In honor of the gravitas of this momentous concluding blog post, I’d like to begin with a fittingly dramatic analogy: Let’s imagine The Avengers have been assigned a new reading teacher (it could happen – they need to read the manual for the flying fortress, the missives of destructive evildoers and the fine print on exorbitant spandex dry cleaning bills), and you are it. You step in front of your pupils on the first day and immediately recognize this is going to be no easy task: Iron Man, though a capable student, seems mostly interested in reading technical manuals, while Captain America only reads 40s era comic books and The Hulk has problems with becoming frustrated while reading (big problems). What do you do?
(You guys wanna be able to read your own comics, right?)
This is a situation faced every day (in slightly less dramatic fashion) by reading teachers of every level around the country. And instead of the four or five students that a potential Avengers instructor would be faced with, the average reading teacher has a class of 15, 20, 30 or even more students to deal with. Students who come to reading with a variety of skill sets, interests, motivations and personalities, so where to begin indeed?
In my last blog I found the beginnings of an answer to this dilemma in an article by Mara Sapon-Shevin entitled “Ability Differences in the Classroom: Teaching and Learning in Inclusive Classrooms” . In this article, Sapon-Shevin discusses what she terms “purposive heterogeneity” in classrooms, which basically boils down to the idea of treating student differences as a source of strength rather than a weakness in the classroom. Meaning it does not always have to be a source of frustration – what a concept!
(Me, pre-Sapon Shevin article)
Sapon-Shevin talks about how the diversity of a heterogeneous classroom is actually a much better reflection of what students will face in the real world. She also delves into the mutually beneficial aspects of having stronger students work with weaker ones, as well as the idea of having classes work together on large projects entailing many different, individualized assignments suited for the needs of each student. At the post-secondary level, I imagine this might work something like the structured group discussions which many teachers already use in class. These usually entail assigning a different role to each student, for example facilitator, time-keeper, note-taker etc., so that they remain involved in the discussion and move it forward productively. The same could be true of a larger project or assignment, with the difference that the teacher (or possibly the students themselves, depending on how we wanted to work the assignment), would select the various roles of the students based on their relative strengths or weaknesses. In creating a presentation, for example, one student could be assigned to research sources, another to read them, one other to synthesize them and still another to present them to the class. The advantage of this being that each student could remain productively engaged in the tasks they were assigned while none of them would be either left behind because of difficulty, or left bored because of their relative aptitude in comparison to other students. We might further structure the assignment so that if some students did work faster than others on their portion, they could be assigned to either conduct further research, or possibly aid the slower students with their assignment. This is just a rough sketch of what this kind of assignment might entail, based on my understanding of it, but in any case I think it’s becoming clear that there are a myriad of ways to approach it, which is perhaps one of the best signs of a pedagogy which is adaptable and potentially useful in the class.
After reading the article, I was intrigued by the ideas that Sapon-Shevin proposed, but of course, being the diligent researcher that I am, I was not satisfied with reading just one article and then putting it into practice. I set out therefore to find other articles which would either corroborate or problematize Sapon-Shevin’s. The next source I looked to was a book by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe entitled Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design.
I immediately recognized that the two authors were grappling with the same questions as I when reading an early passage which said, “…teachers find it increasingly difficult to ignore the diversity of learners who populate their classrooms. Culture, race, language, economics, gender, experience, motivation to achieve, disability, advanced ability, personal interest, learning preference, and presence or absence of an adult support system are just some of the factors that students bring to school with them in almost stunning variety” Whew! Variety indeed, but this is exactly what I had been thinking of. Moreover, as the title of the book suggests, the authors are adding another element to the mix, that of Understanding by Design, or UbD. According to the authors, this is a method primarily based in curriculum design, whereas Differentiated Instruction, or DI, is focused on instruction. The authors claim that these two methods are not only complimentary but reciprocally necessary – we can’t have one without the other. This is because (as any SFSU Reading/Comp professor can and repeatedly will tell you), instruction is not sufficient in the absence of solid course design, and vice versa.
This was an important concept to be reminded of, and so I read on with a keen eye towards understanding the theory of UbD. The authors illustrate the concept by giving example scenarios from the classroom of “Mr. Axelt,” a teacher on top of his game when it comes to applying the theories of UbD and DI integration. We learn, amongst other things, that Mr Axelt has a thorough plan to teach the US Constitution to his class that accounts for all of his 32 students, that he plans to have them apply learned knowledge gained in differentiated group work, that he adapts assignments and instruction as the unit progresses, regularly reviews progress, discusses with colleagues and lastly views himself as a learner alongside his pupils. Like I said, the man is on top of his game. In all seriousness though, I found this material, and especially the realistic manner in which it was presented to be highly illuminating and helpful in my research.
(Mr Axelt, as I imagine him anyways)
By this point, I was seriously considering applying Differentiated Instruction in my classes, as well as its corollary Understanding by Design. Correspondingly, I found two articles that dealt with the use of DI in class, “Lesson Planning Tips for Different Student Levels” by Dorit Sasson, and another article by Carol Ann Tomlinson entitled “What is Differentiated Instruction?”.
Both of the articles begin with a definition of DI, which I was pretty familiar with by this point, and then move on to explain its importance as well as how to use it. Sasson’s article focuses on the idea of having students working on the same activity or project while doing different tasks that are suited to their particular needs. Sasson lists some ideas for reading activities that students could do at different levels. This was interesting for me because in reading through these lists, I realized that many of these things were concepts that I had already been applying in the classroom without acknowledging it, and I suspect this may be true for many other teachers as well. We have all, for example, faced the situation where a group of students reads a passage faster than the rest. What do we do in that situation? Asking those students to lay their heads on the desk and take a nap while the others finish is certainly not an option. So, we engage them, ask them questions about the reading or challenge them to go back and find details to deepen their understanding. This is, I think, in a nutshell the same thing that Sasson is describing, the advantage being that we should recognize that we are doing this and will need to do this so that we can plan accordingly.
The Tomlinson article is in many ways a more simplified version of what she describes in her book, though it helped to see the ideas listed in abbreviated form. In it she gives short list of concepts to consider in the areas of Content (reading materials/reading buddies/group work), Process (tiered activities/personal agendas/variation), Products (rubrics/assignments), and Learning Environment (room environment/routines). I feel as though the article, though certainly not as exhaustive as her other work, would work well as a sort of checklist for teachers who are preparing, implementing, or assessing Differentiated Instruction in the classroom.
And so this final blog draws to a close. I will not say that I have reached a conclusive answer to my original question, as the article on Understanding by Design, a concept I was unfamiliar with before but which could prove crucial, showed me that there is more research to be done. I will say however that what I have found so far has been fruitful and I look forward to trying it out in my classes in the future (be they super-powered or otherwise).