In a bustling fifth grade class Moshe is listening to a tape-recorded reading of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, while Shmuel is writing a poem about a fight between brothers. Next to Moshe and Shmuel, Yerucham is reading an account of a former African-American slave.
After several minutes, the teacher calls the class together and asks the students to answer the question: “What do we know about the problems in the United States during the Civil War?”
Moshe quickly responds, “President Lincoln talks about a great battle between the North and the South. He also mentions something about all men being created equal.”
After hearing Moshe’s answer, Shmuel is silent for a moment and then exclaims. “Well, that makes sense in terms of the poem I was writing. The brothers are in a big fight. But, in my poem, the brothers were fighting because one of them was very messy and one of them was always neat. What were the North and South fighting about?”
Yerucham, excited by how his slave account fits into the puzzle, reveals, “I was just reading about Harriet Jacobs and about how she was a slave. Before the Civil War, the South had slavery, but the North did not believe in slavery. Maybe that is the reason that the Civil War began.”
With those responses, the teacher then begins her lesson on the history of the Civil War, “Alright class, let’s look at this chart of proximate and immediate causes of the Civil War ”
Though Moshe, Shmuel, and Yerucham were all involved in different activities, the end result was a cohesive unit that involved listening, writing and reading about the Civil War. Utilizing different media is a technique often used in a teaching method called differentiated instruction.
What is differentiated instruction?
What Can Be Modified
In their book, Differentiated Instruction in the English Classroom, Barbara King-Shaver and Alyce Hunter explain that teachers can choose to differentiate their curriculum in three areas of modification: content, process and product. Content is what a student is to learn; process is how the student will learn the content; and product is how the student is to display what s/he learned.
Here is what content, process, and product look like in our fifth grade classroom in Brooklyn:
If the curriculum is flexible, the teacher may modify what texts and concepts the students will study. In the case of our fifth grade class on the Civil War, the teacher chose to use Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” and a former slave account.
The teacher decided to have Moshe, Shmuel and Yerucham involved in listening, writing and reading activities. She then chose to have them discuss their separate activities with the whole class.
Upon completion of the unit of study on the Civil War, the teacher must determine the parameters for the final product. The teacher may choose to have the students write an essay, create a diorama, write a poem or various other appropriate projects.
How Do You Decide To Modify?
Carol Ann Tomlinson, a pioneer of differentiated instruction and a professor at the University of Virginia, explains that teachers should look at student readiness, interest and learning styles when deciding how to formulate their classrooms and curriculum.
When this is done at the very start of the school year will enable teachers to set up the classroom in a manner appropriate for individual students. Pre-assessment or diagnostic testing is a wonderful tool for understanding what a student knows before the year begins. While some students might be very prepared for the material planned for the year, others might be deficient in precursor skills necessary to become proficient later in the year. A teacher who intends to support success for each learner needs a sense of each students starting point.
Simple back to school pre-assessments could include questions such as, “Do you need quiet when you study? What did you do over the summer? What is your favorite subject in school? Would you rather read a book or listen to a tape? Do you prefer Judaic subjects or secular subjects? How much time do you spend on homework each night?”
As Dr. Susan Demirsky Allan, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Michigan, explained, “Nothing is a magic bullet, but if you start from where the student is, looking at his or her potential, then the likelihood of meeting that student’s academic needs increases enormously.’
Why do we need differentiated instruction?
Speaking to teachers of young children, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) reminds us that it is the responsibility of schools to adjust to children’s developmental needs and levels rather than expecting children to adapt to an educational system. As I strongly advocate, “If he cannot learn the way we teach, we had better teach the way he can learn.”
In their book, Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design, Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe argue that, “Learning happens within students, not to them. Learning is a process of making meaning that happens one student at a time.” For this very reason, differentiated instruction is a successful tool in teaching individual students in their own individual ways.
In 1983, Howard Gardner, a psychology professor at Harvard University, proposed the theory of multiple intelligences to more accurately define the concept of intelligence. Gardner’s theory argues that traditionally defined intelligence does not sufficiently encompass the wide variety of abilities people display.
In his model, a child who excels at math is not necessarily more intelligent overall than a child who struggles with it. The second child may be stronger in another kind of intelligence, and therefore may best learn the given material through a different approach or may excel in a field outside of mathematics. In his book, Multiple Intelligences, Gardner explains that rather than relying on a uniform curriculum, schools should offer “individual-centered education,” with curriculum tailored to the needs of each child. This “individual-centered education” is another form of differentiated instruction.
How can we incorporate differentiated instruction into our classrooms?
There are several techniques that are easily incorporated into a regular classroom, even one with only two or three hours of English instruction a day.
The jigsaw activity sets students up in groups reading or listening to different materials. The jigsaw is a learning strategy that divides the material to be studied into sections and makes individuals or groups responsible for learning and then teaching their section to the other students. Just as in a jigsaw puzzle, each piece, each student’s part, is essential for the completion and full understanding of the final product. Here is a sample jigsaw activity from the Civil War:
||Gettysburg Address(Blue Group)
||Poem: My Brothers in Arms(Red Group)
||Harriet Jacobs’s Slave Account(Green Group)
||Textbook pages 1-5(Purple Group)
Instructions for activity: Please ignore the letters for now and read down the grid to formulate groups by color. In your group, as you read, you should be asking the following questions:
Blue: What does Lincoln say was the reason for the Civil War?
Red: Why are the brothers fighting?
Green: Where does Jacobs escape to? Why?
Purple: What were the immediate and proximate causes of the Civil War?
Each person in the group should have the same information, possibly a bulleted list of major points. After 15 minutes, you will switch to your numbered groups and you will be teaching your classmates the information you have just learned.
A literature circle is a classroom equivalent of an adult book club. The aim is to encourage student-choice and a love of reading. Students have a certain amount of time to read a book and they decide as a group how much they will read for each session. During literature circles, students have clearly defined roles: acting as facilitators, making connections, doing simple research and creating relevant illustrations. Many teachers choose to tape-record the student discussions in order to review and supervise the conversations.
A great resource for teachers on this subject is Harvey Daniels’s text Literature Circles. Daniels’s book details strategies, structures, tools and stories that show you how to launch and manage literature circles effectively. It also includes twenty examples from teachers who practice literature circles in their own classrooms.
Once teachers have recognized which are the stronger or weaker students, they may arrange the classroom in a way that is conducive to differentiated instruction. When working with partners, if the classroom is set up methodically, the students can work in same-ability and mixed-ability groups.
The tic-tac-toe format can be utilized when students create a final product at the end of the unit of study. It allows students to choose their final assignment in a way that teachers can control. In a tic-tac-toe chart, students need to simply choose “three in a row,” – vertically, horizontally or diagonally. Alternatively, teachers may mandate that students are required to complete their three only vertically or diagonally. Here is an example of a tic-tac-toe chart:
How can parents ensure that we teach to our children’s multiple intelligences?
As the school year begins, if we know that our children are strong in certain areas and weak in others, we can advocate that schools seek out students’ strengths, coach for success and monitor individual growth against goals. Additionally, parents can encourage teachers to use multiple assessments to evaluate student progress throughout the year. It’s simply important to remind ourselves constantly that if students cannot learn the way we teach, we had better teach the way they can learn.
An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation,, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.