Succeeding With Differentiation

iStock-875574964_masterThis post was originally published on edutopia.org


Student voice is a hot topic in education, which makes me exceedingly happy—I’ve always thought that students were an educational stakeholder group that needed to be heard.

However, as a former teacher beginning my second year as a full-time consultant working with K–12 educators on differentiating instruction, I’ve come to realize that there’s another group of stakeholders whose voices are as important as students’, if not more so: teachers.

HONORING TEACHER EXPERTISE

For several decades now, differentiation has been on many school districts’ lists of prioritized initiatives. The workshops I facilitate are typically not teachers’ first professional learning on differentiation. Yet differentiation is still an initiative in many districts, not a long-settled policy. Why?

The answer to this question is multifaceted. The traditional A-F grading system doesn’t lend itself easily to differentiation, and tracking students undermines it. However, there’s another significant roadblock to enacting successful, sustainable differentiation initiatives: the pervasive tendency of professional learning facilitators to dismiss teacher voice.

Such facilitators (whether that’s me, an administrator, an instructional coach, or a fellow teacher) are often guilty of inadvertently disregarding participants’ sentiments of struggle. We view these struggles as resistance instead of listening to what teachers say and differentiating our instruction for teachers’ needs accordingly.

In my experience, most examples of teacher resistance are about valid claims, not unfounded complaints. And sometimes the struggles teachers face are with specific practices that are cornerstones of differentiation, which presents a conundrum.

In an effort to help break the cycle of endless differentiation PD and find solutions for common differentiation obstacles, I’ve worked with many teachers to create work-arounds that accomplish the intended goal of the problematic practice and also respect teachers’ professionalism, as illustrated here with two examples.

OBSTACLE 1: PRE-ASSESSMENT

Common teacher sentiment: “Pre-assessments take too long to administer, and they frequently just show that  the majority of the class has not mastered the material.”

The plain truth: Pre-assessments can take a lot of instructional time and sometimes provide teachers with little usable data.

Intended goal of pre-assessment: Teachers can use evidence from pre-assessments to plan instruction based on student need. The pre-assessment data will show teachers (among other things) which students have already mastered the material, so teachers can provide them with enrichment, which could take the form of anchor projects co-designed by the teacher and student, or challenges that allow for students to go deeper into the learning intentions by asking more complex questions.

Solution: Differentiate the pre-assessment. Instead of giving all students a time-intensive, whole unit pre-assessment, begin by giving all students a quick formative assessment on the first topic covered in the unit of study. Data from this formative assessment immediately tell teachers which students may have already mastered the content for the entire unit.

Then, give the full unit pre-assessment only to the small group of students who have shown that they have some mastery of the unit content. The results from this pre-assessment will tell teachers if they need to offer students enrichment on all or just some parts of the unit.

For each subsequent topic in the unit, offer quick formative assessments to the students who did not show mastery on the formative assessment covering the first topic. Offer topic enrichment on these topics to students as the need appears.

OBSTACLE 2: GROUP WORK

Common teacher sentiment: “I struggle with group work and prefer direct instruction.”

The plain truth: About 10 years ago, direct instruction began to get a really bad rap. Teachers were told they needed to be “the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.” However, research indicates that direct instruction is highly effective for student learning.

Intended goal of group work: Students work collaboratively to process and deepen their understanding of content.

Solution: Use a hybrid of direct instruction and cooperative learning. Let’s begin by clarifying a couple of points.

First, direct instruction and lecture are not synonymous. John Hattie has notedthat direct instruction done correctly has a greater impact on student learning than group work done incorrectly. Direct instruction is effective when the teacher instructs in short segments, with frequent checks for understanding and opportunities for students to process, practice, and receive feedback.

Second, group work and cooperative learning are not synonymous. Group work is an ambiguous term that encompasses everything from students working on a project together to students sitting in a group but working individually. Cooperative learning is structured so that all group members have equal opportunities to engage in appropriately rigorous learning.

With these clarifications in mind, to create a hybrid of direct instruction and cooperative learning in your classroom, follow these steps:

  1. Use formative assessment evidence to determine which students have mastered the material you will cover during direct instruction.
  2. Offer any qualifying students enrichment.
  3. Continue direct instruction as planned with the remainder of your students.
  4. Build in breaks in instruction (every 7–12 minutes depending on the age of your students) to check for understanding and give students an opportunity to practice and process.
  5. Incorporate cooperative learning structures like Think-Pair-Share or gallery walks during the breaks in direct instruction.

IN THE END

All teachers want their students to succeed, and all teachers try to make this happen. That is all differentiation is. We complicate differentiation by not allowing ourselves to be provisional with how we apply the foundational pieces of differentiated instruction.

Instead, if we address these four questions in our instructional planning, differentiation will always be the result: What do my students need? How do I know? What will I do to meet their needs? How do I know if what I’m doing is working?


Questions about differentiation? Connect with Lisa here or on Twitter.  You can also check out Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps To Harmonize Learning and previous blog posts on differentiation.

