Saturday, August 25, 2012

Differentiate through Learning Contracts

Wow!  The first two weeks of school have quickly passed by, and we're now getting to know our students more, both socially and academically.  With this new knowledge, we are recognizing the dire need to differentiate activities this year even more than we have in the past, as we have quite the range in abilities!

One way we have always differentiated learning is through the use of learning contracts.  Our learning contracts consist of six activities, which must be completed within a given amount of time.  The students may choose which activity they would like to work on each day, as well as if they would like to work with a partner or small group.  Obviously, if their choices do not support their learning, we intervene and help them!  :-)

We try very hard to make the learning contract cover the same, so it appears the students are all working on the same thing.  We even attempt to keep the activity titles in each box the same; however, the activity in each box may look quite different when the student gets the direction sheet.

For example, we had a math activity in one of our math learning contract boxes last year called Build a What?  The primary mathematical focus in this activity was to help students better understand square and cubic units of measure, as well as what types of measurements are taken with these units.  

We differentiated the activity as follows:
  • Level 1:  Students built a square decimeter with paper rolls and tape.  Once their square decimeter was built, they had to think about what measurements they could take with their new measuring tool (i.e. area of the table, area of the cabinets, area of the bulletin board).  They then did some actual measuring with their tools.  They also had to determine how many square decimeters fit in a square meter, which we had taped off in the floor.  
  • Level 2:  Students did the same activities in Level 1; however, they then built a cubic decimeter with the paper rolls and tape.  They repeated the same steps in terms of figuring out what measurements they would take with their new tool (i.e. volume of a crate, volume of the sink, volume of our cabinet) and then again did some measuring.  They finished this section up with determining how many cubic decimeters is in one cubic meter (which we had built in groups the week before).  
  • Level 3:  Students did the same activities in Level 1 and 2; however, they then had to use their square decimeter to find the surface area of our cubic meter.  
It does take time to differentiate activities on a learning contract, but if you work collaboratively with a colleague, you can divide and conquer!  Not to mention, depending on the depth of the activities (many of which can be actual projects), contract work can last as long as 3 to 4 weeks; therefore, once the initial planning is done, you are set for a while. 

Some benefits of learning contracts are:
  • Work can be differentiated while appearing to be very similar
  • Students can work collaboratively or independently (unless an activity requires one or the other) based on what best fits their learning style
  • Activities can be hands-on and engaging
  • The teacher has the flexibility to circulate around the room, interacting with many students on an individual basis, and often times giving them personalized instruction
  • Students can learn and grow from one another
  • Students have choice, which gives them a sense of control and ownership
  • Students learn important life skills, such as time management 
  • The teacher has the flexibility to pull small groups for instruction while the other students are working on their learning contracts
We just told our students this week that we are planning on starting our first learning contract next week, which was followed by many "YEEEAAAAHHHS!!" from our returning older students in the room.  The students really do enjoy them!

Speaking of the first learning contract, we typically make this a very simple contract, and we make ourselves available to circulate around the room during this time to help students learn how to monitor themselves for on task behavior and to be aware of how they are managing their time.   Basically, we are helping them learn how to work during our contract time!  

The activities on our first practice learning contract are listed below.  I have given a brief description of each one to give you an idea of how the activities are differentiated.  Remember, this contract is meant to be simpler, as we are more focused on helping them learn how to do contract work productively! 
  • Class Names in ABC Order (Remember...we have 50 students!  We will have all the students' names on index cards and will differentiate this activity by how many names we require the students order.)
  • Sorting Activity (The sorts will range from sorting rhyming words to sorting parts of speech.)
  • Venn Diagram (The students will select two items to compare and contrast in a Venn diagram.  We will have a list of various items from very basic things to more abstract things in the event students need ideas.)
  • Graphing Activity (We will do a whole group Quick Survey on their favorite seasons, which will be in the form of a Frequency Table on a poster hanging up in class.  The students will then select a type of graph to graph the data.)
  • Place Value Riddles (This activity will consist of a variety of number puzzles that give place value clues to find specific numbers.  Some riddles will have kids use actual base ten blocks and may only go up to the hundreds place, while others may include decimal place values.)
  • Mystery Numbers (The students will create their own mystery numbers, along with clues that describe their number.  This activity is already differentiated, as students' mystery numbers will reflect their ability level.)
 We generally make math learning contracts, science learning contracts, and social studies learning contracts.  The practice one above is clearly a mix of language arts and math; however,'s about practicing what contract time should look like, versus the actual content area focus!

Students working on science contract activities.

I love contract time as much as the students do!  It's definitely worth the energy and effort it takes to plan them and to get them organized!   I encourage you to give them a try!  If you'd like me to email you one of our contract covers so you have the format, I'd be happy to!  :-)

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