Elementary teachers get it. Obviously, in regard to Wondrous Words, the deck is stacked in my favor; it’s right there in the subtitle. But I mean more than that too. They understand instruction in ways that middle school and high school teachers don’t; and they prioritize learning – the development of the mind – in ways teachers of older children (and certainly adults) don’t. I’ve been thinking about this for quite some now, as I work with teachers of all levels, but it became perfectly clear to me on Tuesday, when I spent time with the faculty of Roundstone Elementary School in Mt. Vernon. I was there at the invitation of Kerry Taulbee, a K-1 Special Ed teacher at Roundstone and an EKUWP Teacher-Consultant. It was a PD day for Rockcastle County and Kerry led her school’s morning session. Her focus was Differentiation, which I had thought logical for a Special Ed teacher, but also, I discovered, completely practical for the rest of her faculty. In other words, as Kerry espoused the benefits of differentiation and walked through an impressively wide range of means of differentiating, I deduced that she was preaching to the choir. And I think Roundstone teachers are representative of elementary teachers everywhere: they know how to individualize instruction; they know how to scaffold; they know how to remediate; and they put this knowledge into practice in their classrooms every day.
I think all teachers understand that differentiation benefits student learning, may even make student learning possible. But I’m not sure all teachers embrace it. I think teachers of older students provide student choice – definitely an important form of differentiating. And I think many writing teachers employ, to some extent, the workshop model in their classrooms, which naturally creates space for individualized learning. But I watched the Roundstone faculty as Kerry outlined these and other ways of differentiating, and it was clear that much of it was familiar territory (though still a useful charge) to them. They differentiate in assigning work, in having students read, in forming groups, in brainstorming, in developing ideas, in drafting, in revising, in publishing, in thinking critically, in thinking creatively, in experimenting, in problem-solving. And I wondered how affirmative would have been the responses of teachers of older students. I think high school teachers, for example, know the practices Kerry discussed. But I’m not sure they could confidently say that they make regular use of them.
So where’s the disconnect? Is differentiation merely developmental, and at some stage students more or less grow out of the need for individualized instruction? Is a high school schedule differentiation-prohibitive, since a high school teacher will see 125 students a day instead of 25? Is skills-based instruction at odds with differentiation? The Standards are ever-present, after all, always looming as a hardline exit-outcome, and if we differentiate then we’re acknowledging, perhaps, that some students will not make the developmental leaps to meet the Standard? Or is it something else, like maybe instructional practices that get translated, re-interpreted, as students get older, not lost or sacrificed, as I’m suggesting here?
I hope that’s it. I hope it happens. Because it’s clear that paying attention to each student, and addressing their different needs, and altering the form of that address as they develop, is a good thing. It’s happening at Roundstone. It’s happening in elementary schools all over the places. And it has to be happening with older students too, I’m sure. Tell us how. How do you differentiate? How does differentiation enter in, not just into your plans but also your practice? Leave a comment, telling us what you do.