Beyond the obvious that is we have kids in our room that would not be successful if we did not differentiate then there are many other reason why we should do it too.
1. Every student is different
2. Engagement leads to success
3. Helps our most vulnerable students
4. Sets students up for the 21st learning environment
5. Flexiblity is more valuable than rigidity
Here is why I differentiate
Well in all reality I have to. In the past five years I have yet to have a classroom where the majoirity of my students were working at the same level. Differentiation does not mean that I only do this for regular stream vs special education stream students. It mean to do it for all students.
In a combined great classroom that has more than 50% of boys spanning over to grades. With an average of one third requiring special education needs not including a variety of mental health issues, differentiation becomes very important.
Why I differentiate
I differentiate because it makes my life easier. When I differentiate I have less classroom management issues, more work is completed, student like learning, and I can reach more students easily without planning multiple activities for the same learning task.
I differentiate because it lets me watch a student who is completely disengaged with writing who refuses to write become one of my most creative writers.
I differentiate because it allows me to see the student hiding in the corner for who she really is a fun creative and engaging kid who has a lot of value to add but in her own way.
I differentiate because boys learn differently than girls and to not understand this means alienating more than 50% of my class.
I differentiate because I teach two grades at once so I need to understand that all of the students in my class are starting from a different starting point. Not doing this would mean pulling my hair out. I don’t have time to plan 2-6 different seperate lesson for each period to meet the needs of all my students so instead I plan one and make it open ended with multiple entry points so that it is accessible for all of my students. Plan once, flexible delivery, multiple entry and exit points, everyone learning.
I differentiate because when kids are bored they act out. They’re smart, why would they want to do something if it doesn’t somehow connect with what they’re supposed be learning. They can see through busywork and they need a purpose for learning.
I differentiate because in the world that we are living in collaboration, communication, creativity, problem solving, critical thinking and more are essential skills the students need to develop in order to be successful in their future world
I differentiate because the parents of my lowest achieving students just want what’s best for their kids and they cry when their kids are labeled with special education needs. By differentiating I can show them the special-education diagnosis is not a life sentence. Their children can and will achieve when given the correct supports in the classroom.
I differentiate because I like to see students become confident in their ability. And accept that they may learn differently but can still learn. It is a powerful door that is opened for their potential. Recognizing that all students can achieve is a core belief that is essential when working with students. Although I may not be able to breakthrough all barriers that inhibit student success, and I may not be the person to do this for every student, I try. And with some success I am able to make a difference for those that are ready.
I differentiate because I want to show students how they can differentiate for themselves to advocate for their own learning. When a student understands how they learn, you make it possible to advocate for themselves. They can then better access what is being presented to them independently. This makes the student’s life the life of their future teachers easier.
I differentiate because being flexible and accommodating is actually much easier than being rigid and inflexible. The simple act of being flexible in the classroom, although difficult at first to shift to this mindset in the classroom, in practice makes teaching, planning and learning easier. Inquiry is an amazing approach to teaching and learning and I would encourage you to walk through the fire and see what amazing things can happen when you give it a try.
I differentiate because it makes a difference. I make a difference. It helps my students make a difference. And this is essentially why I became a teacher. Differentiation makes me a better teacher.
Join the Conversation
Why do you differentiate. Hop on over to my Facebook page and join in on the conversation by finishing this sentence.
If you are getting started with inquiry you may wonder where to start and how to prepare for something that is student led. Although using an inquiry approach removes you, the teacher, from the absolute power position you, still have plenty to do to prepare yourself to get ready for inquiry. I wanted to share a few of the steps that I take to plan my inquiry units.
Planning for inquiry is different. There is more to do ahead of time. You have to be purposeful and knowledgable. However, once this is planned the day to day planning is so much less as you work with students day to day to direct the learning together.
Here are a few of my steps for planning inquiry.
Look at Your Standards / Curriculum
What are you expected to teach? Get familiar with the contents of the learning expectations. Where does the expected learning start and stop?
