“Fairness does not mean everyone gets the same. Fairness means everyone gets what they need.”
-Rick Riordan, The Red Pyramid
It’s midsummer and I am feeling the back-to-school creep. One Room isn’t exactly a “school” per se, but it is a program where learning happens. It requires curriculum development and planning, and we take summers off. We use the lined paper and mechanical pencils piled high in the newly-restocked seasonal section at Target. The students and their families call it school; that term fits in with their paradigm, and I think it helps them feel a sense of comfortable normalcy in a world that often thinks of them as anything but. And just like a lot of teachers, I have lofty goals and high expectations for the school year.
This year, as my students get older and increasingly individualized in their learning styles and needs, I’d like to polish up and formalize the differentiation at One Room. Differentiation, as you likely know, is about guided academic choice, and it’s something I’ve worked on since I first began teaching in alternative education environments six years ago. With differentiated learning, a child is presented with options so that she may explore a subject in a way that works with her learning style and ability. This equates to different children learning in different ways in the same classroom. Some traditionalists may make the point that this is not fair, and when that happens I direct them to the quote above. Although out of context, it captures the essence of differentiation.
To me, every student getting what they need without comparison or judgment is how heaven will look. It’s an ideal, but a worthy one to which I’m proud to have dedicated my career.
I’ve been lucky that my intuition as an educator has always been valued and my class sizes have been small enough that I could modify my expectations in the moment to reflect what I knew my students to be capable of that day. It’s a dream job for anyone who loves to teach; I have been truly blessed.
My students are older now and capable of higher level work. I want to present to them a more sophisticated differentiation that encourages and reflects the more polished effort my students are making. This year, I want my teaching to say “See!? We are all growing and learning and getting better! Together!”
When I first began six years ago, finding the resources to make this happen would have been nearly impossible. The quality of past resources was not that great, and they were cost-prohibitive for a renegade educator like myself. A couple times I saved my pennies and bought prescribed curriculum. It seemed like a great idea in theory, but putting it into practice was a nightmare! I’d have to take their idea and completely rework it to fit my students’ learning styles. It felt like paying for extra work and exhaustion, which seemed ridiculous. Even the so called “gifted curriculum” was too rigid and mostly geared towards traditionally high-achieving gifted children. Most of the time I’d end up culling resources from the internet and project books. It was fun but I knew that sifting through all the different sources of information was not the best use of my time. At least it was free!
Then I discovered Prufrock Press… They have amazing, affordable, curriculum and reference materials. Right now I’m geeking out on this:
This book, found online here, costs less than twenty dollars and took me about an hour to read. It is full of awesome menu ideas and open-ended prompts that can be tweaked for any subject. Like I said, I’ve been down this road before — putting hope into a book of ideas and techniques that have yet to prove themselves and ending up disappointed and cynical. I’m hopeful still! And I can very easily see a lot of the ideas presented in this book working.
My heart starts to dance when I think of all the time these techniques for differentiation may free up. Time for rest and exercise so I can be more emotionally available for my students. Wish me luck!
If you’re an educator or homeschooler, what efforts have you made towards student differentiation? Have you found any other products that allow for the modifications necessary to meet each learner’s needs? I’d love to hear your thoughts!