Differentiation– Intuition vs. Intention

As educators, we are expected to meet students where they are and then lift them to higher ground. Unfortunately, many public school teachers continue to use a one-size-fits-all approach to classroom instruction. When teachers juggle too many preps, extracurricular activities, and student numbers, they have little time to prepare engaging lesson plans, much less have the time to differentiate those lessons. Our teachers deserve this time because each student matters. Incorporating differentiation into instruction can improve the academic experience for all of our students.

We have all received a one-size-fits-all t-shirt, maybe at a blood drive or a fun run. How many of us have quickly retired that shirt to the bottom of a drawer? We might wear it when washing the car or mowing the lawn. We consider ourselves lucky if this shirt can even be worn in public. Unfortunately, our students are also lucky if they succeed with a teacher who has a one-size-fits-all approach to classroom instruction.

The typical class demographics consist of students of different ages, genders, socioeconomic statuses, and capabilities. One student may seem destined for Harvard and another student may seem destined to drop out. They may come from different cultures; they may speak different languages. These students may have different interests, learning styles, and readiness levels.

Advocates such as Carol Tomlinson tout the benefits of differentiation as student growth and motivation as well as efficiency in instruction. It makes sense. It makes so much sense that most teachers differentiate intuitively. When students needed extra time to complete a test, these teachers took those one-size-fits-all t-shirts and let out the seam. When students pointed and said la camiseta or manga corta, these teachers nodded and then took a sharpie and wrote t-shirt across the front of those shirts.

What is better than intuition? Not much. If anything, it is intention. If we take the time to understand our audience and adapt our message, our medium, and our product, we have better results. This is not only true of the classroom; it’s true in the business world, too. Effective marketers never target everyone with the same message; they can’t afford it. They specialize. They study demographics and psychographics in order to find and capitalize on niche markets.

If we apply this mindset to our classrooms, because we are, in effect, marketing ourselves and our content to an audience, we realize that first we must develop an understanding of our audience. We need to study interest inventories, learning style results, and test data. We need to take into consideration all of the other variables. We need to incorporate flexible grouping; as a matter of fact, we just need to be flexible… because each class—each student— is different.

This approach takes time. No one is asking every teacher to differentiate every lesson for each student every day. It is a continual work in progress. Maybe you will focus on one unit this year. Maybe you will focus on hands-on learners this year. Maybe you will focus on meeting the needs of your special education students this year. Maybe you will focus on your independent learners this year. Maybe you will focus on various strategies to tackle nonfiction text.

The point is to remember that no one ever walks into a department store in search of a one-size-fits-all t-shirt.


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Personality Types

I’ve been thinking about how I address different personality types in my classroom.  Not learning styles.  Just basic personality types.  Which personality type does my teaching style tend to favor, and which personality type does my teaching style exclude?  Identifying personality types in one thing, but adapting to meet the needs of each personality type is another.  I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it’s something I plan to explore.

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Curation: Making Sense of Information Overload

Most of my students don’t know how to curate information… even one of the brightest students I’ve ever had seemed amazed by Diigo and the Diigolet tool.  This is no fault of our media specialist who has been preaching the curation/bookmarking sermon for several years now.  It just hasn’t trickled down into many classrooms yet. If you want to know more about curation and bookmarking, I recommend swinging by this site.

I’ve incorporated Diigo into my classes during the research phase.  Why?  Because I had to do it in a grad school class recently and I’m guessing some of my seniors may be asked to curate information in the near future. Also, it was helping me research, find key quotes, summarize, and organize the information into Lists.

Diigo has recently changed its wonderful Lists to Outliners.  I’m in limbo over how I feel about the change.  I liked the Lists.  I guess I need more time to experiment with the Outliners.

In the whole scheme of content curation, Diigo is small potatoes, but it has enough functionality to be useful during research for high school research papers and presentations.  It’s useful to both the students and the teacher.

I’ve also used Symbaloo to help me prepare for this year’s lit mag theme.  As I’ve collected information, I moved the tiles around in a way that makes sense to me.

And that’s what it’s all about… making sense of all that information out there.  Before your students get too overwhelmed by it all, introduce them to a tool to help them manage it.

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Cubing: A Differentiation Strategy

Sometimes you need to really get in there and get messy…  If your students are, well, like students, they may have a tendency to gloss over an issue or fail to take the time to dig deeper during research.  Cubing is one way you can meet students on their level and then pull them to where you want them to be.  It can be done in groups or as individuals.  You can use it informally or formally.