Pull it apart
Start to take the expectations apart. Put them in your own language. In the Ontario curriculum, it is often structured in a similar fashion. Big idea expectations are first, skills are second and basic knowledge is third. Knowing this will help you to decode the and order the curriculum in an easier way. It is also important to differentiate between knowing the difference between the expectation and the examples. The examples are just that, examples they are not the learning outcomes. This will help you to know that following different lines and topics within the larger theme will be okay to do so. I will often re-word the expectations at this point into meaningful language so that it is easier to understand.
Put it in order
Once I have pulled the curriculum expectations apart I then begin to put them into order. In a split grade classroom, this is especially important because you will need to order the learning in a way that makes sense. But remember that you are going to approach this with an inquiry perspective so you are looking at the knowledge that students will need to have first, second and third, in order to meet the expectations of the big ideas for inquiry. Doing this will help you to guide students where they need to go.
For example, in the matter and materials unit, students will need to know what matter is and the vocabulary. The best part is that students will naturally ask these questions when presented with the answers. Show them a vocab card with the word sublimation and they will naturally ask what does that mean and try to guess by using their background knowledge.
If you know where they need to go you can plant the clues to get them there. But by doing it this way you spark curiosity and interest as people naturally try to solve problems and look for answers. This is why putting the learning in order is important. You are not necessarily planning the lessons but planning the trajectory and logical progression of the learning.
Find common ground
If you are like me you might be teaching a combined class. At the very least you will have students in your classroom that require accommodations and modifications beyond the grade level you have been assigned. So this is where you need to find common ground and activities where there is common ground.
Sometimes the content is so different that you can’t and you need to look for similar tasks with different subjects like experiments or research opportunities to align together so that the instructions are the same but the learning is different. To differentiate the learning for different abilities you need to plan some tasks that have multiple entry points so that the output of students can be adjusted to meet individualized learning needs.
Begin to Research
I cannot stress this enough, if the teacher doesn’t understand the content then the students
won’t either. If you are conducting inquiry you need to know your stuff. You can’t always rely on textbooks.
Hop on google, ask your own questions and know the content. I often have to do this when creating my units. Learning the content at a more in depth level than your students is important.
Do you understand how a catalyst is used to speed up the polymerization process to make plastic? This was one of the many topics I explored when creating my unit on matter.
Planting the Evidence
Starting your learning off with a provocation and beginning to build your WonderWall is animportant step to begin your inquiry. This is where your selection of materials will help you to set the stage for your inquiry and to help you to guide the students to focus on the questions that relate to what they MUST learn. If you put at word card with the word Sublimation then usually at least one student will ask the question “What is sublimation?” By setting up your WonderWall discussion with activities and questions such as
Look at the artifacts and cards, one at a time share what you notice about something you see
How could you sort these artifacts
What questions do you have or what do you wonder about what you see?
In my human body unit choosing a picture of a microscopic image of the air sacs in the lungs inevitably leads to the questions “why do we have grapes in our body?” or “What are the grapes used for?” This opens the door to a lesson or activity about the parts of the lungs.
You Don’t Need All of the Answers
Yes you need to be prepared and yes you need the knowledge of you subject content but there will come a time where you simply just don’t know the answers to your student’s questions. Sooo… it’s okay, you don’t have to know and you can admit it. Simply say “wow that is such an amazing question we really should look into that further. Let’s look it up!” In inquiry, you are the guide not the giver and constructor of knowledge. Allow your students to see and watch what you do when you don’t know the answer. Being a model will show them what to do when they encounter a question or problem.
But this is inquiry, sometimes the learning happens in finding the answer themselves and their ability to retain this information is dependent on their ability to find their own answers.
In fact, one of the most amazing lessons I learned through my inquiry journey was to stop answering their questions (even when I did know the answers).
I had one moment of ‘out of body’ (not really…but for some reason I was super reflective that day) where I realized that the students were simply just looking to me to answer everything for them. Learning and struggling to stop myself from answering their questions was hard, but watching them learn to solve their own problems and find answers to their own questions was very rewarding.
Inquiry is different from traditional teaching. This is not traditional unit planning or the backwards design model. You do not plan the activity that students will complete at the end. If you are looking for an activity that everyone will do you are in the wrong place.
