Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Differentiation - why it's easier said than done.



Yesterday I returned to work, and began Term 2 with a day of Professional Learning. As a special education teacher, I am part of the Illawarra Secondary Special Education Network (ISSEN), and our focus for the day was on "Knowing your students, and how they learn" - with a specific focus on the critical factors for the successful inclusion of learners with identified educational needs in the secondary classroom - in brief, DIFFERENTIATION. 

What is Differentiation?

"is the process whereby adults make sufficient adjustments to themselves and the environment in order to accommodate the learning needs of students"

A slide from Dr Loretta Giorcelli's presentation


This workshop, led by Dr Loretta Giorcelli, explored some of the tools and techniques that are successfully being used in secondary settings, along with some resources that teachers can use to deal with individual learners needs in an academically diverse classroom. 

After the first session, we then broke off and had the choice of participating in smaller groups to further explain related topics - I chose to focus more on differentiation as this is something I am struggling with in the secondary setting. 


What did I learn?

Unfortunately, not a lot. Having studied my Masters, and coming from a Primary background, differentiation is not new to me. It's actually one of my strengths - as long as I have a basis from which to work. That is what I did learn - I need to have a guide when teaching content I'm unfamiliar with, so that I can adjust my teaching to meet the needs of the students in my class.

So why is it easier said that done? Well, I'm talking about my experience working in the secondary setting. I am a practical person - I prefer to be given practical examples of how something can be implemented. It's all well and good to spout sonnets about how we need to differentiate, and that if we don't we're effectively breaking the law, but HOW do we do this? WHAT does it look like? 

In the primary setting, I have taught up to seven subjects across a week, and have presented learning experiences for all seven subjects that allow all children to successfully complete the tasks. In the primary setting, there is a plethora of resources that provide teachers with a 'how to' guide for almost every subject. For example, I love the Oxford Maths Plus resources (especially as Maths isn't an area of strength for me) as it provides a teachers resource book (or more recently an online platform) that provides warm-up, hands-on, support and extension activities that all link to a page in the student text book. There are texts and resources like this for ALL subjects in the primary sector, and these are great because unlike High School teachers, primary teachers aren't specialists - we may have one or two subjects we really enjoy teaching and have a special interest in, but we still have to be prepared to teach across ALL the KLAs. 

Here is where the High School setting is different - high school teachers are specialists. They have one, maybe two, areas that they teach in. And while they're doing that across 2-3 stages, they only have to know that subject area. For me however, as a special education teacher in a state high school, I am expected to plan, program and teach across 5 subjects - English, Maths, HSIE (History & Geography) & PDHPE. While I am competent in teaching the HSIE, ENG & PDHPE content and provided differentiated learning experiences for these subjects, it's MATHS that has me totally stumped this year. 

Maths becomes quite complex as you progress through the high school years - things like trigonomery still baffle me - and now I'm expected to teach it!!!!!! And while I've scoured the internet for countless hours, I cannot find ANY resources that provide a how to for teachers that provide a variety of activities to help students learn such complex maths topics. Programs I've obtained don't outline such activities either - they're more of an overview of the topic, rather than a weekly/lesson break down of learning activities. From what I've seen, students also do a lot from textbooks. 

So how can we differentiate in the classroom?

Differentiation is a process that involves planning, programming and instruction and involves the use of various teaching, learning and assessment strategies that provide an appropriate level of challenge for students while also ensuring they are successful in achieving the learning goals. Teachers must remember that students are individuals who learn in different ways, and at different rates. These differences also impact upon how students respond to instruction as well as how they demonstrate their their knowledge and understanding (NSW Syllabus). 


While there are many differences within our classroom, differentiation works on 3 main areas:
  • Readiness to Learn
  • Learning Needs
  • Interest
Basically, to provide a differentiated curriculum that is going to cater to the students in your class, you need to look at whether your students are ready to learn, and if they're not how can you get them to be. What learning needs they may have, and how you can accommodate these in your teaching and learning. Finally, what their areas of interest area, and how can you incorporate these into your teaching and learning at times to engage and motivate your students. You can then work from here, and using some of the following methods of differentiation you will be able to cater for the varied learning needs in your class:

Task: This is one of the core methods of differentiation. It involves setting a task that the majority of your students will be able to complete with a level of independence, and then changing this task to meet the needs of those that require extension or support. 
Same topic, different learning tasks.
Grouping: Collaborative learning is huge at the moment. It has well documented benefits, and is an essential skill that employers are looking for when hiring graduates. In a classroom, having mixed ability groups working on a task means that lower ability students are be supported by their peers, and those high achievers develop skills in organising and developing their leadership skills. Grouping also allows roles to be allocated within the team which cater for each member’s skill set and learning needs.
I grouped students so that there was one who like to draw,
and the other would research.

