Friday, July 16, 2004

MiddleWeb and Differentiating Instruction

I've been involved in the MiddleWeb listserv for the last few months. then click on "Join Our Discussion." It is a wonderful group of educators who have a passion for middle school teaching.  Just recently someone on the list asked about the influence of the list on people.  I posted this, "I've found this listserv to be an important grounding point to my day.  Sometimes I think I'm the only one feeling something, or that my students are the only ones acting a certain way, or I'm the only one interested in learning and expanding my professional knowledge.  Then I read the latest postings and find kindred spirits and I don't feel so alone.  I've recounted listserv conversations as if they were face-to-face conversations and even refer to the authors as if I really know them.  (Which is an interesting issue to explore.  As digital immigrants, we, adult people, differentiate between our "real" friends and our digital friends.  How many of kids make that distinction?) . . . I really appreciate that fact that in most cases, posts are responded to within 24 hours.  It's like having your own personal think-tank."
In June, about 40 members of the list met for the first time for a "Walk the Talk" Conference which sounded like it was amazing.  From that discussion, there had been a lot of talk about differentiated instruction(DI) .  Several years ago, I took an online class, through ASCD about DI.  I found the class interesting,  but the lack of interaction with other people made it difficult to internalize the information.  I've puttered around with this idea for the last few years.  Hopefully, with DI being a current topic on the list, I may think a little harder about it.
One of the list members recommended this link: Enhanced Learning .   ASCD also provides an overview of the topic.
The basic gist is to adapt the content, process or product that a student will learn from, with and through to match that student's abilities, interests and learning styles.  Sounds like a pretty big task, which is why most DI instructors suggest starting with a unit, and building resources year by year.
As for me, I think the area that I adapt most frequently is the content.  I believe in given students choice when selecting novels.  I tend to try to teach by theme to allow for different reading abilities.  When a particular novel needs to be taught, I tend to allow students choice in the end-of-unit project.  Although I should look harder at the complexity of the tasks I suggest.  Often the choices I give are more based on multiple intelligence preferences, rather than the complexity of the task.  I also need to work harder in the area of process.  I tend to have all students complete the same types of activities - using the same graphic organizers or notetaking style.  In addition, I should be more aware of using pre-assessments.  I haven't used formal pre-assessment, mostly because my classes have been quite small, and I know my students well.  But, it wouldn't hurt to have that information on paper, not just a gut feeling.
I do wonder about the perception of "fairness."  If students are completing different tasks, how can I create an environment where students don't compete and compare?  I can hear my former 9th graders whining, "But I worked for hours on this assignment, and he/she didn't have any homework."   When students are new to the school, and obviously ESL, most other students give them plenty of slack.  However, once real grades are issued, what does an A mean then?  If an advanced student completes all higher-level thinking assignments perfectly, and a student completing work on the lower level of Bloom's taxonomy completes his/her work perfectly, do they both receive an A?  In the past,  I created menus of assignments and the students could choose the grade they were working for.  The lower level skills would earn a C and the higher-level thinking would earn an A.  But, that is a lot of assignments to create and grade.
I recently bought Diane Heacox's Differentiated Instruction in the Regular Classroom. I hope I will get some practical answers to my ponderings.

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