Drinking the Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
May 02 2011

Differentiation on a Stick

I was muy disappointed in myself on Sunday afternoon because I hadn’t done any unit planning, even though I’d had all these great intentions to have super-duper-differentiated layered curriculum for my last five weeks as the first installment of 2YTA. I’d spent all my work time on Saturday deciding what on earth to remediate post-TAKS, instead of writing my summative (gulp) and calendaring my projects for the end of the year.

Well. Turns out “layered curriculum” is waaaay easier to maneuver than I thought it would be. It’s like differentiation for dummies. Differentiation minus the mess. Differentiation that melts in your mouth, not in your hand. Differentiation on a stick!

The three layers—one at a “C” level, one at a “B” level, and one at “A”—have different tasks assigned to each layer. Everyone completes the C-level task (basic knowledge), and if they complete that they move to the B-level (application & problem solving) and the A-level (critical thinking, analysis).  … Easiest, fastest, most fun planning I’ve done. After about an hour of thinking, I had come up with tasks for each layer for my geometry and intervention classes for this week, and all I had to do was put the materials together. It was entertaining to occupy my mind with what kinds of things my kids could do with different topics at different levels! Better yet, I can see that as I get better at this, my projects for each level are only going to become more mathematically purposeful and more fun for my kids.

The real reason I’m excited, though, is because of the reception the idea got from my students.

I handed out the C-level, which was just a packet of practice problems. But when I told them that completing it would earn them a C, they Flipped. OUT.    Teezy Minaj was full of his usual attitude: “So you saying, if I do this whole packet perfectly, the best I get is a C?!? Miss, you can’t do that! Fidda call my momma, you gonna get fired.” It was encouraging to see that the norm in the classroom was to care about not just whether they passed, but whether they passed with a C or an A. We spent a heated five minutes going back and forth over why this was or wasn’t illegal before they realized my mind wasn’t changing.

When I told them kids at other high schools were used to doing this much work, they made sure to remind me what school this was, after all, and told me “it’s different here!” I resisted the urge (and by that I mean I was wholly unprepared) to dive into a discussion of the achievement gap and low expectations, but I was excited to hold them to a new standard and glad they got to feel me give them some real expectations and not back down when they bucked. And when I told them “Yes, it’s a lot of work, and I know you guys are very hard workers and that you’ll get it done,” they didn’t have anything but grumbles to shoot back at me.

The best part? They finally realized they didn’t have any choice but to get working. My A students were ferocious and stopped letting people copy off their papers. Several of my students who like to wait to be prodded before they ask a question were clarifying things left and right. I know that at the end of this week, my high students will have completed high-level tasks while my low students will have gotten the practice they need.  Still working on how to push everyone up the scale—but getting some of us there is going to be pretty sweet.

The other best part? Planning those tasks means I’ve finished my planning for the week. (WHAT? You have time this week to plan for next week? I thought you were a first-year teacher!)

2 Responses

  1. Stazi

    Congratulations! :D That’s the best – when you enjoy and do not exhaust yourself doing something that’s tangibly helpful. Yay!
    Do you think there’s any way to implement this in a TESOL situation? I teach Oral English in a university in China and I’ve been reading a lot of TFA materials trying to figure out how to differentiate… my students really need it, because I have 0-to-fluent in the same class.
    Unfortunately it’s really hard to assign layered speaking activities… any suggestions?

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