The following is an excerpt from an Education department coursework selection that demonstrates an understanding of differentiation:
Differentiated Instruction for Struggling Readers/Writers:
A fallacious and yet longstanding philosophy about instruction is that, “good teaching is transcendent-identical for all students and under all circumstances,” as asserted in “A Culturally Responsive Approach to Literacy Teaching,” by Alfred Tatum (81). Yet, classrooms are composed of students who are individuals, and as such, all have different needs, abilities, and interests, all of which need to be addressed by the educator, if instruction is to be successful. Another crucial variable which needs to be considered when planning instruction is the culture of the students which will be taught, because as research shows, “using an instructional approach disconnected from students’ culture creates student resistance,” and therefore if students do not feel a cultural connection to the content being taught, it is likely that they will not be engaged in learning it (74). To help minority students feel a cultural connection to their learning, this unit includes Passing, The Souls of Black Folk, and American Born Chinese, which according to Susan L. Groenke and Lisa Scherff, are all “culturally specific” texts (95). The three “culturally specific” texts included in this unit were chosen specifically with the intent to provide students with opportunities to personally relate to, and make meaningful connections with, the literature assigned, so that they may feel engaged and interested in their literary education (95).
Countless experts on instruction agree that students are most engaged in learning when the content being taught reflects their personal interests and connects to their personal lives. To maximize student learning, the content being taught has to be made meaningful for them, therefore an instructional approach should be mindful and inclusive of the students’ cultures. The implementation of a cultural instructional approach is supported by Linda Christensen, author of Teaching For Joy and Justice, in which she lists several crucial benefits to such a methodology. Christensen asserts that the books teachers choose to implement, “say a lot about what [they] think is important,” because they determine, “whose stories get told, whose voices are heard,” and whose are “marginalized” (6). Therefore, by constructing this unit using “culturally specific” texts, the message being sent to students is that their cultures, heritages, and societies, are all worthy of study, which will hopefully inspire students to become engaged in the literary material and their literary educations (95). The implementation of “works of writers of color,” such as Passing, The Souls of Black Folk, and American Born Chinese, in this unit plan, is not only intended to engage students with discussions of themes familiar to them, but also, it aims to allow “students to understand that no matter their gender, skin color, or social class, they can write” (7). Therefore, the decision to include “culturally specific” texts in this unit plan is based on the hopes that such works will inspire all students to connect to the works, as well as identify with the authors, and therefore see themselves and their cultures as important and integral parts of society, and ultimately, the world at large.
Another long believed falsity regarding instruction is that all students need to be taught and tested in an identical fashion, to promote fairness and equality in education. Although such a belief stems from seemingly good intentions, if, and when, implemented in instruction, such a philosophy proves discriminatory and deeply unfair to students. Each student comes to the classroom bearing natural strengths and weaknesses, and therefore instructing all students in the same manner provides an advantage to some students, and a disadvantage to others. For example, some students learn best visually, therefore they may benefit from instruction which is heavy in reading, yet such instruction would prove disadvantageous to all other kinds of learners, making it highly unfair to the student population as a whole. To maximize favorable results in student learning, Smagorinsky suggests for teachers to “allow for flexibility in the ways in which students can express themselves and come to know the discipline of English,” which can be achieved by providing differentiation in their instruction (5). Yet, instruction is not the only part of education in which students should be considered individually. Differentiation in assessment, which includes assessing “students on their own terms and through vehicles that suit their strengths,” is also necessary to achieve a fairness in education, because it takes into consideration students’ individual natural abilities (5). Therefore, both instruction and assessment need to be differentiated and provide various different points of accessibility, and outlets for expression, if a fair and equal education is to be provided to all students.
It is likely that the modern classroom will be composed of a diverse body of students, and among them may be students which are ELL, or English language learners. ELL students present a special challenge for instructors, due to their linguistic needs, and therefore instruction needs to be differentiated to accommodate their unique educational needs. In "Differentiated Instruction for English Language Learners: Strategies for the Secondary English Teacher," author Laura Baecher discusses “strategies which maintain consistent whole-class learning objectives, while meeting the needs of adolescents learning English as a new language,” which is a challenging, yet necessary, balance for educators to achieve in their secondary English classrooms (64). Baecher explains that, “one common misconception about working with ELLs is that simply immersing them in English will bring about language proficiency,” which she explains is problematic because “interaction between ELLs and native English speaking students is usually very limited,” and the “interaction between ELLs and their peers does not provide the focus on academic language that is critical for learning” (64-5). Therefore, ELLs require additional support from instructors to master English as an adopted language, for both success in the ELA classroom, and in their non-academic lives. Baecher suggest a twofold approach to teaching ELL students which includes, the teacher adjusting the “input to make the content comprehensible,” as well as structuring “classroom activities so that the learner develops English language skills” (65). To create access for learning for ELL students, teachers may need to make adaptations to the content of their unit, by, “shortening a lengthy text, providing visuals with the text, or offering a parallel, simpler text,” as well as the process outlined in their unit, by “offering the learner support in doing tasks, perhaps through cooperative groups, pairs, or by allowing use of an electronic dictionary,” and lastly, the expected product of their unit, by “assigning the learner to write a paragraph in lieu of an essay...or the option to create illustrations to show comprehension” (67-8). Baecher discusses the importance of creating print modifications of texts for ELL students, asserting that, “selecting an abridged or adapted version of a text,” as well as “re-writing the text in language at the students’ level,” and “using a graphic novel,” are all ways in which the needs of ELL students can be met by teachers in the secondary English classroom (66). To provide further support to ELL students, teacher may also have texts “read aloud” in class, set up “structures for paired-reading with a fluent reader,” and provide an “audio taped” version of the text, if available (66). Therefore, to successfully teach a body of modern students which will likely include ELLs, instructors must practice differentiated instruction in their classrooms, to support the needs of all types of learners.
