My Personal Experience with Differentiation in Schools
I am currently working as a Literacy Specialist Assistant for the High School Language and Learning Support Center at Lincoln International School. One of my duties is to collaborate with teachers and students in differentiating lessons. Coincidently, when studying in college, I became interested in Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Despite the criticism to of the theory, I was moved by several of its arguments. It was not long after reading Gardner that I started implementing these concepts into my lessons. I realized that I empowered students by giving them the opportunity to show their strengths. As a result, I was embracing classes with students willing to learn and participate, who would get involved in discussions and current topics. I like calling this, “closing the gap between teaching and learning”. I am briefly sharing in this article the lessons I learned about differentiating in a classroom.
Lesson 1: Students in a class are not “cookie cutter”
I started my teaching career as a Spanish teacher in the USA. My adviser in college shared with me some wise words: “Once you start focusing less on the content and more on how to engage students with it; then, you can call yourself a teacher,” and she was right. Despite my knowledge of Spanish syntax, subjunctive and use of imperative, I left my first week of teaching feeling like I knew nothing. I was not told that students’ interests and attitudes towards classes came in different shapes and sizes. After a few weeks, I decided I would get to know my students more in depth. This meant I was not only reading reports, IEPs, or records; actually, I was getting to know their hobbies, strengths, and challenges. I noticed that students who were not good at speaking, loved writing. Students who were staring on the window, were humming songs from their favorite hip-hop singers. Students causing troubles were the ones who had attention deficit. Students who were disconnected, were the ones who were struggling emotionally. So, is there a way of making them engaged in class despite all these difficulties?
Lesson 2: Getting involved in the learning process
As Benjamin Franklin’s most famous quote says: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” This became my practice; I was not in charge of teaching, instead, I was responsible for involving my students in my lesson, But how? Although I was skeptical about the use of pop culture in the classroom, I gave myself one opportunity, (it is not that regular formal lessons were going well anyways). The first time, I used a famous hip-hop singer to introduce the lesson. The outcome was amazing. Students finished the task on time and they requested more lessons like that one. By making connections with their personal interests, I was able to engage them in the lesson.
After that, I committed myself to transferring all the lessons from the textbook into PowerPoint Slides in order to create more engaging activities. I knew it meant sleepless nights and busy days, but listened to students commenting about “how cool” Spanish class was made it worth.
Lesson 3: Being active might be the best way for some students to learn
As a result of all my lessons, students were developing skills such as speaking, listening, and problem solving. At Lincoln, I was able to apply my previous background in differentiation as part of my job. Today, we collaborate with more than 30 teachers in almost 90 classes, from Modern World History and Integrated Math to IB Global Politics and Integrated Chemistry and Physics. Although I am a not an expert at everything, the challenge is to be able to engage students with the lessons. But some subjects are more difficult than others; we know this by experience. How many of us struggle with Math, English, or History? For Integrated Chemistry and Physics, students were learning about the location of different waves in the electromagnetic spectrum. As a result, for some students it was hard to visualize this on a piece of paper. I stood in front of the paper and I asked myself how I would do it. I came up with this “Fill the blanks” type of game. I gave this to our students and they loved it! We even had some enthusiastic ones that asked for more. What seems like a game can actually help students to understand and improve some skills.
ICP Fill the blanks game. Electromagnetic Waves
From my experience, I learned that students have unique characteristics. Some are really good at Math, others at English, and others at Visual Arts. However, they are all sitting in the same classroom trying to understand concepts that go beyond their logic. As a Literacy Assistant at the Language and Learning Center, my colleagues and I spend several hours redefining concepts, reviewing content, and analyzing data, so students are more capable of succeeding, not only in high school, but in overall life. The most important lesson learned is that we become teachers once we can make students’ thinking visible to all, including themselves.