Inquiry means the students help to guide their learning. There are still teacher directed lessons, there are still key concepts they NEED to learn and be assessed on.
However, you can guide and lead the student there in authentic ways.
Save a few steps…
Need a break and want to skip a few steps? Since I have done this already why reinvent the wheel. I may not be able to help you teach it day to day, but you might as well benefit from the time I have already put into planning for inquiry lessons. Check out some of the grade 4 and 5 inquiry science and social study lessons in my TPT store.
Whenever I check the teacher message boards that I am a part of, I always see many requests for ideas for culminating tasks for the various units that a teacher teaches throughout the year. This stems, I believe, from the backward design process where teachers begin to plan their new unit of study by first planning the culminating activity. However, if you follow this blog, you may have realized that I am moving away from the teacher-directed model of instruction and moving towards an inquiry approach where the students and teachers authentically develop the culminating task within some standard parameters.
The problem, as I see it, is not in having a culminating task but in planning an event or task that limits a student’s creativity or expression in order to do what the teacher tells them. Placing restrictions on what students do to show you what they learned is where you are restricting student creativity. I know that there is a lot of anxiety as teachers when we don’t have complete and total control. I get it, I myself am a recovering control freak (ok maybe not so much recovering), but I have changed the aspects that I control within the classroom. At the end of the unit, if every student’s product looks the same then how creative and differentiated is that really.
1. Plan the criteria, not the product
It is possible for students to design a variety ways to show their learning that respects their interests and individuality while all still meeting the same expectations. These little projects are called “show what you know” projects. With these we make a list of concepts that student need to know about these are generally derived from our learning throughout the unit. It is then the student’s responsibility to design a project that meets these criteria. How they present it is not as important as what they present.
2. Fun means differentiated
Many times as teachers are requesting help to find project ideas, they are also requesting fun and engaging activities for their students. Generally, as teachers, we are not interested in boring our students and making learning disengaging. However, we teach individuals, not robots and their interests are their own. If you want them engaged, let them choose the format. At first, many students will probably pick traditional presentation strategies. However, throughout the year as one or two students begin to push the traditional boundaries other students will start to take more risks in their style to pursue their own interests that reflect their skills. We have to remember that in our classrooms there are many students who have strengths in different areas and those that do not fit well in a traditional classroom will struggle with traditional tasks but can and will amaze you with their ability to show you what they know in alternate ways such as using Minecraft, designing a song or dance, or creating a website.
3. Student-led inquiry
Inquiry means that students are helping to lead and own learning. They are not leading their learning if where they are going and what they are doing is already mapped out. This does not mean that we don’t have to plan because we do. There will be certain concepts that are essential to building their knowledge and understanding that they can learn what it is that they are supposed to learn. However, these are general. If you have ever seen my units on TPT you will know that they generally follow the same format. Provocation/Wonderwall-> Big Idea / Questions -> Building Background Knowledge and Understanding Lessons-> Knowledge Building Circles -> Reflecting Activities -> General Research Project -> Open Ended Sharing of Knowledge. You will also notice that the pages are general enough that there are very few question and answer rote learning pages. Students are generating their own knowledge and reflecting on this. However, the focus and scope of these lessons allow a variety of different avenues and flexibility for the teacher so that each year your focus could be a little different. The shift relies on the teacher understanding that they are guiding the learning not giving the learning.
4. Share the workload
there is a quote that is often used with inquiry that talks about the workload. The teacher should not be working harder than the students. In reality, this is true. If you are working so hard to plan every little detail then simply just giving the students work. This is not inquiry. Inquiry involves students and teachers working together. If you want an engaging activity for your students, ask them to tell you what they should do. Plan it together. Instead of taking hours and hours at home planning a lesson for students. Stop planning at home and plan with them during knowledge builiding circles. Even if that means that you pull out the curriculum document and list the things that they need to know about and asking questions about these things and then going from there. Let them help you plan it. Do it with them, and save yourself some time.
