A Thanksgiving Take on Differentiating Instruction
As I've traveled between conferences and classrooms this fall, I've heard so much buzz around the concept and practice of "differentiation." When I've asked teachers, literacy coaches, and language arts coordinators what differentiation looks like in their schools and districts, we usually discuss a variety of programs that schools have purchased or the myriad ways that children are being scheduled, pulled here and pushed there to receive a dose of differentiated instruction, often from a teacher who is not their own.
It all seems so complex and daunting, yet isn't differentiation something we may effortlessly practice in our lives outside the classroom? The ways we differentiate in "real life" can offer us wisdom and comfort about differentiating instruction in our classrooms. So instead of starting by identifying and evaluating a variety of approaches to differentiating instruction, let's begin by looking at examples of differentiation in real life - life outside of a school day or school year -- and draw some lessons that apply to our classroom practice.
Let's imagine you spent some time over the past couple weeks planning to host Thanksgiving at your home for more than a dozen relatives and friends. There's so much to think about and do to get ready to make a memorable meal that will appeal to the taste buds of the pickiest eaters, as well as fill the bellies of your hungriest relatives. Right away, you consider these factors:
This real-life and accessible example of differentiation shares many of the same elements worth considering as we think about differentiating instruction for a class of diverse, eccentric, quirky learners with a wide variety of strengths, needs, and interests. What are the lessons we can transfer from the Thanksgiving feast to our classrooms?
A Generosity of Spirit
First and foremost, people who differentiate, whether it's for a holiday meal or a unit of study for writing, display an inherent generosity of spirit. They don't view differentiation as a chore, nor do they resent those who need some type of differentiation. There is a genuine desire to accommodate their guests and their students.
As one looks over the guest list for a big dinner and plans for the meal, a generosity of spirit isn't characterized by eye-rolling over the 19-year-old vegan or feelings of annoyance over Auntie Mae's needs for a comfortable chair and bathroom access. Instead, the host goes on-line to vegan recipe websites and talks to her neighbor about the best brand of fake eggs. The host finds a lumbar support cushion that will support Aunt Mae and fit the chair.
Likewise, a teacher isn't put off by the effort involved to meet the needs his or her students have. He accommodates Marco's need for a chair during whole-group meetings in the rug area because Marco has a muscular-skeletal issue that prevents him from sitting cross-legged for even a few minutes. She looks around for books on peregrine falcons at the public library book fair because Taylor is temporarily obsessed by them. He lets Marissa and Reina use manipulatives during math because they need to do so. She pulls small groups together during reading workshop to support those six children who continue to need fluency support. Teachers understand the needs of students are the top priority, and welcome the challenge of figuring out how to meet those needs.
Of course, there is so much more involved in teaching young learners than hosting a Thanksgiving feast, and I'm not suggesting that classroom teachers are educational hosts. Even so, just as a host begins by asking himself, "What can I do and provide to make sure my guests have a completely enjoyable evening?", a classroom teacher who differentiates instruction begins by asking herself, "What can I do and provide to make sure my students have the best learning experience possible?" And she looks forward to the challenge and outcome of answering that question.