Would you hire one of your third-graders? I did.

 

This post was written by a guest blogger, my husband, Keith:)

When I was a third-grade teacher, the beginning of every school year was pretty much the same. I did my best to relax and recharge in July, and as soon as August arrived, my brain shifted back into school-mode. Like the sound of an alarm clock, early August would mean the arrival of the “Welcome Back” email from our school district HR department outlining my classroom assignment, building information, and initiatives I would be involved in during the year. I received this same email every year, over and over again, knowing very well that this email was my signal to get back into teacher mode.

But, with the monotony of the operational aspects of a new school year came the adrenaline rush about everything that lay ahead of me. I was always most excited to meet my new students.

At the beginning of each school year, I always felt it was important to try and see each child as their best adult self. Maybe I was teaching the next Bill Gates? Or, the next Axl Rose? Or, maybe just the next Keith Westman? How would I want these “soon-to-be-adults” to remember their year with me, their teacher?

I realized this past year, that the 2002–03 school year was completely different than any other school year.

That year, a student named Samuel entered my third-grade class. He was very much like my other students: a bit nervous (because who wouldn’t be a little nervous having a 6’ 6” male teacher), eager to please, and generally happy about being back in school with their friends.

Samuel, like every student, had many strengths and passions one of which was his tenacity for perfection. I speak one language- English (the north side of Chicago dialect). I never was able to pronounce his last name with the perfect Mandarin Chinese tones that made his name special to him. Samuel made sure to give me every tip and suggestion as to how to make that happen.

But, like all other years, at the end of the school year, Samuel moved onto fourth grade and then transferred to another school for middle school.

I, too, did some growing up after that school year. I taught another year of third-grade, then took a district-level position as an Instructional Technology Coordinator, and then became a middle school principal (back with Samuel and his classmates from my third-grade class).

In 2008, Samuel graduated from my middle school and headed off to high school. That same year, I left working IN schools to join my junior high friend who created these edtech products called AppliTrack and K12JobSpot (you’ve probably all used them). So, both Samuel and I started new journeys- he began high school and I began a new career in edtech.

Samuel and I didn’t keep in touch over the years. The last time we saw one another, I was Samuel’s teacher-turned-principal- our last interaction was me handing him his elementary school diploma on an extravagant (and maybe a bit gaudy) auditorium stage.

But, one day last year, Samuel connected with me on LinkedIn.

It turns out that Samuel, once a tenacious third-grade student of mine, grew up to be a tenacious software developer during the same period of time that I grew my career in the edtech industry. Samuel was working for a large Department of Defense contractor and I was the COO of Otus, an edtech company in Chicago. Samuel had connected me with one of his friends who was looking to work in the edtech industry. We ultimately hired his friend. Then, eight months later, we hired Samuel.Sam and I today!

When I think back to my days as a teacher, I always felt I learned much more from my students than I believed they were learning from me. I can tell you that nothing has changed. Each day at Otus, Samuel and his colleagues teach me more than I believe I help them. Moreover, I never would have expected that not only would I be in a completely different line of work than what I was doing in 2002, but I would be doing that work with a student in my class!

What’s the moral of this story? Life is amazing.

It’s true that Samuel and I both grew up over the past 16 years, in different ways and in different places. Yet, I can tell you that the bond we share, having learned and laughed together for many our formative years, and being able to pick up where we left off so long ago, is something most people will never experience and it’s something I really cherish.

As you head into the new school year, remember that you never know where life will take you or your students. Enjoy each moment and allow yourself the pleasure of daydreaming where you and your students will be in five, ten, and 16 years from now. You never know, you might end up hiring one of your third-graders and continuing your lifelong journey of learning, together.

P.S. He’s still helping me work on those Mandarin Chinese tones:)

Want To Differentiate Instruction? Use Your Time Wisely.

student driven differentiation roadmap 7:24

This article was originally published in Education Week Teacher.

For more on any of the content below, check out Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps to Harmonize Learning in the Classroom (Corwin).


What do you find to be the biggest obstacle to effectively differentiating instruction?

Got your answer? Was it “time?”

If so, your reply mirrors the most common response I receive from the teachers I coach on differentiation.

Differentiating instruction, a process that involves recognizing individual students’ varying learning needs and interests and actively planning lessons around them, is key to helping all students learn and grow. It’s become an important part of personalized learning that many teachers are adapting in a variety of ways.

But it isn’t always easy. When I began my journey to differentiate instruction for my own students, lack of time was my greatest obstacle, too. However, over time (pun intended) I came to realize that, more often than not, the issue is not a lack of time but rather how time is spent.

Time Is More Than Hours and Minutes

“The key is not spending time, but investing it,” author Stephen R. Covey once said. A video on the concept of time by Entrepreneur Magazine echoes that sentiment. The video’s narrator explains that the reason time-management strategies tend to fail is that they are designed to manage clock time, and humans live in real time. For example, one may have a planning period from 11 a.m. to 11:40 a.m. each day, but how many of those 40 minutes are actually spent planning?

