Writer’s Workshop allows students to work at their own pace and on material of their own choosing. Students can often choose what kind of text to write and how to put their piece together. Teachers conference with students individually about their writing. In this way, the individual needs of gifted students can easily be met. Perhaps one student is working on using quotation marks while others in her class are still working on periods. Or perhaps she has a great idea for a poem even though most of her classmates are writing narratives. There is room for these variations in Writer’s Workshop. If you have not yet read a book about writing by Lucy Calkins or attended the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project summer courses, do so!

3.Math binders. Math seems to be the subject that is the hardest for teachers to differentiate. It may be that a student’s strength in math is often very visible. They can compute faster than anyone in the class and with bigger numbers too. Teachers then feel a pressing need to provide work at the appropriate level. In my classroom I met this need by keeping a math binder for every student. Inside that binder was work appropriate to their level. Students could reach for their binders any time they were done with other work or needed different work from the rest of the class. (These were also great for substitute days too – everyone just worked in his or her math binder, no prep required!) . I filled the binders with work as I came across it. Maybe we didn’t get to spend enough time on measuring. Then I would put some extra work in everyone’s math binder. Maybe Josh is really struggling with his addition facts. Then I would put some of that work in his binder alone. Perhaps Rose really enjoyed the 100s chart puzzles we did. I would xerox a few extra and stick those in her math binder. Sometimes students would ask me, “Can I have some work on division? My big brother is doing it and I want to do some too.” That would go in their binder as well. Each student then had a personalized collection of math materials at their disposal. At the end of the school year, I would send these binders home. Parents were thrilled to have some summer work for their children that was “just right” for them as opposed to a workbook they might buy.

4.Choice. Provide choice within units of study such as individual research projects or choices about products students will use to show what they have learned. This is a place where gifted students can soar. We have all seen those classrooms where there are 22 clouds on the wall and each one has a poem about a cloud on it that starts exactly the same way. Let’s shake it up some more and challenge the students to bring themselves to the assignments! What about a research project into the different types of clouds? Or a month’s log about the weather and a discussion about what this might mean for this year’s peaches? How about an interview with a meteorologist and a report back to the class about their job. Gifted students love the depth and complexity of these kinds of assignments. Teachers can control the choices by offering just a few for students to choose from or they can let students write a contract about what they want to do. Teacher and student then sign this before the student takes off. All of this work can be displayed around the classroom in a poster, photographs, a Powerpoint, lyrics to a song, or an essay. It will be so much more interesting to view than 22 cloud poems.

5.Computers. OK, I must admit that I am not a big proponent of computers for young children. However, that they can be a great differentiation tool. Programs such as Renzulli Learning and Stanford’s EPGY program are specifically designed for gifted learners. They can be used by students on their own to learn about things at his or her level, at his or her own pace. Renzulli Learning works to pinpoint a student’s areas of interest and then provides activities related to those interests. Stanford’s EPGY program also offers courses in a variety of different subjects. I have used it with students mostly for the math portion. I wouldn’t park a student on the computer for large portions of the day but I do think for a small amount of time each week, this could be an area where a student really feels like they are working on something that is meaningful to them.

Math binders, writer’s workshop, research projects, and computer programs are all things that will challenge gifted students. They are also projects that students can work on independently, with some teacher check-ins along the way. Get these things rolling in your classroom and when a student “passes out” of a unit, send them to do work in their math binder, write a story, do more research into their topic, or work on their Renzulli activities. This will keep them moving forward on their own learning journey.

See my next post for two more complex ways teachers can create a classroom that will meet the needs of ALL students!

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