Music a symbol for the differentiated classroom

There is something magical about attending a classical music concert. Oops, did I just lose you? Hang in there, I am going somewhere with this!

You enter the concert hall and find your seat. People are murmuring
quietly. It’s all very decorous. Then the orchestra takes their seat and tune
in to a note played by the second violinist. The first violinist enters to
applause. Then the conductor, usually to a standing ovation – before anything has
happened. He takes his place in front of the orchestra on his podium. His back
to the audience.

Then there is a hush. Quiet. Expectation rises.

He raises his arms, and – music. Depending on the piece, often
the violins begin. He cues in the cellos, the trumpets with a glance, flutes, oboes
and clarinets follow. At some point all the instruments play. They may play
pianissimo (very softly) or forte (loud). But they don’t play what ever they
want, no, they play according to the direction of the conductor, following a composition
– a plan. At times one will be sitting still, another waiting for their turn, a
third intensely playing, whilst the fourth is turning a page looking ahead.
Even when there are 3 flutes, one may be playing whilst the others wait. They
know their place, but always under the direction of the conductor. Ahh, I think
you may see where I am going!

The magic of a classroom symphony

Yes, classroom practice. How many times have you had a classroom
plan go according to how you had imagined it and it was like, well a piece of well-orchestrated
music! You walk in, the students are all there, no late comers, expectant. They
have what they need. The technology works. The lesson plan runs smoothly. No
one steps out of line. The end of lesson review shows students have all learned
something! The dream, right?

But it need not be a dream. This is how a classroom can run.
Each time. With careful and intentional planning, using a differentiation classroom
curriculum framework.

Differentiated planning

Differentiated planning is like a written piece of music. I
am no composer. But my son is a pianist, and I have seen some of the
compositions he plays! Just for the Piano! Piano pieces are written using two
clefs, for two hands. I am looking at a Beethoven piece now. The right hand (treble
clef) will often be playing two notes at once, the left hand (bass clef) may
well be playing 3 notes at once. If I add in other musical instruments, more
notes. Each playing in harmony with each other.

Our classrooms are like that you know. Each student plays
their own tune. Brings their own melody to the table. We as teachers need to
become like the conductor on the stage, directing, guiding, a nod here, a glance
there. Bringing out the best of each of our students. Softening one, raising
another, allowing one to speak, asking a third to be quiet for a time. But this
can only happen when we differentiate what we teach. When we plan to allow them
all to play their own tunes, but in harmony.

3 steps to the differentiated classroom

How can I make my classroom symphony sound like a beautiful piece of music? There are 3 steps as teachers we need to take in differentiated planning:

  1. Adopt of a piece of music (the curriculum framework) – There are several curriculum frameworks which will give you the guidelines and direction for successfully differentiating your classroom. June Maker, Frank Williams, Sarah Kaplan, Carol Tomlinson are just a few writers who have written extensively on this way of teaching, sharing evidence-based classroom teaching ideas. Choose one that works best for you, that you would be comfortable to implement.
  2. Understanding the different musicians and what and how they play (your students) – Understand your students. I have said this before and cannot emphasise this enough. Knowing your students is a key step to successfully planning for your classroom. Spend the extra time to understand their preferred learning styles, their interests, what they want to achieve (see here how I have done this previously).
  3. Plan the playing of the piece (plan the learning) – Use the chosen framework to think about each of your students. Have you ever seen a conductor’s music? His book is much larger than that of the musicians he is directing. All the instruments are present right there in front of him (see image below). And during rehearsals he will make copious notes, about emphasis, who will play loud, who soft.

Conductor's music sheet - a symbol for differentiated planning in the classroom

Differentiated planning in practice

Let’s quickly look at an example! At times I teach English.
In planning a series of novel lesson using Williams framework for encouraging
creative thinking, I might begin with his creative reading/creative listening

I know I will have students who’s learning styles preference
literacy, others who are more auditory learners and others who are visual
learners. I may also have those who have additional learning needs that demands
different forms of literacy engagement. The strategies I have chosen, which are
about developing in my students the ability to generate new ideas and
information through listening or reading, will meet many of those needs.  

I start my planning by sourcing a set of novels at different
levels, so that all students have access. I will also grab the audio book – I love
having the class listen to these together. Not only does it give everyone access
to the novel to be studied, but the skill of building meaning from listening to
text is as important as reading. Finally, if available, the graphic novel is another
great option for student engagement, encouraging visualisation skills.

The end of the first movement

The result of my classes engagement with the novel is that
all students have read/heard/or seen the novel, with preference given to their specific
needs, strengths or abilities. The first movement in my classroom symphony is
complete. I am ready to conduct the rest of the music.