Friday, April 12, 2013

FLAG Presentation: Creating a Differentiated Classroom Without The Headache

I was honoured to be asked to present at the Foreign Language Association of Georgia's annual conference in Augusta this year. I decided to present on a topic that I have been very self conscious about this year: Differentiation. It seems to be a very popular "buzz word" in education now and often throws teachers for a loop. There are twenty billion definitions it seems and every person has different standards for what it would look like in a perfect classroom. My hope was to provide real examples of differentiation and help take some of the pressure off of classroom teachers when it comes to differentiation. So, without further ado: Creating a Differentiated Classroom Without the Headache!

The Rules
  1. Keep it simple - As teachers we can over complicate things, not on purpose, but just because we like to think of every angle of how an activity will work and what it will mean for us and our students. As I've experimented this year with differentiation, I've found the simpler it is, the easier it works and the better it works. 
  2. It's all about choice - Bearing in mind the first rule, this one is incredibly easy to follow. Make it about the students choosing. This is the simplest form of differentiation. You can limit the choices, but ultimately, let the students choose. Provide guidelines, but let them be the keepers of their educational destiny. They will thank you for it and you won't be reading the same 3 paragraph essay/story over and over again.
  3. It's okay to relinquish control, every once in awhile - I made this a rule as a follow up to rule #2. As teachers, we are asked to always be in control of our classrooms. I have found though, that the more you try to control differentiation like you would classroom management, the more unbearable it becomes. It's okay to say "yes" every once in a while when a kid says, "Hey... what about...." You never know where it may go.
  4. The more you do it, the easier it becomes - Practice makes perfect... or in this case, practice makes fun. The more you try differentiation, the less afraid you become and, if you relinquish a little control, let kids make choices, and you relinquish a little control... it can become a whole lot of fun!
  5. You define the parameters, they get to show you their style - Often it is said that we teachers should teach life skills. Why not take this and apply to all classes with differentiation? Define the parameters (grammar topics, sentence limits, vocabulary targets) and let them have creative freedom. This will make the grading process more interesting as well as make it more fun for them (as well as anyone observing your classroom!)
The Ideas
  • You probably already do it! - You may not realise it, but every time you review vocabulary, grammar, culture, do a warm up or summarising activity... you are differentiating the content. By reviewing, acting out, drawing, giving synonyms, "previewing", or answering those quick "student driven" questions, you differentiate! Point this out to your supervisors, parents, and make note of it. You'll be surprised by how much you do it already.
  • Only Half the Story - Differentiate the content by breaking students into groups and only giving them part of the information (e.g. the first/second half of a story, a list of half the vocab from a chapter/activity/story, a picture that evokes certain words/ideas/phrases, etc.). Ask students to come up with a list of what they think the item is about, what emotions it evokes, what they think is going to happen, what they think happened, etc. Then, share with the rest of the class and start a discussion. If you look at the photos in my presentation (listed below), you can see what kind of words a well put together activity can evoke. Use this as an opening activity, or as a tool of summary, or a pre-reading strategy.
  • Student Choice Assignment - This is all about choice. I collect four grades each chapter/unit --> a classwork grade that I choose, a classwork grade that they choose, a grade from their computer study day, and a quiz grade of their choosing. I reserve the right to collect any assignment, and I set specific parameters for each assignment. Students then choose their best work. This ensures that their grade isn't reflecting a day where they were sick, absent, or what have you and they get to show me exactly what they found valuable or learned. Here are my parameters for the three grades they get to choose:
    1. classwork grade - must be an activity that took the majority of class and pertains to our stories.
    2. Quia lab day - students must work for the entire period on our Quia activities. They may fill out a questionnaire or base their grade off of time spent/notes taken.
    3. Timed Write quiz grade - students complete a series of timed writes (described below). They choose their best and submit for a quiz grade.
  • Embedded Stories - You may wish to read this earlier write up about embedded stories. I find myself doing these more and more. In my presentation (listed below), you see an upper level example based off of Ovid and a first year example based off of a story we read. Embedding involves taking the story and simplifying it. This can take many forms like a wordle or a summary for pre-reading, a very simply version for Day 1, a dictatio (dictation), a more complex version, so on and so forth. The idea is to severely limit vocabulary to make the language become comprehensible for students. You can lead students with an embedded story through a dictatio, a read and discuss, a guided notes session, a reader's theatre, etc. By embedding it, you create 2, 3, 4, even 5 versions that students can learn from and you've increased your way of reaching them. 
  • Timed Write - Start with 5 minutes after a discussion or reading. Ask students to silently write for the entire 5 minutes. Everything they remember. No aids. Ask them to do their best. If you do this consistently  you will find that you can keep track of their progress, as can they. My students often tell me excitedly how their word count has increased or how they notice certain minuscule details about their writing. I love hearing that. When I collect these, I NEVER grade them on grammar. I simply grade them on understanding. As you do this, students will start complaining about the time given. This is when you increase the time you give, eventually getting to 15-20 minutes. 
In my presentation and handout, you will find a few more examples as well as my resources and contact information. I hope you find this information useful and please feel free to contact me with any questions or stories! The more ideas the better! 

Happy Spring and happy differentiating!