Case Study in Differentiation

I’ve been thinking about differentiation in my classes a lot lately.  I’m writing up this case study of a Regents-level Earth science class that I’m currently teaching as a way to think things through.  I’d love feedback and suggestions, so if anyone reading this has thoughts, please don’t hesitate to leave comments.

The Students

There are 7 students in the class.  The youngest just turned 12.  The oldest is almost 15.  All of the kids are bright and motivated (truly, it is a ridiculously nice group), but two of them have significant challenges.

One boy, whom I’ll refer to as “Al”, was adopted as an older child from a very difficult situation.  His birth parents and some other close relatives are dead.  His formal schooling was significantly interrupted and he is an English-language learner.  Although his English is quite functional, he is still not 100% comfortable with expressing himself and his vocabulary is limited.

Another boy, whom I’ll call “Sam”, is probably well above average in intelligence but he has significant problems with his fine motor skills.  In addition, he has a learning disability that makes writing even more difficult than his fine motor skills would predict.  He reads well and types pretty well, but his handwriting is so poor it is almost accurate to say that he can’t write.  He is also quite “scattered” and I suspect he would get an ADH diagnosis if his parents had him evaluated for that.

The remaining students do not have any significant learning disabilities or other unusual hurdles.

The Differentiation

  • Extra help for all.  I think students often know when they need some extra help with at topic.  It’s not always logistically possible for me to provide that personally in the moment.  As a workaround, I gave the students a very detailed syllabus that includes additional study resources for almost every topic we investigate.  These resources include documentaries, articles, interactive animations, and so on.  I’m not sure how often students use these extra resources, but they do mention them on occasion, so I know it happens.
  • Emotional differentiation – trusting students and their families to understand their own needs.  Before the year started, I talked extensively with Al’s adoptive parents about the content of the class.  Some of his family died in an earthquake and we study earthquakes extensively in this class and I wanted to make sure that I handled the subject in an appropriate way.  After much discussion, Al decided that he wanted to make a particular study of the earthquake that affected him personally, so I added material about that earthquake to our curriculum.  This is the opposite of what I’d planned to do, but I know he and his adoptive parents thought about it a lot and I felt it was important to let him make that decision.  Our earthquake unit is complete and it went well.
  • Work-around for poor handwriting skills.  In an ideal world, Sam would do all of his writing on a computer, but his parents do not want to send him to a lab class with the family laptop.  I can’t say I blame them – we use a lot of potentially laptop-destroying substances.  Instead, Sam writes as best he can.  He generally answers written questions with one or two carefully selected words.  I often (gently) prompt him to try going into more depth, but I essentially just let him write very little.  However, I make a particular point to push him hard during the discussion portion of the class to express himself in an organized and methodical manner.  Before the start of the year, Sam’s parents agreed to make sure he types up notes after class.  (This might not work with most families, but he is a homeschooler, so this works well with his family’s normal routine.  It also helps that Sam has a very good memory.)  Finally, when we have an exam, Sam takes it using a computer that is not connected to the internet.
  • Adjustments for an English language learner.  In Al’s case, his English is good enough so that he doesn’t need dramatic accommodation, but he does find extra time to think things through before he expresses himself verbally very helpful.  Fortunately, the curriculum I’m using has excellent “reflecting” questions in the student books.  Before we discuss our labs, I have students read through these questions and then we structure the first part of our discussion around these questions.  We often have further discussions that range beyond the scope of the reflecting questions in the book, but using these as an initial guide gives everyone a chance to put their thoughts in order before being put on the spot.
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