Yet another group of students which will contribute to the modern secondary English classroom’s diversity, will likely be those with special needs. Special needs students also present a special challenge for instructors, due to their various individual necessities, and therefore instruction needs to be differentiated to also accommodate their unique educational needs. In "School Talk," authors David J. Connor, Leah Bacharach, and Christine La Plume, each discuss various methods for effectively instructing special needs students in the secondary English classroom. To successfully teach a diverse body of students, including special needs students, David J. Connor, suggests that, although some of these students may “literally not be able to read, write, hear, or speak,” teachers should “effectively integrate the four core aspects of literacy-reading, writing, listening, and speaking-into all lessons,” by providing necessary resources such as “audio recordings, verbal explanations, use of sign interpreters, and communication boards” (2). Connor also recommends providing opportunities for “all students to demonstrate their knowledge,” by providing “experiences that build on students’ strengths rather than forcing them to play their weaker hand,” which can be accomplished by allowing for diversity in students’ expression of their knowledge (2). The notion that “what works best for one student might not work best for another,” is also discussed by Leah Bacharach, who calls this the “best pen” metaphor, and explains that “there’s a unique answer for every student and there is no one-size-fits-all model for literacy learning (4). For example, one student’s “best pen might be a computer, while another’s could be specially lined paper,” and when students witness the acceptance of such diversity within the classroom, they “learn that others will do things differently from the way they do, and that is ok,” which will not only foster a learning environment which is safe and free of judgement, but it will also prepare them for the diversity in the non-academic world (4). Christine La Plume provides a profound last thought on special needs students, asserting that when teachers, “see the inclusion of students with disabilities as an opportunity to widen [their] perspectives, utilize [their] creativity, and model acceptance for [their] students,” then they are making true progress “towards providing a truly diverse educational experience” (5). Therefore, to successfully teach a body of modern students which will likely include those with special needs, instructors must practice differentiated instruction, and also make their classrooms accepting learning environmets, to support the needs of all types of diverse learners.
As previously discussed, every class will be made up of diverse students, which will all have diverse learning needs. A sound unit plan needs to take the needs of all learners into consideration so that it can function to instruct all types of students, including struggling and reluctant readers and writers, including ELL and special needs students. There will likely be students to whom this unit plan will be taught that will not understand or master the content and/or skills it is designed to teach, and the needs of those students will need to be addressed as well. Formative assessments will help reveal which students are struggling with the mastery of content and/or skills within the unit, and those students will receive extra instructional support through student-teacher, reading and/or writing conferences designed to address their individual needs. Struggling students will also receive additional support through student-student, reading and/or writing conferences also designed to address their specific learning needs, in which students which are excelling will tutor those who are having trouble mastering the content and/or skills defined by the unit. To further accommodate struggling students of various types, lessons, activities, assessments, and other classroom routines and structures will be adapted and modified in accordance to best meet their learning needs.
One way in which struggling students, including struggling readers, ELL students, and special needs students, will be accommodated is by providing them with revised versions of class reading materials, purposely rewritten at a reading level which is accessible to them, which will allow them to gradually improve their reading skills until they can engage with the class readings originally intended. To further help struggling readers, as well as auditory learners, ELL and special needs students, audio versions of key sections of the texts will be played aloud in class, and be read aloud by other students. The use of music and video will also be implemented to support and further aid struggling students with comprehension and making content to real life connections. For struggling writers and ELL students, the personal journal formative assessment will be modified to include artwork, to provide them with another avenue to express their thoughts and provide reflections on the content. For ELL, and special needs students, the jigsaw activity and formative assessment will be modified by providing language learners with a translation of their topic in their native language, and special needs students with clear explanations of topics, so that they may engage in discussion with their groups to the best of their abilities. The summative assessment will also be modified for struggling readers and writers, including ELL and special needs students, and will be redesigned to meet their level of literacy and measure their various levels of content mastery. For example, such students will be asked to only provide a one to two paragraph answer to the unit’s essential questions, and provide only limited literary evidence in support of their thesis. The written products produced by struggling readers and writers, including ELL and special needs students, during the summative assessment will also be assessed using a modified rubric, which will be designed to fairly score their adapted version of the written task. Furthermore, all lessons, activities, assessments, and other classroom routines and structures, will be modified and adapted to meet the educational requirements of special needs students. For example, special needs students will receive priority seating in the classroom so that they may see and hear to the best of their abilities, they will be given extra time to complete in-class tasks, take-home assignments, and the final assessment, and their work will also be graded with their particular needs taken into consideration. Ultimately, my goal is to provide all of the students in my future ELA classrooms with the quality education they both need and deserve, and it is my sincere hope that this unit plan will help me succeed in such instructional endeavors.