Resources: It is important to remember that the children we are working with have grown up not knowing life without technology, and that some students need identified devices or tools to access the learning - it is unlawful to deny a student the use of a device if they require it. An example of this is having the student download the English text onto their device and read it using a modified version, or just to enlarge the text, highlight words etc. There are some great online programs and downloadable apps that can be used across all KLAs, for all ages and for all skill levels. 

Pace: By providing a variety of learning activities, you can change the pace of your lessons. You might start with a whole class focus, then break off into groups of individual tasks - this allows the available time to be used flexibly in order to meet all students’ needs. Students who are quick to understand the key concept being taught need not be held back. They can instead access more challenging extension tasks that will allow them to develop a deeper level of understanding of the subject matter or even to progress through the set course more quickly, while those who need more time focusing on the fundamentals can do so without feeling like they're being left behind.

Outcome: Differentiation by outcome is where all students undertake the same task but a variety of results is expected and acceptable. While some teachers have reservations about the risk that the less able students will fall below an acceptable level of understanding, this can be mitigated somewhat by establishing a clear set of success criteria, i.e. "I Can" statements that apply to all students, so that at the end of the lesson/topic students can identify what it is they learnt, and teachers can identify what has been missed or needs revision. It also offers one clear advantage - no prior grouping is necessary.
Differentiated learning outcomes -
same topic, different level of  learning.
Quality planning and programming is the
key to differentiation
Dialogue & Support: Differentiation by dialogue is the most regularly used type of differentiation used in the classroom. The emphasis in this method is on the role of the teacher, - they become a facilitator in problem solving by identifying which students need detailed explanations in simple language and which students can engage in dialogue at a more sophisticated level. The teacher may also employ targeted questioning to produce a range of responses and to challenge the more able students. Verbal support and encouragement also plays a crucial part in this technique. This is also a form of Formative Assessment, as it allows the teacher to change the lesson as they go to meet the needs of the students - does a section need to be revisited to ensure students have fully grasped the concept? We'll skip the next section as it's irrelevant at this stage of their learning. 

Assessment: Rather than using just a post-topic assessment, the differentiated classroom assesses students on an on-going basis so that teaching, and indeed the other methods of differentiation, can be continuously adjusted according to the learners’ needs. Teachers also need to provide opportunities for students to be assessed in ways that engages their interest areas - I often use the 'menu' assessment style, that asks students to complete the same task but has them doing it in a way that suits their learning style.
A variety of assessments provides an opportunity to cater
for individual needs, whilst also encouraging students to go
beyond their comfort zones and learn in different ways.

So for now, I'm going to keep scouting for some great hands-on, interactive and technology led learning experience for my students so that they can access the curriculum just as their peers do. I'm also hoping that I'll keep finding some great examples of programs that I can adapt to suit my class. Differentiation in the classroom is about understanding not only the needs of our students, but also our own needs so that we can provide for our students and ensure they are succeeding.




Saturday, 15 April 2017

I'm not a supermum... I'm a mum!



After the birth of my first son, I was a physical mess - it took me a good 5 days to recover. Once home, the shock of what being a mum entails started to hit - my husband runs his own business so didn't take anytime off. He'd come home during his lunch break if he could, and shortened some of his days in that first week, but for us it was life as usual. Along with that and the string of constant visitors that comes with having a baby, I had my first mummy-meltdown 10 days after our little man was born. 

That prompted us to start our routine (read more about the reasons we chose routine here) and life started making sense. Some people don't like the 'restrictions' that following a routine places on them, but for me it meant freedom. I could plan my days accordingly, go to appointments and take bub to lunch at hubby's work. It also meant that for a new mum, I was getting a fair amount of sleep, which helped the recovery process and allowed me to be the best mum I could be for our son. 

