The 20th Friday: IF We Believe...

…when we segregate students for instruction based on what we perceive they are capable of doing, we have already sent many of them messages that homogeneity matters more than community and that we believe only some students are truly smart.” 
Carol Ann Tomlinson

My quest to learn more about differentiation by reading Carol Ann Tomlinson’s second edition of The Differentiated Classroom continues, as does my desire to share just a bit of my learning as I read. In addition to her book, I also enjoyed reading Carol's powerful response to arecent rant against differentiation; please take time to read her rebuttal hereif you are interested.

A downside to reading this book and, in turn, trying to share my learning with others is that I simply find myself wanting to share word-for-word many of Tomlinson's sage insights. For example, she makes a strong case that no patented formula for differentiation exists. However, she does outline what she calls, “Three Pillars That Support Effective Differentiation.” Those three pillars are the three P’s of: Philosophy, Principles, and Practices. Although several chapters of the book are devoted to the latter two pillars, it is the former, philosophy, that must be our foundation for effective differentiation and, without which, we have no chance of effectively responding to the needs of all learners in our schools. What does a “Philosophy” of differentiation look like? According to Tomlinson, it is based on the following four beliefs:

  • Diversity is normal and valuable.
  • Every learner has a hidden and extensive capacity to learn.
  • It is the teacher’s responsibility to be the engineer of student success.
  • Educators should be champions of every student who enters the schoolhouse doors.

Last week, I crafted a few “We Will” statements educators should take to align with creating learning environments conducive to student growth. In hindsight, I think I got ahead of myself. Before we talk about any action steps (or behaviors), we must first examine our mindset (or beliefs). Do we believe in these four statements attributed to a differentiation mindset? Truthfully, as I read them, I saw them not merely as cornerstones of a “differentiation philosophy” but of an overall "educational philosophy." Years ago, a question that seemed to be in vogue during interviews--that I rarely hear posed nowadays--was, “What is your philosophy of education?” If asked today, my personal response would align with these four statements.

If we accept and welcome diversity among our students--and each other--as the norm, rather than the exception, we take our first giant leap toward existing as a thriving community of leaders and learners….who also happen to believe in differentiation. If we sincerely believe that every child we teach possesses hidden talents and a vast capacity to learn, we take another giant step toward creating a vibrant community of learners and leaders...while also serving as educators who are effective in differentiating services for our children. Next, we all know that the most powerful variable impacting student academic achievement is the classroom teacher. If every teacher accepts responsibility for engineering a successful journey of learning for each student they teach, we take a gargantuan step toward creating a high-achieving community of learners and leaders…who happen to respect and support each other’s differences, needs, and strengths. Finally, if each one of us champions every child who enters our schoolhouse doors, we take the largest step of all in creating a world class community of learners and leaders...a community that also happens to become known for having schools filled with differentiated classrooms.

Let’s avoid labeling our students or adhering to any preconceived notions of their learning potential; instead, let's believe in a community of learners and leaders, each of whom possesses an innate curiosity and capacity for growth and strive to ensure that each one realizes their full potential. I am thankful for the thousands of amazing teachers I know who operate from a philosophy grounded in the tenets of differentiation; believing in these tenets--and acting on these beliefs--is another way we Teach with Passion!

The 19th Friday: A "We Will" Differentiation Mindset

…Today’s teachers still contend with the essential challenge of the teacher in the one-room schoolhouse: how to reach out effectively to students who span the spectrum of learning readiness, personal interests, and culturally shaped ways of seeing, speaking about, and experiencing the world.” Carol Ann Tomlinson

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I am methodically perusing Carol Ann Tomlinson’s second edition of The Differentiated Classroom and will share her good thoughts on this important topic in my next few posts. As she suggests in the quote above, one 21stCentury challenge educators face is no different than a key challenge facing teachers centuries ago: meeting the unique individual learning needs of every student in our classrooms while still ensuring that each of these young learners meets or exceeds his/her grade level standards. 

Recently, I read a piece suggesting that "Differentiation Doesn't Work." Before I had a chance to respond to the contrary, Savanna Flakes came along and did so for me--and much more eloquently than I can ever hope to--in this powerful post. Flakes rightly points out that saying "differentiation has failed" is to suggest that, "teaching has failed," since the purpose of teaching is to facilitate learning and that does not happen (in a classroom with more than one student, anyway) without differentiation. Flakes wisely points out that differentiation is not a specific series of teaching strategies, nor is it a methodology in which all students need to be engaged in different activities at all times. Instead, it is largely a mindset that effective educators adopt, a mindset that believes--sincerely believes--all children can learn and it is their job to ensure that they do so. Such educators instill this confidence within their students as well, knowing that a key determining factor in whether a student believes s/he will succeed is the teacher's belief in that student's ability to succeed. 

