When you read Carol Tomlinson’s work she makes it all sound so easy, that it becomes almost overwhelming, but starting with small steps in your planning can help you overcome the complexities of differentiating the classroom.
I arrived at my class and a quick glance around told me I had a number of characters who were going to test my skills as a teacher. I had received in the mail the latest Tomlinson and Imbeau (2010) offering and keen to try this new approach, began, as suggested, with exploring with my students – who they were as students. This would help me to learn more about them, but also maybe help them to understand who they are as learners. Invite them to participate in the vision of running a differentiated classroom.
We began with a discussion of who we were as people, they created bio poems (from the Teacher toolkit in Tomlinson and Imbeau) – utilising a nearby computing lab, and completed an identikit of themselves. Graphing me (again from the book) gave me a sense of their own view of their strengths and weaknesses in the classroom. Then I asked them to complete a learning styles test (based on the work of Howard Gardner) – introducing this with a short activity on background, what we did in the summer, that had them moving around the classroom, who was born here, who was born not in this town, not in this state and so on. The link, even as we have different backgrounds and things we like to do, so we learn differently. Then we looked at the results – and that was when I began to get very worried. The extensive learning styles test showed that more than 50% of my students tested themselves as being bodily-kinaesthetic and interpersonal learners. And only two were linguistic! Oh help.
We talked about the results and what it meant for them. And then using all that information they now had about themselves we looked at what they wanted to achieve for the year. And I asked them to write this in a letter addressed to myself.
Armed with all this information it was time for me to sit down and re-plan my year.
And this is the problem, this is where it can get very difficult. You see when you know your students, who can do what, what they like; when they have shared themselves with you, then they can hold you accountable. No longer are you able to hide behind a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Especially as I now knew that I had 30 different ‘sizes’ in that classroom. And I hadn’t even got to those who were ESL, a highly able student, the student with learning difficulties, the behavioural issues. How do you support the learning of 30 very individual learners in a classroom, get through the curriculum, help them to progress, knowing that many of them don’t like sitting still for too long!
You see student differences do matter, and a class will be a better one for them and the teacher if that teacher teaches them with those differences in mind. That is the essence of differentiation. But it involves a significant layer of complexity. And the ability to reflect on your practice. But taking things one small step at a time, well we can make that difference, helping your student to success.