Similarly, one may “teach” for 360 minutes each day, but how many of those minutes are spent using evidence from formative assessments (one of the key components of differentiation) to inform our next steps?

Is it possible that we teachers aren’t using our time as efficiently as we could?

This rhetorical question is not a critique of teachers. Teaching is hard. It’s almost impossible to be “on” every minute of every day. In my days as a classroom teacher, there were many times that I sat down behind my desk for a few minutes simply because I needed to sit down. (This almost always happened just as an administrator popped into my classroom, making me immediately feel guilty.)

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However, when I talk about efficient use of time, I am referring to the chronic “time killers” that reduce our productivity, such as checking social media on smartphones, online shopping, and water-cooler chats with colleagues. For the average worker, these time killers cumulatively add up to one day of lost work each week.

To get a better handle on how we spend our time, we should track and analyze how every minute of a day is spent and then create a plan to work more productively. But that’s only the beginning of differentiating instruction. To do so successfully requires additional steps, such as understanding what differentiation really entails and collaborating with colleagues.

The Link Between Differentiation and Teacher Collaboration

Much has been written about the need for educators to break out of their silos and collaborate with other teachers. A quick Google search for “teaching in silos” produces close to 500,000 hits, including many explanations for why working in silos is detrimental to educators.

Planning for instruction in isolation isn’t helpful, because it’s: 1) simply not efficient, and 2) less effective in producing positive student outcomes. Moreover, if a person is task-oriented as opposed to goal-oriented, he or she is statistically less likely to be successful, according to two Cornell University researchers. Therefore, when teachers sit down to differentiate, they are often frustrated by the feeling that differentiation is just “one more thing” they have to do.

Conversely, when teachers sit down in teams to identify student needs and create action plans to meet them, they find that their plans organically result in differentiated instruction. The process no longer feels like one more thing, but is the outcome of solid planning and aligns to almost all other education initiatives that work to ensure student success (such as standards-based grading or common assessments).

However, according to a recent study from the RAND Corporation, teachers still overwhelmingly say that they do not have enough time to collaborate with their colleagues. Only 31 percent of teachers surveyed reported that they have sufficient time to collaborate with other teachers, despite many having the opportunity to meet with their colleagues on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis.

In order to ensure that team time is most productive, I recommend that teacher teams—comprised of grade-level or department colleagues—use a structure that guides their meetings and helps them stick to agenda items that are directly connected to student-driven differentiation (see the roadmap for student-driven differentiation I created as one example). A roadmap or other such framework can help teacher teams focus their time to identify desired learning outcomes, analyze student performance, construct plans to meet the needs of students at varying levels, and, most importantly, incorporate the input of teachers’ other collaborators in learning: our students.

By using a structure to guide our team time, we can guarantee that our energy is spent effectively, and that we are doing all that we can to meet the needs of our students.

How to Overcome Common Anxieties About Differentiation

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This post was originally published on Corwin Connect.


In my work with teachers across the country on differentiating instruction, it appears that when it comes to differentiation, teachers fall into one of three categories:

  • teachers who want to differentiate instruction for their students but don’t know how
  • teachers who have tried to differentiate for their students and “give-up” because they found differentiating instruction was too time-consuming, didn’t produce their desired results, or they faced some other insurmountable obstacle
  • teachers who are masterful at differentiating instruction, yet still feel like they aren’t doing it “right”

I have spent quite a bit of time reflecting on what contributes to these mindsets and have concluded that the following factors shape the perspective of teachers in all of the aforementioned categories and have found that when teachers apply student-driven differentiation, their fears are alleviated.

DOING RIGHT BY KIDS

Last January I attended a meeting on differentiated instruction led by the guru of differentiation, Carol Ann Tomlinson. During that meeting, Carol said something that summarized differentiation in a way that stripped away any ambiguity and got right to the heart of what differentiation actually is.

Carol said that rather than asking teachers to identify examples of teachers providing differentiated instruction, we should ask teachers to identify examples teachers “doing right by kids.”

And, that is precisely what differentiation is: doing right by kids. Some of the terms that describe the methods and strategies we can use to differentiate sound a little bit scary (curriculum compacting, formative assessment readiness, etc). But, if we can allow ourselves to dismiss the lingo for a minute and examine our actions; what we find is that if we just ask ourselves, “Am I doing right for my students?” and then act accordingly, differentiating instruction isn’t so intimidating after all.

In fact, it is likely that the teachers described in category 3 above (those who are masterful differentiators and still don’t feel like they are doing it right) may feel inadequate because they don’t have the vocabulary to describe the actions they take to differentiate. Similarly, those who struggle to implement differentiation in their classrooms may get caught up in understanding educational jargon rather than focusing on actualizing the steps toward differentiation one by one (see roadmap above).

