Friday, June 15, 2012

Differentiate to Increase Engagement

How many of us can remember not wanting to get up and go to school?  Even as an "A" student, I can certainly remember feeling that way!  The days spent filling in worksheets and completing textbook pages were often torturous!  They were so BORING! 

As an educator now, I have come to discover it doesn't have to be that way.  There are so many ways to thoughtfully teach children by truly engaging them in the content they are learning.  Making their learning relevant, hands-on, collaborative, project-based, providing them with choice, and simply differentiating their instruction are just a few effective teaching strategies educators can use to make learning engaging in their classrooms!

First, I need to clarify something...when I say we and our classroom I am referring to my teaching partner and me, as we team teach in an Intermediate (4th/5th) grade classroom.  We share one huge double room, and typically have around 50 students in our class.  (It's been as high as 58 and as low as 43.)  So, needless to say, I share all my teaching decision-making and do very little solo anymore!  :-)   

Now, back to effective teaching strategies!  Let's talk about differentiating instruction as a means to engagement.  I have been blessed to teach in an urban, public, multi-age, democratic school for the last 14 years where textbooks are only used as resources and worksheets are frowned upon.   Each child has his or her own individual learning goals, which come from Ohio's Content Standards.  These goals are based on the student's individual learning needs.   Our philosophy is that students are often at different developmental levels (Think about it...we don't all learn to walk and talk at the same time, so why would we all learn things at the same time?); therefore, we should not expect to get in front of the room and teach a lesson that is going to meet everyone's independent learning needs.  In our classrooms, you will often see students working in small groups, with partners, or independently, but you will rarely see whole-group instruction going on.  

Simply differentiating instruction is one way we make learning more engaging for students.  If a student is being provided instruction that is either too difficult for him or too easy for him, it is automatically going to be less engaging for him!   

So, what are some ways we differentiate?  Well, there are many ways we differentiate, but I'll just start with some basic examples.  As part of our math instruction, we do Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI).  For this part of our day, we develop word problems that are based upon interest surveys that the students fill out, so every CGI problem is a relevant problem about one of the students in the room.  When we make these word problems, we make three different sets which represent three different levels.  For example, the word problems may be:

Hard:  Adreanna spends five hours each week doing her chores.  Her parents pay her $1.50 per hour.  How much money will Adreanna make in a week? 

Harder:  Adreanna spends five hours each week doing her chores.  Her parents pay her $1.50 per hour.  How much money will Adreanna make in a month?  

Hardest:  Adreanna spends five hours each week doing her chores.  Her parents pay her $1.50 per hour.  How much money will Adreanna make in a six months?  

We read over the problems with the students, and they then pick and complete the problem they feel is at their learning level.   The majority of the students do a fantastic job picking a problem that is level-appropriate; however, they are kids, so we do sometimes have to encourage them to pick a problem that is more challenging.  Likewise, we also have students pick problems that are too challenging for them.  When this happens, we will encourage them to start with a problem at a lower level, and then let them try the more challenging problem after that.    Or, sometimes we may have them buddy up with another student doing the same problem so they can work together on it.

As the students complete their problems, we walk around and talk to them about their strategies and check their work.  Sometimes, we collect them and use them as assessments.  At the end of CGI, we pick three students to share their work, so the students are hearing their peers' thinking strategies, which can help grow their own thinking!

Another way we differentiate is by using Writer's Workshop.  Writing time begins with a short mini-lesson, followed by Status of the Class, and then the students work on their individual stories.  As students work on their stories, we have a chance to sit with individual students, talk about their writing, focus on their specific writing strengths and weaknesses, and support them in the areas they need.  We do have periodic writing prompts that we score to monitor where the students are in terms of grade-level skills, and they do have to write about the different genres throughout the year; however, it is not everybody doing the same thing at the same time.  They are working and growing at their individual paces.  

One other way we differentiate is by using students' individual books and/or book clubs to teach reading comprehension.  We never use the same text for the whole class, unless we are wanting all the students to have access to the content of the text.  If that's the case, we ensure there are safety nets for the students who read below the text level and extensions for the students who read above the text level.  We organize our comprehension instruction by teaching the students the various skills as the year rolls out.  They often practice their understanding of these skills in student-selected book clubs where they are working collaboratively.  

Eventually, after we have worked on several different skills, they begin using their Reading Response journals.  Inside the front cover of their journal is a list of the specific comprehension skills (i.e. main idea, cause and effect, summarizing fiction, theme), along with a rubric.  After the students do independent reading, they choose one of the skills to reflect upon.  One student may give examples of cause and effect in their fiction book, while another student may give examples of fact and opinion in their nonfiction book.  The students have to include in their entries what book they're reading, what pages they read, and what skill they are demonstrating.  We collect their journals, score them, and keep track of the skills they are demonstrating, as well as the ones they need to work on.  We use this knowledge to guide instruction in our individual conferences and small groups.  The students know they have to eventually have a response for all the comprehension skills, so they sometimes have to select their independent reading materials accordingly!

These are just a few of the ways we differentiate within our classroom to help increase student engagement.   Often times differentiating takes extra time and thought into the instruction on our part, but it's so well worth it to see our students grow and develop at a level that is most appropriate for them!   


  1. Wow! Your reading response journals sound awesome! Would love to see one!

  2. We created those journal towards the second half of the year last year, so we are excited to start the year out with them! I am sure I have some of my older students' journals from last year, and I'd be happy to show them to you! :-)