Differentiation: A model lesson

I have been thinking a lot about snowflakes lately, which is strange because I live in California and it is spring.  However, my kindergartner is completely fascinated by snowflakes, mostly because each one is unique, like no other in the universe.  And not to sound trite, but so are students.  Unique.  Like no other in the universe.  Recently I spoke at a career panel and was asked by a sixth grade girl, “Why do you like teaching?”  I stopped and thought about why I liked being a teacher.  What did teaching mean to me?  As I looked out over the sea of young women sitting there, I knew my answer.   I like the puzzle of teaching to the unique.  I thrive on figuring out how to make EVERY child learn what is just right for them.  I gauge my success as a teacher upon how effectively I succeed at this.   I believe that it is this constant need to advocate for every learner that makes this profession so very interesting.  Let’s face it–it requires flexibility, creativity and  plain old mental Olympics to achieve this in the classroom.

We have discussed differentiation before and I think that most educators would argue that differentiation is a good thing.   I recently participated in a fascinating dialogue with other educators (Thanks, @Parentella!) about differentiation and individualization of education.  We were in agreement.  This is critical for success of all learners.  This is the key to the achievement gap.  The problem is in the actual practice.   At a recent instructional seminar, we focused on differentiation.  I sat with a teacher who said to me plaintively, “But I can’t even imagine how to begin doing this in my classroom.”   I think that a lot of educators get stuck on the “how”, rather than the “why” of differentiation.  Together this teacher and I broke down a lesson so that it was differentiated for her students’ needs.  Reading teachers, get ready, because I am going to share it in all of its glory here:

Lesson: Character Analysis

Grade Level: 3-5

Objective: Students will be able to analyze a character by identifying a character trait and supporting it with evidence.

Materials: Any fictional reading selection or biographical reading selection

Our goal is to have students be able to read a selection, choose one of the characters, assign the character an appropriate character trait and then use evidence from the text to support the material.  All in all, this is a tall order, but an important skill for reading comprehension.   Because this requires students to be working at the upper end of Bloom’s taxonomy of thinking skills (analysis, synthesis and evaluation), educators may find that students struggle with this.  As with any differentiated lesson, I would have pre-assessed where students are with this skill.  In this classroom, the educator found that there were students in three general groups of skill level:

1) Students that could not identify an appropriate trait, could not find evidence, and had no idea how to write a response that was appropriate.

2) Students that could identify an appropriate trait, could not find evidence or write an appropriate response.

3) Students that could identify an appropriate trait and find evidence, but needed practice writing an appropriate response.

Within these groups there was some variance on how successful students were.  In order to meet the needs of all of the students, here is how the instructor broke it down:

Lesson A: (for group 1):

  • The student is provided a character and a character trait.  The student uses post-it notes to identify 3 supporting pieces of evidence.  On the post-it notes, the student writes why it proves that the character is the trait.

Lesson B (for group 2):

  • The student is provided a character and a list of character traits.  The student chooses an appropriate character trait.  The student uses post-it notes to identify 3 supporting pieces of evidence.  On the post-it notes, the student writes why it proves that the character is the trait.  The student uses these notes to construct a character analysis response.

Lesson C (for group 3):

  • The student is asked to choose a character from the selection and also choose a character trait that defines this character.  The student may or may not use post-it notes to identify 3 supporting pieces of evidence.  The student uses his/her notes to construct a character analysis response.

What is great about this type of lesson, is that students are working with increasing complexity, in a way that is just right for them.  What is also great is that the assignment can be printed on strips of paper and glued into a journal.  This allows the student to have some privacy about what is “just right” for him or her.  I also found that this type of lesson was very manageable.  The key to making this work is to constantly reassess and make sure that students are participating in the activity that is right for him or her.  Beware of the temptation to “track” students into one of these groups and not moving them on to the next level of learning when they are ready.

So, cheers!  Try it out and let me know how it works.  Better yet, share with us how YOU are differentiating in your classroom!

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2 Responses to “Differentiation: A model lesson”

  1. The Dos and Don’ts of Differentiated Instruction
    11:56 am on May 27th, 2010

    [...] of the key reasons that some teachers resist this educational approach. Read article or check out model lessons for [...]

  2. Andy Lobbins
    4:47 pm on October 15th, 2012

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