5. Learn the content, deeply
This has to be the biggest advantage for me in planning detailed units for TPT. It has forced me to really learn the content. Stop spending your time planning the unit and the lessons and learn the content and not at an elementary level but at a high school level. Read the Wikipedia page on tension and compression and challenge yourself to be able to understand it. This will help you when you go off script in class. If all you know is what is on the lesson plan then it will be that much harder to teach this using an inquiry perspective. You need to know your content at a much more complex level. This is why it takes me so much longer to create a complete unit and why I include teacher background notes for you so that you can understand the concepts that you teach.
Are you ready for inquiry? Use this quick checklist to help you get started and plan ahead for inquiry. It’s in my free resource library along with many other tools that you can access free. Just sign up below.
If you want to connect with me about inquiry why not join me on facebook inside my teaching with inquiry facebook group. Join the conversation every Monday at 9 pm as we talk about all things inquiry and teaching.
You just found out you are teaching a split grade class next year. For most teachers the idea of teaching a split is overwhelming. You have twice as many curriculum expectations or standards to teach and no more time to teach it within. Sometimes you are lucky enough to get independent students. However if you are in a small school like me you just get all the kids in two particular grades. This will again be my fourth year teaching a split. I have been given opportunities to organize the classes into straight grades in the past however I have always negotiated that two splits were better than two separate straights. This has worked out for many different reasons including the benefits for the students and the opportunity to work with a teaching partner.
Reducing stress when you are preparing for a split grade classroom can make some of the challenges of a split class less stressful. Here is how I reduce my stress when getting ready for September and planning for a split grade classroom.
1) Long Range Planning – This is a vital step in reducing your stress come September. Developing a plan that outlines what you are going to teach when and managing your pacing and timing to help to keep you on track is also very important. 2) Teach Things Together – This is necessary to save your sanity. Math and language can easily be taught together. Looking at the curriculum and mapping out the curriculum to find where the differences between the two curriculums for each grade level. Many boards have this done for you. The guides to effective instruction in Ontario have this in the math curriculum for you already. This makes it easier. Language is also very similar between grades. Find the slight differences between the grades and teach them together extending the older grade where necessary.
3) Differentiate – Plan open-ended tasks that can easily be adaptable to various levels. For math this means increasing or decreasing the difficulty of the numbers in the questions depending on where students are. This means that everyone gets the exact same page but the numbers that they use to complete the worksheet or assigned problem changes depending on the students needs. In language that means meet them where they are in their language development and conference with them more than teaching the to support them in moving forward in their writing and reading development. Lots of conferencing and less time standing in front of them teaching will save you planning time and stress. Using an inquiry approach in writing and reading allows students to work at their own pace and develop their skills in a more natural way.
4) Flip Flop Instruction – sometimes when the curriculum does not match so you cannot teach it together. Subjects such as science and social studies are much harder to combine completely. In this case, I find that the best strategy is to plan for 20min of teacher supported instruction followed by 20min of student independent work tasks. With an inquiry approach that is occurring in classrooms these days, this allows for wonderings and conversations circles during your teacher supported time and opportunities to research and search for information while you are working with the other group. Using techniques such as interactive notebooks for independent work time and research booklets help to support this and provide students with some structure when working independently.
5) No More Stress – Don’t reinvent the wheel. Let me do the planning for you. Long range plans for a 4/5 split are available in my TPT store.Specialized science and social studies units that are specifically designed for split grade teachers helps you to reduce your planning and get a head start on enjoying your summer and free time a bit more. Whether you teach a 4/5 or another junior split the units in my TPT store will allow you to use a framework to support your planning at least reducing your planing by half.
How do you reduce your planning stress with a new assignment?
Creating a wonder wall is a great tool to use in inquiry to build a space where students can
get students thinking
share their learning throughout their inquiry
keep ideas concepts and questions visible
interact with others
share standards, learning goals, and assessment criteria
share evidence of learning
This post is part 1 in my inquiry series. To learn more about inquiry click through to see my many other posts about inquiry.
Also why not connect and stay up to date on all things inquiry by joining my teaching with inquiry facebook group.
What’s a Wonder Wall?
Wonder wall boards are built at the beginning of a unit and are kept alive throughout student learning. These are living examples of student learning throughout the unit.
Wonder wall boards are built at the beginning of a unit and are kept alive throughout student learning. These are living examples of student learning throughout the unit.