I used cubing as a prewriting activity before a nonfiction writing assignment for the Society of Professional Journalists’ essay contest:  “Why is it important for journalists to seek the news and report it?”  My students initial brainstorms yielded predictable, flat, and basically uninformed responses.  I decided we were not ready for such a heavy question.  We needed more time to research and more context.  After doing an informal cubing pre-write, my students wrote with a better understanding of its importance and incorporated more concrete evidence.  They were better prepared to make parallels between investigative stories and distinguish differences between different countries’ governments treatment of the media.

Attacking a concept or an issue from 6 sides

Attacking a concept or an issue from 6 sides

Here is an example that helped me make sense of it all from Kentucky’s List of Differentiation Strategies:

  • Describe the Civil War.
  • Compare the Civil War to another war.
  • Associate the Civil War with other issues, topics, or concerns.
  • Analyze the Civil War by discussing the events and decisions that led to the war.
  • Apply the lessons you’ve learned from studying the Civil War. How does learning about the Civil War help you understand events, issues, topics, and decisions that still exist today?
  • Argue for or against the Civil War. Should the war ever have been fought? Take a stand and list your reasons.

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Yesterday, I attended #edcamponline for the second year in a row.  It’s a testament to the power of technology to connect people, and it’s just a great place to share ideas and seek advice.  It’s organized through Edcamp and the MIT Media Lab.  How did I find out about it?  Twitter, of course.  Kristen Swanson (@kristenswanson) is the Edcamp founder, and you can see her in the screenshot below.

Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 11.35.48 AM

This is basically the launch pad. It’s the online equivalent to meeting in a cafeteria or auditorium prior to dispersing to individual sessions in a traditional #edcamp experience. Welcomes, introductions, technology overviews, and… the session sign-up board, for which Edcamps are known, occur during this time.

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 9.30.24 AM

This is the actual session sign-up board where suggestions can be made and voted on. People can also volunteer to be facilitators. It can be accessed through a separate link found on the launch pad.

Once Google Hangouts are built for the Top Vote getters (and this happens in the blink of an eye), attendees can click and join the session that most intrigues them.  It’s a Google Hangout, which means audio/video are necessary to participate actively.  You can mute the audio/video, but you’re there to discuss ideas and ask questions.  No one cares if you’re in your pajamas or if your children are running wild in the background.  They’re all teachers; they understand.  This is where you spend most of your time.


I took a screenshot as soon as I entered the GoogleHangout. This poor lady was an innocent victim of my trigger finger.

Each session is limited to 10 people, and you can pop into other sessions if the conversation lags or several topics catch your eye.

I attended a session on digital portfolios.  I was impressed to learn that one sharer’s school has kindergarteners create portfolios and then maintain those portfolios through 3rd grade.  They use Book Creator because they’re a 1-to-1 iPad school.  I’ve had my students keep writing portfolios for years, but our school is thinking about incorporating portfolios for all students in all courses.  It was a great place to ask for advice.

Several important questions and considerations came up during the session, and I tweeted those questions and takeaways during the session using the #edcamponline hashtag.  It’s important to share what you’re learning during an Edcamp.  Some people even took notes in Google Docs and then shared their notes using the #edcamponline hashtag.  If you weren’t able to attend all the sessions (and no one could), you at least have a peak into what was shared and learned in other sessions.  Even now, if you went to Twitter and searched the #edcamponline hashtag, you could have access to these same notes, questions, and takeaways.

If you get a chance to attend next year… and you could because anyone can… you will be impressed with how it all comes together.

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How Universal is UDL, the Universal Design of Learning?

I have been trying to be more intentional about incorporating UDL (Universal Design of Learning) in my classes.  As the mother of a special education student, I can certainly see its appeal.

As a teacher, UDL is kicking my butt.

For those unfamiliar with UDL, it refers “to the design of instructional materials and activities to make the content information accessible to all children.”  It includes multiples means of representation, multiple means of action and expression, and multiple means of engagement.

For my multimedia design class, I usually begin with the final product and discussion.  I then model my approach.  I have also provided a written instruction of the process, and I have made a video tutorial that students can refer to once they begin working independently.  For formative assessment, I ask them to locate tools and summarize the steps as I walk around the room.  When it comes to their own original creations, I provide them with freedom to choose their own subjects and themes as long as they use original images and employ similar tools and techniques.