DIFFERENTIATION IS NOT A GOAL

Contrary to popular belief, differentiation is not something else teachers “have to do.” Rather, differentiation is what happens when teachers’ focus is student growth: academic growth, social-emotional growth, and growth of students’ metacognitive awareness. When teachers ask themselves these questions:

  • What do my students need?
  • How do I know?
  • How will I attempt to address this need?
  • How will I know if my actions worked?

and plan for instruction based on the answer to these questions, differentiation is the natural byproduct. In short, differentiation is not the goal: it is the result of actions taken to ensure student needs and readiness are considered, addressed and assessed accordingly to ensure the methods teachers choose to address those needs are effective.

To address the needs of students, teachers tend to differentiate one or more of the following: the content (what students learn), the process (how students acquire information), the product (how students demonstrate learning), and the learning environment (where and with whom students learn).

THE IDEA THAT TEACHERS SHOULDN’T ASK STUDENTS WHAT THEY NEED

I am often amazed when I am having a candid conversation with a teacher who is struggling to meet a student’s needs and can’t seem to pinpoint what the student needs. I typically ask the teacher, “Have you asked your student what he/she needs?” And, more often than not, the teacher’s response is, “No”.

The fear of asking students directly what they need is the fear we (as a field) need to overcome first. Teachers put a lot of pressure on themselves to “figure things out,” yet when they are stuck, they feel guilty and defeated. And, sometimes, the feelings of guilt and defeat prevent them from asking the students themselves.

However, when teachers cut themselves a little slack and go directly to the source (the students) and ask them specific questions about what they need (AKA Student-Driven Differentiation) they find that by incorporating student voice to drive how that differentiate instruction takes the pressure off of them a simultaneously increases student engagement and ownership of learning.

Sometimes just knowing what questions to ask students is the hardest part about incorporating student voice to differentiate instruction. But these questions need not be overthought. They are simply the questions to which teachers need an answer, questions like: what intrigues you about this concept/topic? Why do you find this content boring? If you could show your understanding of this concept/topic in any way, how would you show it?

There really aren’t any “right” or “wrong” questions to ask students as long as the questions garner valuable information for the teacher to create an action plan with the student to ensure they learn.


For more information on items discussed in this post and additional differentiation topics, continue your student-driven differentiation journey by reading Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps To Harmonize Learning in the Classroom now available for purchase on Corwin.com and amazon.com.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

3 Ways To Blockbuster Your Report Cards

Blockbuster report card image.png

Today’s guest post is written by Keith Westman.  Follow him on Twitter at @keithwestman.

Note: I am aware I am not the first person to use the Blockbuster analogy (a company who refused to respond to market changes and made themselves obsolete). While lots of education bloggers use this analogy, most folks first saw it in Innovator’s Mindset, by George Couros.

Multiple times a day, I will see an education thought-leader tweet a one-liner or share a blog post saying something to the effect of, “if schools are still doing ‘this,’ they should stop because it makes no sense!”

Usually, “this” is a relatively small change: keeping kids in during recess as punishment, giving extra work to students who finish a task early, getting rid of homework, etc. The list really can go on for a while. But, we rarely see suggestions for large systemic changes like moving away from the most archaic artifact from the beginning of America’s school systems: the report card.

I’d like to offer you a few tangible steps school districts can take to eliminate this sacred cow.

As someone who doesn’t have to hear from angry parents about making the decision to stop sending out report cards, it’s easy for me to write this blog post. I get that. But, let’s assume that we all agree with three things:

  • Reports cards are intended to communicate important information about student progress in both academic and non-cognitive areas.
  • Educators, in general, would agree that a single letter grade on a report card does not tell the most accurate story of student performance over a period of time
  • Student performance is more than a single letter grade, percentage, or performance level on a learning standard.

With that in mind, I’d like to propose three steps that I think parents would support to rid your school district of the traditional paper report card:

1.Have parents opt-in to a paper report card

Send a letter to parents over the summer informing them the school district believes that frequent communication on academic progress is critical to student success. Then describe the ways in which parents can access your online gradebook. End with a statement like this: “Beginning this school year, parents can choose to receive a paper report card at the end of each grading period. If you would like to receive a paper report card, sign up here.”

 

 

2. Stop SPAMMING parents

Between a teacher’s newsletter, a school newsletter, a PTA update, and important notices from the district, parents may be becoming numb to your communications and inadvertently miss some of the most important communications (like how their child is performing). Consider having an e-mail schedule that parents know about. Every Sunday night you will receive an email about your child. Week 1 will be from the teacher telling you about classroom events. Week 2 will be an email about building events. Week 3 will be important district level information. Week 4 will be an e-mail from the PTA. In every email, remind parents that they can review student progress by logging into your online gradebook. Finally, send that quarterly email saying, “We have reached the end of the first grading period. Please remember to log into your online gradebook.”

3. Create a “Report Card” Kiosk

There will be an argument that if parents don’t get a paper report card, those who don’t have access to the internet will not know how their child is doing in school. According to a 2018 student by the Pew Research Center, 89% of Americans have access to the Internet. So, in case you have any parents in that remaining 11%, set up a computer in the office of your school and let families know that they are welcome to come to the school and review student progress at any time. This will give you a chance to see parents (who may need to feel connected to the school) and will be a great service to them.

