Friday, July 21, 2017

Differentiation is NOT a Scary Word

I found How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms by Carol Ann Tomlinson not only crammed with so many good ideas it will take me a book discussion to unpack it all, but also just straight up inspiring. Here's how it starts:

Teaching is difficult.

Teaching really well is profoundly difficult.

Even the best among us fall short of our professional aspirations regularly, and feel diminished in those moments.

Okay, so not inspiring yet, but she does let you know you're not alone.

And yet, for many, the work of teaching is also nourishing. It grows us as we grow the young people in our care. Each success is instructive. Each failure is instructive. We are challenged to become the best version of ourselves as we challenge our students to become their best as well.

One classroom reality that taxes our capacity to teach as we need and want to teach is the great variety of learners who surround us every day. They are mature and immature for their age.... They are excited by school and terrified by it. They suffer from poverty and from affluence. They are entitled, and they are without hope. They are socially adept and socially inept. They are intrigued, inspired, and shut down by very different topics or issues…. (vii)

And that's just the preface!

What is the answer to captivating every one of these varied children with the content, skills, and understandings we teach and in order to equip them to succeed in our classrooms and in life? Differentiation. What is differentiation? According to Tomlinson, who published the first edition of this book over 20 years ago and the third edition this year, “In a differentiated classroom, the teacher proactively plans and carries out varied approaches to content, process, and product in anticipation of and response to student differences in readiness, interest, and learning needs” (10). While the first half of the book is about the need for differentiated instruction and the role of the teacher, students, and learning environment in a differentiated classroom, that 3x3 grid—differentiating content, process, and product in response to students’ varied readiness, interest, and learning needs—is the second half of the book. 

There are so many ideas I’ll need a book discussion with my colleagues in the fall to unpack them all. But I did have a few overall responses:

I appreciate Tomlinson’s reminder that it’s not only English language learners and struggling learners who need attention, but also advanced learners and “kids in the middle.” Under-challenge for advanced learners can result in mental laziness, undeveloped study and coping skills, rewards found in grades rather than learning, risk avoidance, and failure to develop self-efficacy. And about kids in the middle she says the following: “...[T]he most devastating wound teachers and schools inflict on students is the wound of underestimation…. It’s easy to get lost in the great middle…. And yet, in among these kids who don’t seem extraordinary in any way, there are ones who need just a little more help to be able to soar academically. There are ones who need to find their voice but will remain mute without a teacher taking time to ask and to listen.… In the middle is pretty much the whole human condition. And every student in the middle is waiting for someone to signal that he is unique, that she is special, and that there is no achievement that is beyond reach. Teachers have the opportunity (and I would argue, the obligation) to be that someone as often as it is humanly possible to be” (30).

This does not mean, however, that every child needs his/her own individually tailored learning program--that would be overwhelming! To a certain extent, simply using a variety of instructional approaches enhances everyone’s opportunities to learn: “There is no exclusive ‘ELL’ strategy that doesn’t have utility for some other students as well, just as there is no exclusive strategy for students who struggle, who are advanced, or any student for that matter. What’s necessary is that teachers understand their students, be prepared with a broad repertoire of instructional approaches, and use those approaches in ways that support growth for particular students in particular contexts” (29).

I also appreciate Tomlinson's emphasis that “in order to provide good differentiated curriculum and instruction—whether we are talking about content, process, or product—you should first have good curriculum and instruction” (144). The most challenging and foundational prerequisite for differentiation is convincing students that your class goals are important to them, and that the activities you have designed will get them there. Otherwise you can spend hours designing tiered assignments, orbitals, and RAFT assessments, and some students will still ask how it will be graded and slip by with the minimum of investment.  

The good news is, good teaching is good teaching, however it is packaged. Don't fear the jargon "differentiation." There are common themes that have emerged from the three professional books I've read so far this summer. The three books are framed in very different ways by very different people. Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools is by a senior research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College is by a guy who runs an organization with the mission of starting and managing "outstanding urban public schools that close the achievement gap and prepare low-income scholars to graduate from college" (Lemov xxxi). How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms is by the guru of all differentiation. But each of them want school to be a place where every child is challenged, empowered, and equipped to learn and succeed. And each of them insist that in order for this to happen, the classroom should be a place of emotional safety and intellectual engagement, where both teacher and students know the learning goals are significant, know what they are, and know how the learning activities will help them get there.

Good teaching is pretty basic, and yet it's taken me a lifetime to grow into it--and I'm still growing. So grab a break this summer, fellow teachers--head for the beach, or the mountains, or the pool, or your family--but somewhere along the line, also grab one of these books--or a different one that will grow and challenge your teaching practice come the fall. Let's get ourselves ready to return rested to the great challenge of helping every kid in our classes experience more success and joy in learning.



