Friday, March 4, 2011

Differentiating my classroom

Hello fellow educators. I face a dilemma, and would like to use some info that is new to me to address it. I would also like some feedback (hopefully) before implementing (which could be as early as Monday).

Here is the situation: I teach a semester Senior English class, Struggles of Humanity (the running joke is the  class should be called Struggles of's only half-funny). I don't have a set curriculum, and my dept. chair gave the freedom to "do what I want, as long as they learn." Both a blessing and a curse, cast down on me (borrowing the line from The Gaslight Anthem song, "Red at Night." I know, shameless plug).

I have no state exam to worry about (NY Regents is taken in junior year), and I have the freedom to tackle any concept in literature that deals with a struggle that humankind has faced. That translates to, well, anything.

On the flipside, we don't necessarily track our students in senior year, so the range of abilities is immense. Last semester, I had a number of students above the 100% mark (they went beyond every assignment I brought to them) and I had 4 students fail below the 30% mark (lowest mark in one quarter ...7%). It is both a dumping ground and a melting pot.

Now, to my newest group of students. We are 1 month into the semester, and I don't know my students. Oh sure, I have their names down and I taught a few of them last year, but of the 25 students staring back at me, I don't know who they are and where they are (in life, etc.). And, it's not from a lack of me trying. Or, more reflectively, it IS from a lack of me trying - because I'm not trying the right way.

They are simply (or not so simply) apathetic. When I say they are silent, I mean it. I have a had a few courtesy giggles in a given period. That's it. I was discussing this with a veteran colleague yesterday, and his reply was "quiet, just the way I like 'em." He was only half-joking.

I don't want quiet. I don't want status quo. I sure as hell don't want apathy. (Even my horrible pun, which I repeat every year and still giggle at, didn't elicit a response: "Give me apathy! Or give me something else." Attribution, anyone?)

Most of the class needs to pass the class to graduate. I have concerns about some already, who have been late with assignments (@TomSchimmer - I'm still the "10% per day" guy, though I haven't stopped thinking about your "Lose the 0" post a few weeks back).

Last week, our PDT presented a short video about Differentiated Instruction (see my post about teacher reactions). In the video, the teacher had three different levels of assignments: straight ahead, uphill, and mountainous (a loose paraphrase would be easy, medium, hard, I guess). I have been thinking about how to utilize this thinking in my classroom. When I looked at my seniors, thought of the differentiation, the two seemed to meld.

Here's my plan:

  • Divide the class into two possible groups: straight ahead and mountainous (I will modify the names later)
  • When each student arrives, he/she needs to choose what they feel like doing that day...they get to choose how their learning will be structured.
  • If a student chooses the "easy" task, he/she will go to the back of the room and will be asked to do individual seat work. He/she may not participate in the day's lesson, unless he/she switches to the "challenging" task - then he/she may join the conversation.
  • For assessment, here's my thought: I will create a checklist of required work for the quarter, and each student must hit the minimum requirements. If a student consistently choose the "easy" assignments, he/she will be turning in MORE assignments of STANDARD quality work. On the flipside, the students who choose the "challenging" assignment would hand in FEWER assignments of a MORE CHALLENGING quality. 
Here is my big question: Is this educationally sound? 

The vision I have is that a small number of students who want to participate will sit near the front initially, and we will have conversations, etc. This will allow me to "teach" those who "want" to be taught. And, hopefully, the numbers will shift based on what the "easy" students see the "challenging" students doing. 

I am asking students to complete this survey over the weekend so I can get their feedback on this type of system. I doing this for them, or for me? Is this an attempt to fix a problem using the wrong tool? Since DI is such a new concept to me (as a practical resource), I want to make sure I do not misuse it. I also hope to bring this up at the Teach Meet NJ conference tomorrow morning (#tmnj11).

I would truly appreciate any feedback. And I know it's a long post, so thanks for reading.