Building this board starts when you begin to provoke students thinking about the topic you are beginning to study. Students will look at artifacts and ask questions about what they are seeing. They activate prior knowledge and share this with others in a knowledge building circle.
Type of Display Board
This is an example of the board that I use for my wonder wall. It is a trifold board. One side is for my fourth graders and the other side for my fifth graders.
Sometimes I use these trifold boards and other times I just use my bulletin boards but this is great if you are lacking wall space and it also works to move around the classroom for students to use when you are working with them.
Here are some of the wonder wall boards from my classroom
I use artifacts to help provoke conversations and interests in a topic at the beginning of a unit. Artifacts can be many things
Most of the time I use pictures that I print out in colour. Especially if I don’t have access to real life objects.
If I have easily accessible artifacts like my rock collection or some small appliances from home I might use those as well.
The Role of Questions
To use a wonder wall at the beginning of an inquiry means that you provoke students thinking about a topic. Providing them with artifacts that gets them thinking.
Having them ask questions is the next step.
Students will take sticky notes and ask questions about what they see. Use these doodle notes in my resource library to help your students keep track of what they are thinking.
As students share thier background knowledge and their questions the board is built. These questions are the driving force behind your learning.
Group their questions into themes, use them to develp learning goals and success criteria and to find gaps in their knowledge that may require a teacher directed lesson to fill.
Put student questions beside the artifact or picture on the wonder wall and throughout the learning strive to answer these questions and keep track of unanswered questions.
It is through student questions that learning is constructed.
Another thing I learned while implementing my wonder wall is that when students ask questions I really really want to answer them. I want to share my knowledge and have them soak it all in and teach them something. I am a teacher!! this is what I do!! I know stuff and teach about it!! STOP STOP STOP. I had to get myself to stop!
This was not what inquiry was about. Sure, I am a teacher, but I am not as powerful or as knowledgable as Google. I mentally needed to stop myself and concentrate on not answering their questions but to ask them to add their questions to the Wonder Wall and allow them to figure out the answers for themselves.
I knew that I was going to lead them through my lessons to these answers but I needed to stop just giving them the information. They would now have to start working for this information because I was not going to give them an easy way out.
Sure later on in the unit, we would have a discussion on certain topics and I would explain different concepts to them. BUT we did this together. I was not teaching them I was facilitating their learning.
Giving them the tools to let them find the answers to their questions on their own.
And you know what…a funny thing happened.
They started learning faster than I had expected.
They took those questions home and found out the answers to them. They would read books during independent time and find the answers to our questions. They were discussing these things with their parents at home.
It was amazing to see how excited they were about learning these concepts which in turn also allowed our discussion at school to become more vibrant and engaging.
Sure there were times when a teacher directed lesson was necessary especially in the technical aspects of the units. But overall it was great to see them apply their learning in new and interesting ways.
If you would like to see how I made my Wonder Wall for these units check out my Video below
I now include wonder wall cards in most of my units to help teachers get started with artifacts for students and teachers to use to use as a provocation to get started with the units that they are teaching. If you are interested in the cards that were used for the wonder wall on the video you can get them in the two units below.
Learn more about inquiry. Next up in my inquiry series
Its done!!! My 4/5 Long range plans are finally completed. Having such detailed plans this past fall was a life saver. Being very pregnant with a toddler at home I didn’t have lots of time to plan these long range plans were a great tool that sat on my desk as a reference. It helped to stay focused and on task and make sure that I had taught what I needed to before I left for my leave. Even my LTO appreciated knowing what I had already covered and what she needed to still teach. As I watched my colleagues without plans struggle to stay on task I was relieved that I spent the time last summer to have these complete and ready to go.
As you can see from my Term #1 plans I include details about literacy planning, Read Alouds, big ideas, Writing Forms, and Comprehension Strategies. As well as the math units for both grades that can easily be taught together. New I have included more detail for the social studies and science curriculum including Inquiry Questions, Big Ideas, and Culminating Tasks for both of the grades. However I have removed Physical Education as I will no longer be teaching this subject. OPHEA is a great resource and made up the bulk of my physical education program