Friday, July 14, 2017

Teaching Like a Champion, Part 2

The Driehaus Museum--the lovely restored Gilded Age mansion in downtown Chicago that we toured this morning
  • I’m going to turn my walkie-talkie off right now because there’s nothing more annoying than being interrupted by bursts of static. Would you please also silence your cell phones?
  • You are more than welcome to take lots of pictures—just no flash photography, please.
  • What parts of this room are you noticing right now?
  • Can anybody guess what this centerpiece was used for? (Silence.) It has something to do with the bunches of grapes in relief around the edge.
  • I have some more information on your question, and I’d be happy to talk to you about it after the tour.

You know you’re a teacher when during summer vacation, at a family reunion, on a group tour of the Driehaus Museum, you keep noticing how the knowledgeable, lively guide employs techniques from your latest professional reading, Teach Like a Champion 2.0. And then you go back to your hotel room and blog about it. (What did the guide do? She clearly articulated, modeled, and gave reasons for her expectations. She framed them positively. She invited participation with questions, wait time, and prompts. She kept the pace moving.)

Two weeks ago I blogged about the first half of the book, and this week I’ll finish it up. Doug Lemov has spent many years observing champion teachers in their classrooms, capturing the moves that make them great, classifying and naming those moves, and then sharing them with other teachers so we, too can teach like champions. There are 62 of these moves or techniques (thus the subtitle: 62 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College), organized into 4 parts:
  1. Check for Understanding: Specific techniques to gather valid and reliable data throughout each lesson in order to modify instruction to boost student understanding.
  2. Academic Ethos: Specific techniques to communicate the high expectations and plan and pace the instruction that maintains rigor.
  3. Ratio: Specific techniques to ensure that all students are frequently and actively engaged in rigorous thinking.
  4. Five Principles of Classroom Culture: Specific techniques for establishing routines, managing behavior, and building relationships that make your classroom a place where vigorous learning can flourish.
Part 3 was my favorite. I've long quoted Harry Wong's line “School should not be a place where young people go to watch old people work.” “Ratio” is Lemov’s shorthand for this idea. As he says, “One of our most important goals as teachers…is to cause students to do as much of the cognitive work—the writing, the thinking, the analyzing, the talking—as possible” (234). This ratio has 2 dimensions: participation (all students as often as possible) and rigor (quality and depth of thinking). The 3 chapters in part 3, elucidate 3 ways to build ratio: through questioning, writing, and discussion. All 3 of which I teach and use a lot, but I’m always on the lookout for how to do it more and better, and here are 3 techniques I’ll be using more intentionally and systematically next year:
  • Cold Calling: Can be misused as a “gotcha,” but can also be an important part of a classroom culture where everyone is expected to be engaged at all times. If this seems threatening to you or to your students, Lemov outlines steps for acclimating students.
  • Everybody Writes: Ask a challenging question, and then give students time—even if just a minute or two—to respond in writing before discussing. This gives students more writing practice (and a purpose for writing), fosters more rigorous discussion, and helps students experience the processing by which thoughts and writing are refined. As far as procedure goes, it prepares students for Turn and Talk or Cold Call. 
  • Art of the Sentence: Lemov points out that we spend a lot of time addressing word choice and paragraph structure, but not so much on sentences. But if we “ask students to synthesize a complex idea, summarize a reading, or distill a discussion in a single, well-crafted sentence…the discipline of having to make one sentence do all the work pushes students to use new grammatical forms” (286). You can increase scaffolding by using sentence starters (“Summarize the data from this graph in one complete, well-written sentence that begins with the phrase ‘Over time…’” [286]) or sentence parameters. Sentence parameters could include using academic vocabulary (“Using the word ‘epiphany,’…”), idea combinations (“Explain the author’s proposal and how you know it’s satire…”), or discipline-specific thinking (in science, begin “To test this hypothesis…”).

It’s not that I’ve never used any of these techniques in my class, but giving them a name and thinking about the benefits of systematically implementing them—not just 3 times a year for a change of pace or because I remembered this cool trick—I think could make a difference. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Grandmothering a Reader


I’ve read more baby board books than education books this week. That’s what 11 days of vacation in Salem, OR, with my first grandchild will do for me.  (Oh, yes—and with my two daughters and their husbands, too.) In that context, I’ve been reflecting on the opposite end of the process of language learning from what I usually do—not teaching honors and AP English classes, but playing with an 11-month old. I’m reminded of a New York Times article I read recently, “How to Raise a Reader,” and I’ve been noticing how my own reading to my grandson corresponds to the advice in the article for reading to babies. 

For instance, he and I were reading Sandra Boynton’s What’s Wrong, Little Pookie? Little Pookie is crying, and the mother runs through a litany of questions trying to guess what’s wrong, starting with the usual—hot, hungry, hurt—and when the answer is always “no,” venturing into the ridiculous: “Did a very large hippo try to borrow your shoes?” My grandson suddenly lost interest and crawled away. I put the book down and followed him. My English teacher daughter (the other one, not the child’s mom) called out from her armchair where I thought she was lost in her own book, “Wait! I’m not going to find out what’s wrong with Pookie?” So I quickly finished it for her…but not for my grandchild. He was gone, and that’s okay. Books are fun, not a chore.