Tomlinson, too, devotes a significant portion of her book not to specific strategies for differentiating instruction, but to the mindset we must have as educators and the mindset we must cultivate within our students, a mindset that believes all students can learn if they put forth the necessary effort and we, as educators, respond to their needs, interests, and strengths as learners. According to Tomlinson, teachers in differentiated classrooms accept, embrace, and plan for the fact that the learners in their classrooms bring to school both many commonalities and the essential differences that make them individuals. Early in the book, she lists six key characteristics of differentiated classrooms. I share her six keys herein along with my own rephrasing of the characteristics into an action step/commitment we can take, each of which begins with two powerful words: We Will. When entire schools/districts engage in conversations about such essential teaching topics as differentiation and collectively adhere to commonly-shared instructional non-negotiables, powerful learning occurs--for all learners. In differentiated classrooms, teachers:

  • Let students know that they are welcomed and valued as they are. (We Will make a concerted effort to know as much as we can about each one of our students).
  • Are confident of their students' capacity to learn what they need to learn and will support them vigorously as they do so. (We Will recognize that our belief in our students’ ability to learn at high levels impacts their own belief in their ability to do so and will, as a result, give our students a most important gift: the gift of confidence).
  • Create a culture in which students work together to enhance one another’s growth. (We Will partner with our students in setting both group and individual learning goals and invest all students in shaping the classroom experience).
  • Realize that both successes and failures are inevitable in the learning process, and this classroom is a safe place for both. (We Will celebrate our students’ many successes and help them anticipate and respond appropriately to their  setbacks).
  • Know and communicate that hard work will result in observable growth. (We Will share stories of ourselves and others succeeding due to concentrated effort).
  • Establish routines and processes in the classroom designed to give all students access to whatever they need for success. (We Will establish non-negotiable learning destinations that all students must reach, yet create a multitude of pathways for students to take in arriving there).

Some hear the word “differentiation” and worry that it cannot be done effectively, particularly in classrooms, schools, and districts populated with students who come to us with ever-increasing "differences" themselves. Truthfully, attending to these widely varying needs, interests, abilities, and personalities of all students in any classroom is no simple undertaking. For me, it helps to understand that a starting point for establishing differentiated classrooms is to simply establish a “differentiated” mindset--one that is based on the six key characteristics shared by Tomlinson and one that we commit to as a school community by adopting a "We Will" mindset to make it happen. By committing to these six attitudes/practices we increase the likelihood that all students achieve to their highest potential; doing so is yet another way we Teach with Passion!

The 18th Friday: What's Best for the Best is Best for the Rest

 “…Every student is worthy of learning the most compelling content available, so the teacher in a healthy classroom begins by thinking about what would interest and challenge the most advanced learners and differentiates to create access for each student to that curriculum.” Carol Ann Tomlinson

Having served as a classroom teacher for eighteen years, I am intimately aware of how difficult, rewarding, and impactful the the job is; after leaving the classroom, I have served in many other educational roles. Although each has been challenging and rewarding, I remain convinced that none is as impactful to student performance as that of the classroom teacher. As such, I have extolled the virtues of amazing teachers wherever I go. As we embark upon a new year of teaching and learning in schools around the world, I want to remind everyone just how important--and challenging--this noble job is. One of the greatest challenges for many able teachers is the challenge o meet the needs of students with diverse learning needs. I have never been a fan of sifting and sorting students into tracked programs of student, particularly at the K-8 levels. I suspect this promotes a culture of educational winners and losers; while this may have been the norm for many years in public education, we now know that all students deserve and need rigorous and relevant learning experiences. We need to believe that all students can learn at high levels and give our students the confidence in themselves to learn at high levels.

One way we foster confidence within our students is by differentiating our instruction. To be completely honest, at times I grow weary of the very term “differentiation.” I do so partly because so few people outside our profession even understand its true meaning. I think many hear “differentiation” and think, “exciting learning activities.” Well, “exciting learning activities” is a good thing indeed, but such a concept should be the default plan for daily lessons in all classrooms across our district—and the world—and the rule, rather than the exception. In order to remind myself what differentiation is—and is not—I recently purchased Carol Ann Tomlinson’s second edition of The Differentiated Classroom, published just last year. I am poring over it slowly and carefully in order to become better informed about this important topic. In the weeks ahead, I plan on sharing my learning about this important topic through this blog. The first point worth sharing is simply to focus on Carol’s subtitle: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. Stripped to its core, differentiation is as simple—and complex—as this: We must respond to the needs of our kids.

In our district, this often means responding to kids who need to be challenged to exceed, rather than merely meet, expectations—expectations inherent in the Common Core, PARCC, MAP, our own minds, and even in the minds of students themselves. I spent several years working with a colleague who often said about our schools, “What’s best for the best is best for the rest.” In the Tomlinson quote at the top of this memo, she is suggesting the very same thing, albeit in a less catchy way. We must think of minimum expectations such as the Common Core as the floor, not the ceiling, when it comes to what our kids must know and be able to do—and the learning experiences we must provide them so that they meet such lofty expectations.

As we plan our instruction based on our respective curriculum standards—whether those are Common Core ELA standards, Next Generation  Science Standards, or fine arts standards—I encourage teachers to start with Tomlinson’s suggestion that we consider what would interest and challenge the most advanced learners and then differentiate so that we provide access to these challenging, compelling, and interesting standards and activities for allstudents.

In her book, Tomlinson devotes one chapter to “Learning Environments that Support Differentiated Instruction.” A characteristic of such an environment—from which I extracted the quote above—that she describes is one in which teachers setting high expectations while concomitantly providing lots of ladders is the norm. We must encourage all students to reach for the stars educationally and offer each the size, type, and scope of ladders necessary to travel there. Carol concludes this section of the chapter with an accurate and important comment: “Most young learners don’t know how to grow beyond where they are today, until a teacher shows the way.” Showing our students the way to a vision of themselves as learners beyond their existing one is yet another way we Teach with Passion!

When Is It OK To Break the Rules?

“I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious,  I break them.” Ro...