Implementing these strategies will allow you to gently bring your school community along with this change.

Now, all of these ideas are useless if your school does not have an online gradebook. If you are one of these school systems — keep that paper flowing, but, let’s get a move on it, too!


What are some ways that your school is rethinking the way that student performance is communicated to families? Please comment on this post or connect with Keith on Twitter.

About Keith: Dr. Keith Westman taught third grade, served as a K-8 technology coordinator and was a middle school principal during his ten years working in school districts.  He left public education to work with his childhood friend who had started an edtech company.  That company, Aspex Solutions (now part of Frontline Education), grew up to provide AppliTrack and K12JobSpot.com to thousands of school districts and millions of job seekers throughout the country. Keith is the COO of Otus, the makers of the Otus Student Performance Platform, based in Chicago’s popular Fulton Market neighborhood, and moonlights as an Adjunct Professor at DePaul University.

 

Retakes Do Not Promote Laziness. They Exemplify Compassion

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This article was originally published in Education Week Teacher.


Editor’s note: For a counterpoint to this piece, see Baptiste Delvallé’s opinion essay, “Why I Give Students Only One Chance on Tests.”

Even though it was 23 years ago, I vividly remember the countdown calendar I created for my 16th birthday. I marked April 5, 1993 with a giant set of keys and a convertible. I was going to get my driver’s license, and it was going to be the best day of my life.

During the year leading up to that fateful birthday, I diligently practiced and prepared for the written and performance components of the exam. I applied feedback from my driver’s education teacher and my parents. I practiced driving the course I would later navigate. All the evidence from these formative assessments pointed to my mastery of the open road.

However, when I went to take the actual driver’s test, I successfully completed the course but made a silly, yet critical, error on the written assessment. I pleaded with my evaluator to make an exception and pass me anyway. It was only one little mistake.

I felt completely defeated. All of that practice, and still, I had failed. But then my evaluator told me that we all have bad days. “Go sit in the waiting area and think about the reasons why you made the error you did, and how you can avoid errors like that in the future,” he said. “I’ll come find you in one hour.”

An hour later, he let me retake the test, and the license was mine.

Responding to the Unexpected

There is rarely, if ever, a reason to deny a student an opportunity to retake an assessment. In fact, to do so actually negates the importance of the concepts we aim to teach. Additionally, the purpose of retakes is not to give students a reason to procrastinate in their studies, but to give students the benefit of the doubt and offer them multiple chances to show mastery.

In my work with teachers in school systems across the country on differentiation and standards-based grading, I have found that test retakes are a hot button for many educators. I often hear teachers say things like, “Students don’t study because they know they can just retake the test.”

In response to this perceived lack of effort by students, some teachers refuse to let students retake a test or require them to perform a variety of tasks (worksheets, online lessons, test corrections) or come in during recess to qualify for a retake.

We should never just assume that students are lazy. Retakes aren’t about students being unprepared, but about letting them respond to the unexpected hurdle. I help educators define how to use retakes in helpful ways: for those occasions when there are discrepancies between formative and summative assessment results.

When teachers give smaller assessments for learning—or formative assessments—correctly and with fidelity, a student who unexpectedly bombs a larger evaluation of student learning at the end of a unit—or a summative assessment—should be a rarity. By using evidence from students’ formative assessments, teachers should have a solid grasp on whether or not individual students are ready for the end assessment.

If formative data shows individual students are ready to take the final test, but they still perform poorly, this discrepancy calls for talking with students to determine what happened, offering reteaching if necessary, and letting them retake the test.

What’s more, if a large number of students did not show mastery of the learning, that is indicative of one of three things: 1) The formative assessments a teacher gave did not correctly identify where students were in their learning; 2) All students took the summative on the same day regardless of readiness; or 3) Many students, for a variety of reasons, simply had an off day.

Our ultimate goal as educators is to ensure students learn, which is why we should offer students a second chance to show us their skills.

Being an Educator, Not a Judge

Some educators also argue that if students showed mastery on earlier assessments and not on the final, then they didn’t master the material at all. This statement begs us to think more about what “mastery” truly means. Is the process fixed or is it fluid?

I would argue that mastery is indeed fluid. Case in point is Gabrielle Daleman, an Olympic figure skater who competed this year for the Canadian women’s team. Gabrielle proved she had the skills required to qualify for the Olympics many times. But in February, after winning a gold medal in the team figure-skating event, Daleman fell multiple times on the ice and dropped to 15th place in the overall competition. But can anyone really argue that because Daleman failed her performance she had never shown mastery in the first place? I don’t think so.

There are no retakes in the Olympics. Many will still argue that there aren’t retakes in real life. But lucky for our students, we have the opportunity and, moreover, the obligation to give our students second (and third) chances. There will always be a few students who work the system. But I’d argue that it’s not the student who is flawed—it’s the system itself.

