Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Differentiated Instruction - For Real!

Even as a Trustee, I've been wondering how "differentiated" we can really get in a classroom.  it's one thing if you're working with a student 1:1, but what do you really do in a classroom full of kids?  Fortunately, I had a chance to answer this question this week- I was invited to come observe Christina Shilling's 5th grade math class over at Springer.  Poor Ms. Shilling didn't get much warning, since Principal Spenader invited me over the weekend, and I showed up first thing Monday morning, but she was glad to have me, and I really enjoyed the time.

So, what does it mean when we talk about differentiated instruction?  Really, what we're trying to do is customize the learning to the needs of each child.  Some examples:

During "warm-ups", each child was asked to do 5 problems that Ms. Shilling had written on the board.  Some kids pulled out a notebook with paper.  Others worked on small whiteboards on their desks.  Others stood and worked at whiteboards on the walls around the room.  Little things like this let the child be most comfortable and still focus on the work.

After warm-ups, the kids dove into some problems.  Some children preferred to work mostly alone.  Others talked quietly with neighbors about how to do the problems.  Some dove into Khan Academy on ChromeBooks (Thanks, Google!)  Ms Shilling also worked with a small group in one corner.  I have to admit, I was surprised to see kids sitting on beanbag chairs and laying on carpet, but all across the room, they were engaged in the math. She even had a great poster up to remind kids of how to work together

"Differentiation" doesn't end at the physical, though.  It's actually much more relevant in the material itself.  To solve the problems, the class was encouraged to try 4 different ways to do long division.  Some kids like the classic form, and others opted for the alternate methods.  The kids used at least 2 techniques, and then cross-checked the answers.  Then, they wrote up a word problem to fit around the math they'd just done.  Finally, they wrote an explanation of the techniques they used, and why they liked it.

Throughout the hour I was there, I heard the quiet cheers of excitement "Yes!  I got it!", and "Thanks" to a teammate who helped out.  Kids who pushed through the original material were quickly challenged with newer, deeper material.  Kids who hadn't yet mastered the content had many "teachers" from whom they could draw help. What struck me was the way the kids all found different ways to interact with the material.  But at the end of the class, they'd all mastered some new skills in math.  That's what it's really all about.

Well done, Ms. Shilling!  And congrats to all of the LASD teachers who make sure to reach our kids, and push them to achieve their personal best.