The sounds in baby books are a lot of fun—like the animal sounds in Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle.  Usually my grandson just stares wide-eyed at me or babbles or grunts in excitement as I moo and oink. One time he actually “baa-ed” back after I made a sheep sound! It might have just been a serendipitous vocalization because it hasn’t been repeated, but we toss the sounds back and forth and practice the pattern of conversation.

While most of the language is simple, every so often vocabulary pops up that we don’t usually use in talking to a baby. Words like “anxious” in A.A. Milne’s Piglet Is Entirely Surrounded by Water and “suspicious” in Winnie-the-Pooh and Some Bees. 

But mostly we “play” books more than read them at this point. An 11-month-old is still exploring how cool it is that the pages flip back and forth. Board books are great because he can do this flipping himself and even chew on a page if he wants—and no one says, “No.” Who wants to associate “no” with books? I play with the voices—big, deep ones and little, squeaky ones. We stop and notice the illustrations—count the frogs, find the chick, name the colors. And when something in the book bounces, we bounce. It’s reading as a contact sport. The important thing right now is that he associate language and books with delight.

The family trip to Powell’s City of Books, which claims to be the world's largest independent bookstore, he didn’t find as delightful as the rest of the family did. However, if we are all enjoying books on our own, and enjoying them with him, I’m pretty sure he’s on the right track. So enjoy some books yourself this summer, and share your enjoyment with a child near you. There’s a straight line from that to how passionately and skillfully that child will wield language some day.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Teaching Like a Champion, Part 1

I’ve been in a lot of conversations about making our classrooms safe places to fail, but reading the first half of Doug Lemov’s wildly popular Teach Like a Champion 2.0on nearly every “essential reading for teachers” list I’ve come across recently—is the first time I’ve seen such a collection of specific protocols and examples for doing just that.

And that is the strength of this book—practical, specific protocols and examples. The book I reviewed last week, Creating Cultures of Thinking, was big on the theory, on painting the vision, with a few specific examples thrown in, assuming that once a teacher has the vision, he or she can come up with plenty of ways to apply it. It decries just giving teachers new techniques without really changing their thinking. But it’s also true that sometimes a vision needs a few more hooks. Teach Like a Champion is the complementary other half—assuming you have the theory and vision for what student learning should look like, but experience the frustration of, “Yes, but what does that look like in my classroom at 8:25 on this particular Tuesday morning?” 

Doug Lemov has spent many years observing champion teachers in their classrooms, capturing the moves that make them great, classifying and naming those moves, and then sharing them with other teachers so we, too can teach like champions. The first half of the book covers (1) checking for understanding (a lot of good ideas here for efficiently gathering data on student mastery and using that data) and (2) establishing an academic ethos (setting high expectations, planning, lesson structure, and pacing). 

Making it safe to fail, or what Lemov calls creating a culture of error, is part of checking for understanding, because it’s much easier to check for understanding if students are eager to expose their errors so they can get them fixed than if they are trying to hide them for fear of disappointing the teacher or looking dumb. I realized I need to examine my own attitude first—do student mistakes frustrate me because I feel they reflect badly on my teaching or because they throw off my well-timed lesson when I have to circle back and re-teach? Or do I honestly welcome them—because what if we hadn’t uncovered that misunderstanding, and a group of students had continued building on their confusion? 

With experience, it’s easier to plan for errors—to anticipate that there will be confusion about a particular character’s motivation at a given point in a novel, or about how to format the hanging indent for a Works Cited page using rulers rather than tabs—and to build into the lesson the necessary time for dealing with those errors. Lemov gives 4 key parts to establishing a classroom culture that “respects error, normalizes it, and values learning from it,” and they are “expecting error, withholding the answer, managing your tell, and praising risk-taking” (67). Read the book for more explanation and examples. (It even comes with a companion CD so you can watch champion teachers in action.)

I realized also that an exciting aspect of a classroom culture in which it is safe to struggle and fail is that it is shaped not just by the teacher’s attitudes, words, and efforts, but also by how students respond to each other. This requires the teacher to articulate how students are expected to respond to each other and why, to practice those responses with students, and to hold students accountable for them. I find this exciting because part of our school’s vision for students is that they will use their learning to serve others, and this doesn’t need to wait until after graduation, or even until our dedicated “Service Week” in February—it can happen every day in every classroom as we support and help each other through the struggle of learning.   

In addition, I learned that some controversial practices can be managed to good effect. Two that Lemov champions are cold calling (if you’ve truly established a culture of error—because how else can we efficiently judge the level of student mastery?) and reading out loud. His group of protocols for managing reading out loud he calls “controlling the game,” and he spends 11 pages on it. Something else I want to consider trying next year. 


This book is full of practical, specific and illustrated ideas for putting to work in our classrooms the grand visions of learning that sometimes seem elusive in the press of everyday lessons. I’m looking forward to implementing more intentionally a culture of error, and I’m looking forward to reading the second half of the book. I just don’t think I’ll probably be scripting and practicing my lines as the author suggests. But then again, I’m not his main target audience of teachers in urban schools serving low-income students. However, one don’t have to be in that target audience to find enough useable ideas to make this book well worth its price and the time spent reading it.