6 weeks PP, I was back playing indoor netball, and joined a mums-and-bubs fitness group twice a week. This allowed me to socialise with other mums and work on getting my fitness back, which is very important to me (NOTE: I'm talking fitness here, not necessarily weight/size). Generally, life was pretty good - our routine was working nicely, and despite a few meltdowns and minor health complications here and there (including mastitis) we decided to add another little person to our mix. 

During this process, we also thought we'd better extend our family home AND I thought I'd work to complete my Masters of Education so that when I was ready to return to work I could increase my chances or securing a permanent teaching position. Hubby was also given the opportunity to complete a degree through a NZ university with a colleague. Cue the word "Supermum" starting to be thrown around by friends and family - meant as a compliment, it started playing on my psyche. Chaos started in the January of that year - renovations saw us moving out and living at my parents for 3 months. I started my degree. Hubby started his. I was raising a toddler while growing another human. Despite some stresses that arose from such a hectic life, we thought we were doing well. 

Fast forward to Christmas Day 2014 and me in a bedroom at my in-laws crying uncontrollably, shaking and unable to process anything! This was my moment of realisation that things were not okay - and it took another year for the fog to start clearing and for me to realise that saying 'YES' to everything wasn't a good thing for me or my family. 

I'm a people-pleaser - I don't like the thought of people not liking me, or giving a reason for people - even strangers - to be annoyed or disappointed with me. The problem with this is that you start saying YES to all sorts of things. As a naturally organised, A-type personality I thought I could handle being a single-parent while hubby studied and travelled. I thought I could attend all the family and friends events that were on. I still maintained a position on the local netball club committee. I even returned to work in a special needs setting - all because people told me I was a SUPERMUM.

A thank you card from my netball team mates
The problem with this word is that it sets people, especially mothers, up for failure. It's also what I believe is contributing to the rise of post-natal depression, chronic and adrenal fatigue, because it implies that:
  • we've got a handle on everything and we're always happy and calm;
  • your children never misbehave, and they're settled and happy all the time;
  • you've got the picture-perfect relationship and family;
  • you've got a plan for every day; and
  • there's nothing you can't do - you're super human!

While I know people use the term 'supermum' as a compliment, it actually adds to the already enormous expectations women in today's society place on themselves. It implies that we can complete any task or tackle any issue with a  calm manner and get it completed without compromising any aspect of our lives - but this not feasible, and actually makes it seem like you're failing miserably if you ask for help, or say no to something!!! Hence my breakdown on Christmas Day - a day that is meant to be filled with happiness and love, turned into a day I realised my world was crumbling. It was the start of a big shift in my life, and it took a good 12months for me to learn that people wouldn't hate or leave me if I said No, and that I wasn't failing if I did ask for help!

To start helping myself, I booked myself in to psychologist - some would see this as a sign of weakness. I knew this to be a move towards strength. I wanted to clear up some things in my head, be reassured that my gut feelings weren't invalid and that what I needed to tell people wasn't going to mean people hated me - or that if that did occur, they weren't meant to be in my life.

Then I worked with my husband in reaffirming what was important to us as a family, and as individuals - this was vitally important for both of us and made us realise that having kids means that some of our plans need to be put on hold for a while, and our focus needs to shift to them, and us as a couple. We also made more of an effort to make time for us as a couple - yes, we're parents but to be the best parents for our boys we needed to be a happy and loving husband and wife team. 

Now, I am a person who likes to be involved in various local community activities, keep fit and teach - I've learnt that to be happy in myself and be the best wife and mum for my boys I need to put them first, then do what makes me happy without the side of guilt! One day my kids will be grown up and will have their own interests, so it's important to me that I maintain mine and not make my life all about my children or husband. PLEASE NOTE, I'm not saying this approach is wrong. What I am saying is, that you need to take time and be honest in what makes you happy. Discuss this with your significant other and kids (if they're old enough). Make time to do the things you like, and allow time for your partner to do the things that make them happy. Make time to spend quality time as a family doing things you all enjoy. Don't be rude to people, but tell them the truth about why you can't do something - they'll understand, even if they don't like it. Listen to your body - if you're tired, don't feel guilty about cancelling on the girls - be honest and they'll understand! 

And remember, the only person who have to be super for is your kids - and you already are!