In addition to the daily assessments we give them now, students will take many tests over the course of their lives, such as a driver’s exam, the SAT, the LSAT, and the MCAT, to name a few. All of these examples allow retakes. The way school prepares students for real life is by ensuring they learn the content and skills necessary to live a full, productive life. Part of real life is determining next steps when life doesn’t go as planned.

Why not give students the same courtesy and opportunities to learn and grow now?

When it comes to discrimination “good intentions” are not enough

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I have a confession to make. One of the reasons I married my husband was because I loved his younger brother.

Now, before you jump to any conclusions, let me explain what I mean by this provocative statement. I am not referring to a romantic type of love, rather I am referring to a strong admiration of the character traits my brother-in-law, Stephen possesses. Plus, Stephen is gay, so a romantic relationship was out of the question (I’m joking, of course).

And, while I begin this post with humor, the content of this piece is no laughing matter. In fact, perhaps just my attempt at humor, in and of itself, made you feel uneasy (I used the words love and gay in the same paragraph). However, you may not want to admit that these words and images made you uncomfortable. Afterall, you are an educator, and we educators treat all of our students equally. Educators do not have biases.

Except, all humans have underlying biases. And, sometimes we aren’t even aware of them.  Tonya Ward Singer, an author who studies implicit bias stated in her 2015 blog post Get Explicit about Implicit Bias, “everyone has implicit bias and implicit associations don’t always align with our intentional beliefs. For example, a teacher may believe all races are equal, and also may unconsciously associate Latino students with low achievement.”

It Is These Implicit Biases That Perpetuate Inequality In Our Classrooms

No teacher sets out to assign students tasks that are discriminatory in nature, however without careful evaluation of all aspects of the projects we assign, we often do just that.

Let’s go back to my brother-in-law for a minute. Stephen is a single, white, gay, foster-dad living in the City of Chicago. He is raising two, elementary school-aged, African-American, boys who also have regular contact with their biological mother and three other biological siblings who live in other foster homes.

Last week one of the boys came home with a homework assignment which he asked Stephen for help completing. The assignment was marketed as the teacher’s “annual, holiday project” and students were tasked with creating linear-style, family trees, including family photos. After reviewing the project descriptor, it didn’t take Stephen long to determine it would be virtually impossible for his family to complete the project as assigned.

No More Excuses

Having been a public educator for over 15 years and currently working with many school systems across the country, I can anticipate how teachers may respond to a predicament like the one Stephen faced. Responses may include statements like, “I’m sorry I didn’t know. I’d be happy to provide an alternate assignment.” or “Feel free to adapt the project to describe your family.”

And, while these responses are certainly appropriate they are reactive. And, we need to be proactive. Simply assigning a project like the linear family tree example sets the stage for inequality. These actions are not malicious in nature, rather they are examples of microaggressions (defined by merriemwebster.com as a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group). But, even without malicious intent, the adverse effect of microaggressions on individual students and learning environments, on the whole, are profound.

In July of 2016, The Chicago Tribune published an article by Brian Crooks titled, “What It’s Like To Be Black In Naperville, America.”  In the article, Crooks recalls his elementary school experience:

In third grade, the gifted program focused on the middle ages. I was in heaven. I loved learning about knights and castles and all that stuff. We had a group project to do sometime that year, where we had to give a short speech about something we’d learned during the year. All of the groups broke off to divvy up the work when my teacher came over to my group. Wouldn’t it be “easier” and more fun for me if my group did our presentation as a rap? I’m eight years old. I have no history writing any kind of music, much less a full 3 or 4 minutes of rap verses for me and my teammates. But, I tried. The other kids just expected it to be natural for me. They looked at me like, “What do you mean you don’t know how to rap?” We ended up just doing it as a regular presentation like everybody else, and afterward my teacher came up to me and said, “I thought you guys were going to rap? I was looking forward to MC Brian.” Again, she didn’t know that she was making a racially-insensitive statement. Why would she? It’s not like she’d had deep conversation about how Black people feel about their Blackness, or the way Black people internalized the way White people feel about our Blackness.”

With knowledge of experiences like those illustrated by Stephen and Crooks, we can no longer claim ignorance. The best teachers are reflective. Just like we reflect on what formative assessment evidence tells us about our instruction, we must reflect on what our students’ actions (or lack thereof) tell us about the way in which we instruct.

If a student cannot complete an assignment as assigned the onus should not be on student and/or his parents to adapt the assignment, rather the onus is on teachers to change the assignment and ensure it is accessible to all students.

How can educators make sure assignments are accessible?