It’s that last step that stumps me.  I can’t think of another way that they could prove to me that they understand the process without actually employing the process.  I suppose they could describe it in an essay or create an infographic, but neither of those build their portfolios of original work.

I’m not sure how universal UDL is, but I’ll continue to ponder this.

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An Opportunity to Model “Grit”

It’s the beginning of the new school year, and our school is “transitioning.”  No, not like that.  We are lucky enough to be the recipients of a massive renovation, and we’re changing the culture of our school with a new administrative staff.  Is it feeling a little chaotic?  You bet.  Are these good problems to have?  You bet.

This is going to be a long year filled with construction, detours, displaced classrooms, floating teachers, faulty technology, and well, the unknown.  But you know what?  It’s an opportunity to model “grit,” which is Angela Duckworth’s term for perseverance and tenacity.  Duckworth once described it as follows:  “If it’s important for you to become one of the best people in your field, you are going to have to stick with it when it’s hard.”

There were so many last-minute problems to solve this week that our tech staff, custodial staff, and administrative staff couldn’t solve them all.  It forced the teachers to solve their own problems and take care of business.  And we did.

I’m fortunate to be surrounded by teachers who are determined to give their students a quality education and to achieve their program’s long-term goals in spite of any obstacles they might face.  I’ll admit, I don’t know how to teach grit… I doubt you’ll see it on one of my lesson plans.  I can model it indirectly, though.  The way I anticipate problems and the way I react to problems might be the best teaching I do all year.

It’s going to be a hard year, but it’s going to be the kind of year that separates “the best” from “the good.”

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Credentialing and Certifications

There’s a big push to credential students in Career Tech using nationally recognized certification tests.  In my area, we use the Adobe Certified Associate test.  If you teach student publications, multimedia design, photography, art, or something else involving Adobe software, you may want to consider preparing students for the test.  Maybe they take the test, maybe they don’t…  At least they’ll be prepared if they decide it’s something they want to do.  It’s about giving students options.

There’s even an ACA World Championship.


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“What did you read this summer?”

I begin each semester asking this question.  I get a few summer reading titles, I get a few other titles, and sometimes I get dead silence.  I then move on to film, music, art, and experiences.  It’s a good icebreaker.

It’s also a great insight into someone’s personality.  I want to get to know my students– don’t get me wrong– but I also have other motives.  I’m  jotting down their responses.  I use them as references throughout the semester.   I can talk about style whether I’m talking about Henry Miller’s Black Spring or Welcome to Nightvale.  I can talk about characterization whether I’m talking about Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” or Brooklyn Nine-Nine.  The point is that I meet my students where they are, and then I eventually lead them to higher ground.

I’m of an age that the pop culture references that I used when I first started teaching don’t mean anything to my current students.   Why aren’t they laughing at my Seinfield references?  “What do you mean, you haven’t seen the X-Files?  We’ve got some serious work to do.”

So, what did I read this summer?  Mostly, I read blogs and news feeds, but I also managed to work in a few real in-your-hand books and literary magazines.

Mostly fluff, a few re-reads, and some of our school’s summer readings… I don’t teach any of those works in my courses, but I like to talk to my students about what they’re reading.

Can’t see the titles?  Here you go:

  • Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers
  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (re-read)
  • Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis
  • The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
  • Paddle Your Own Canoe by Nick Offerman
  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
  • The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
  • The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (summer reading)
  • Island by Aldous Huxley
  • Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy  (re-read)
  • The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick
  • The Pinch
  • The Paris Review

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High School Publications… in the news

I spend the majority of my day with students who work on school publications. Recently, Angela Washeck, a journalist, spent some time in a high school publications class, and she reflected on her experience.  She wasn’t impressed.  Wascheck contends that high school journalism isn’t preparing students for a digital world.  PBS’s Adam Macksl then posted a rebuttal to Washeck’s observations.   Macksl argues that high school journalism is more about developing a process and learning how to work within a team.

I agree with both of them.

I assume that my students will not become journalists.  It’s a noble career, but I have never encouraged a student to pursue journalism.  Some have, but they did so on their own accord.  I use my publications classes as a way for students to learn about themselves and their world.  I make connections between the skills they’re learning and other career areas.  I also recognize that we live in a digital world, and regardless of whether my students are going to be engineers or nurses, I hope that they develop the ability to adapt to different technologies while in my class.

Perhaps the best thing that came from this exchange between Washeck and Macksl is that people were actually talking about high school publications and their worth.



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