Lost at the Ends

A major initiative in the district for teacher professional development is Differentiated Instruction - that is, getting better at teaching to a group of students all at different places in their understanding and abilities. This is a challenge faced by any teaching two or more students, and it is a serious challenge with 30 students in a room. Broadly speaking, two groups of students get shorted when the lesson isn't sufficiently "differentiated" - students needing more support, who often miss key elements of the work early, become more and more lost, feel ignored and left behind, then discouraged and become at risk for giving up all hope of it getting better. The other group are students looking for more challenge. They often grasp general concepts early on, become less engaged as the discussions stay centered around material and questions that don't interest them, feel ignored and left on their own, then discouraged and become at risk for giving up all hope of it getting better.

I am writing two posts about these populations of students. Part 1 will be about the students looking for more. Part 2 will address students needing more. Stay tuned :)

Meeting students where they are

I try each year to set some goals for myself. I try to make one aimed at creating and maintaining balance in my life and one aimed at improving my work as a teacher. 

This year, in my classroom, I am trying out tiered tasks. This is an approach to differentiating in a mixed fluency class - that is, a way to make sure every student is working on a task that is appropriately suited to where they are at the moment in terms of understanding and skills attainment. It works like this:

  1. I determine what I want every student to be able to do or understand - this would be considered "meeting the standard" for whatever it is we are learning at that time.
  2. I consider what might be a stretch or extension beyond this that would be interesting and also related to the standard I defined in step one - that is, on the same ideas, not just moving to the next lesson or unit topic. 
  3. I consider what supports I could provide to students to reach this extended degree of engagement.
  4. I design three different tasks - one for students ready to extend their skills and understanding right now, one for students who would benefit from deepening understanding of what they already have a grasp of, and one to provide support for students who haven't fully met the standard yet of the current skills/concepts.

For example, if we were learning how to tie our shoes, the tasks might be:

  • Show a partner your method for tying your shoes. Are your methods the same or different? Together, come up with a new way to tie your shoes - the knot may be different, but you should be able to untie it by pulling one or both of the ends of the laces.
  • Form two teams and have a relay race - each person must untie and tie their shoes before the next person starts. Have three races - best of three wins :)
  • Practice tying a partners shoes following the illustrated instructions in a handout I provide you. Take turns, and when you are both ready, call me over to witness your skills. If another pair is ready and you are willing, I'll set up a race between the you and the other pair.

An important step is to determine which students should work on which tasks. I have done this once this year by looking at previous work and assigning students where I think they are, and a few times by having students self-evaluate what group they are in. Both have advantages and drawbacks. 

So far students are engaging very well in their tasks, and I have been able to work and help students that need it. One area for improvement I can see already is building in time for the groups to share their work with the others - I want everyone to see what everyone has been working on. Presenting work to peers is an important skill that they haven't had much practice with, and I'll probably write more about that in the future. Sharing results also brings the class back together as a whole, exposes all students to the extended options - even if only as observers - and helps bring all students to the minimum level of mastery with the standards. 

In the meantime, I'm just doing my best to meet all students where they are at and moving them at least a little bit further along.

If you're a student in my class, I'm curious what your experience is like in these tiered activities - say something in the comments!

Day 1 Homework


Mistakes are a huge part of our life - for many they can earn particular focus as we strive to be better in so many ways. What if there were no mistakes, though? Sound like magical thinking? Watch this presentation by American jazz vibraphonist, Stefon Harris.

He gave this talk at TED conference in 2011 and his take on mistakes on the bandstand, I believe, applies to our work here. In fact, I think he has an important message to take with you outside of our class.

Watch the video and then come back here and leave a comment about it. (See the PS below to help guide you if you're stumped for what to say). The video is 13 minutes, which is about as long as 80-100 snapchats, so get comfortable, turn the volume up, and pay attention.

Tomorrow we'll talk more about what Stefon has to say and especially more about what you have to say about mistakes.

Go to Stefon Harris' Ted Talk


PS: follow up, to help guide the comments into richer territory - 

How do you respond to mistakes? I'm curious about a response you felt good about later on, and a response you didn't feel good about. You could also think of these as "helpful" and "unhelpful" responses to mistakes.