We can adhere to some guiding principles to help us avoid microaggressive situations like the following:

  1. Never assume anything. We must remind ourselves that we do not and will not ever know what it is like to be anybody but ourselves. We may have friends of other cultures and we can certainly empathize with others, but we don’t actually know what it’s like to walk in anyone else’s shoes.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask students questions. Often times we avoid asking students questions because we fear that asking the question is offensive. But, when we neglect to ask questions, we tend to make inaccurate assumptions (like the rap example Brian Crooks describes).
  3. Revisit your learning objective. As far as I know, there is not a learning standard anywhere that requires students to create a family tree. Fortunately, today’s teachers have solidified sets of standards for all content areas which guide our instruction; we don’t have to determine what we are teaching, but we have the autonomy to determine how we teach it. We can evaluate the tasks we assign by asking ourselves, “what is the learning objective or standard I am trying to assess? Does this assignment do that? Is this assignment the only way I can assess these criteria?
  4. Ask a trusted colleague or administrator to partner with you to evaluate your project. Teachers often grow attached to the lessons we have created. We are proud of them, possibly had several years of success using them, and we don’t want to say goodbye. And, sometimes we become so close to the lessons we teach we fail to see the flaws in their design. Therefore, it can be helpful to seek the input of a trusted peer to help you determine the accessibility and validity of a task.

In the end

None of us are immune from committing microaggressions. And, we will likely make more in the future. But, the first step is being cognizant of this and making a concerted effort to avoid doing so.

What are your thoughts? Share in the comments below or connect with Lisa on Twitter.

How Walkthroughs Hurt Differentiation Efforts

walkthroughThis post was originally published on Corwin Connect.


For teachers, there is nothing worse than receiving a write-up that is riddled with unchecked boxes, zeros, or vague comments after an unannounced walkthrough by an evaluator, especially one searching for evidence of differentiation.

These write-ups are especially ill received by teachers who work diligently to differentiate instruction for their students yet their informal observation paperwork doesn’t account for this effort.

Many teachers have shared that they feel “defeated” after a walkthrough, and, in turn, “give up” on differentiating instruction. If they are going to get a “zero” even when they are attempting to differentiate, then why try at all?

Why the confusion?

Attempting to spot differentiation during a walkthrough is an exercise in futility, as differentiation is not readily observable.

I can walk into a classroom and see student groups working on various tasks and assume that I see differentiated instruction. Or, conversely, I can walk into a classroom and see all students working on the same task and presume this means the lesson was not differentiated.

However, I don’t know actually know whether or not my assumptions are accurate because, for something to qualify as differentiation, evidence (qualitative and quantitative) must have been considered. For teachers, this occurs during the planning phase of instruction.

A common response from evaluators who include differentiation as an item to look for on a walkthrough even though it is difficult to accurately assess is, “That’s why we check the box for not-evident. That’s not a bad thing…”

Except, to the teachers receiving these reports, “not evident” often feels like a strike. And, any measure that is perceived by teachers as punitive should be avoided. It is vital that our teachers feel confident about their work. In fact, how effective teachers feel is directly correlated with how much their students grow (Collective Efficacy: How Educator’s Beliefs Impact Student LearningDonohoo). Receiving a walkthrough report that highlights deficiencies surely doesn’t do anything to increase teachers’ feelings of effectiveness.

But accountability is a reality.

Many administrators are well aware of the flaws in their informal observation methods, and at the same time, they are accountable for ensuring and reporting on specific practices that are occurring in classrooms.

This is important and I am not suggesting that attempts to verify that best practices are occurring in our classroom be eliminated. Instead, what I recommend is that we employ better systems to gather this information.

My first choice for informal observations would be conversation-based: evaluators confer with students and/or teachers to get a better sense of what is happening in a classroom.

However, practically speaking, I know this isn’t always possible.

Therefore, my second suggestion (as illustrated in the chart below) is to use walkthroughs that include student voice to highlight instructional practices that are indicative of differentiation, rather than identifying what is not evident.

DIFFERENTIATION LOOK-FOR TOOL

Check the boxes for any evident items.

Content(The teacher or student would need to explain why this work is targeted for the student. See questions of walkthrough questions below)
o  Varied texts (titles and/or levels)
o  Different class work or homework

 

Process
o  Teaching Up: all students are working on the same high-level task with different entry points or scaffolding (i.e. complex performance task in math where students are using different problem-solving strategies and/or tools and varying amounts of support from peers or teacher)
o  Goal setting and feedback: students have learning goals and receive feedback from teacher related to goal
o  Pacing: students are at different points working toward mastering the same standard or skill and are actively tracking progress
o  Metacognitive strategies: i.e. some students taking notes and other students taking photos with an iPad
o  Affective strategies: i.e. some students working with a partner, some working alone, and some working in a small group)
o  Questioning differs among students (type, kind, level)

 

Product
o  Students are creating a variety of products aligned with the learning intention (i.e. one student is writing a paper and one student is filming a documentary)

 

Learning Environment
o  Flexible seating arrangements: may include non-classroom space: hallway, large closet, etc.
o  Student interaction: i.e. some students interacting with each other, some students interacting with others virtually, some students working independently)
o  Technology: some students use technology to access content, some students use technology to create, some students not using technology

Include student voice

Ask students this question… Instead of this one…
What is your learning goal?Student should cite a relevant skill or concept

  • Example: I am learning to add rational numbers.
  • Non-example: To finish this assignment.
What is the learning/lesson objective?
Where are you on your path to reach your goal? How have you been tracking your success?Student should cite elements of the learning intentions (standards).

  • Examples: I have mastered adding positive and negative integers, but I am still working on adding positive and negative fractions.
  • I monitor my progress toward my learning goal with ongoing feedback from my teacher.
  • Non-examples: I don’t know.  My teacher tells me. I check our online reporting system.
What are you working on?
Can you tell me about the roles your group mates and you have?Student should cite their specific contributions to the task/goal of collaboration. Students should have different roles that equally allow them to engage with the learning intentions. What is your group doing?

Questions or comments about this post? Share below or connect with Lisa on Twitter.

 

Student-Driven Differentiation

I am excited to announce that my first book,  Student-Driven Differentiation (forward by Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson and published by Corwin Press), is now available for pre-sale on Amazon.com. You can check out the contents and preliminary reviews here.

What is Student-Driven Differentiation?

Student-driven differentiation shifts the focus from what students are going to do to what students need to learn. The focus also shifts from the teacher as the owner of the knowledge and the students the receivers of such knowledge. Student-driven differentiation requires teachers to find a healthy balance in their relationships with all students, use multiple types of evidence to ensure student growth, and partner with students in the process.

  • Shifts the focus from what students are going to do to what students need to learn
  • Requires teachers to find common ground with all students
  • Creates learning environments where students have control over their learning
  • Gives students the autonomy to create, learn, and grow at their own pace
  • Requires honest and mutually respectful teacher-student relationships
  • Students’ voices (collective and individual) are sought to craft the plan

 

The greatest deficiency in education is our obsession with showcasing deficits.

focus image final

This August marks the first time in 15 years that I didn’t have an official first day of school. Instead, this August, I transitioned to full-time educational consulting and I had numerous “first days” of school at districts in the Chicagoland area and elsewhere in the country.

As I wrap up my first month of consulting, I have one overarching takeaway: in every building, in every district, in every city, in every state, there are administrators, teachers, and students who are so passionate about learning that you can feel the positive energy in the room. It’s humbling, heartwarming, and inspiring.

Yet, what I also see are lots of educators and students who frequently second guess themselves, continuously ask for permission to do anything, or who render themselves silent in large groups and appear to have “given up.” However, behind closed doors, these are the same educators and students who are overflowing with enthusiasm and have a wealth of knowledge.

Naturally, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the strikingly similar behaviors both adult educators and student learners demonstrate in our current educational system. What causes passionate learners to become apathetic toward their passion? Why do students and adults alike ask for permission to learn? And, I keep coming back to one simple conclusion.

The Deficit Model of Education Has Worn Us All Down

Focusing on the deficits (or the kinder term, areas for growth) of students, teachers, and administrators is the go-to in education. We spend so much time beating ourselves up about the areas data shows we need improvement that we forget about our strengths. And, no one is pointing them out to us.

Our expectations are flawed. In theory, all students are expected to master all standards. All teachers are expected to be proficient at numerous criteria in a variety of categories, and all administrators are expected to cross every t and dot every i, always.

When a student, teacher, or administrator demonstrates expertise in one area (i.e. a student is strong in reading, a teacher is strong in curriculum mapping, an administrator has strong parent communication) we give them a quick pat-on-the-back and then immediately present them with their deficit (student- you need to work on math computation, teacher you need to differentiate, administrator- you need to improve student test scores).  Instead of celebrating someone’s strength and recognizing how this strength could help build the capacity of the entire organization, we treat individual’s strengths like items on a checklist. ✅

But, strengths are worthy of more than a check.

What if, instead of focusing on what students can’t do, teachers won’t do, or administrators didn’t do, we focus on what we can all accomplish together? How might education look different?

We need to find systems to authentically detect individual’s specific strengths, share these strengths publicly, and create a culture where we tap into each other’s strengths to build each other’s capacity ultimately benefiting our organizations and the field of education on the whole. We need to retrain our minds to start looking for the skills and qualities that set people apart and focus solely on that.

One idea that can work if properly implemented is something I refer to as a reverse pineapple chart. The traditional pineapple chart is a popular system of professional learning that allows teachers to invite one another into their classrooms for informal observation. The chart is set up in a common location: the teacher’s lounge, the copy room, hallway, etc.

What I propose is that rather than putting the onus on ourselves to promote our own strengths, we create a reverse pineapple chart where we promote each other’s strengths and hang that in a high traffic area within the school. The items we celebrate must be authentic and unique, and not general statements like, “John is child-centered.”The key is that everyone in an organization is looking at each other to find the good and recognize them for that.

pineapple chart revearse

The same process can be used in classrooms for students and in central offices for administrators. By using strategies that promote strengths over needs, we can create school climates where applause drowns out protest.

What are your thoughts on focusing on student, teacher, and administrator strengths rather than deficits? Share in the comment section or connect with me on Twitter @lisa_westman.