Getting to know our students is a key to being able to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of each student. The more we know about our students, the better we can fit our instruction to their levels, their interests, their background knowledge and their needs.
There are so many ways to get to know your students, but here are 10 I use every year:
1.) Have conversations with the students and their parents. Especially at the beginning of the year, it's important to start conversations and to listen when the kiddos and their parents tell you stories about their life or giving you little snipets of information. Sometimes these pieces of information will be the key to helping you know how to help your students succeed.
2.) Get to know your students' goals. This year I started out the year with my Long Term Goals Sheet, where I asked students to work with their parents and think about where they want to be in 5 years, in 10 years, in 20 years, in 30 years. It was a great way to get to know my students on a new and different level. Hearing their college and career aspirations made each of these students so much more real to me. Now the student who wants to fix computers is a "tech support helper" who I have introduced to code.org and the student who wants to travel to multiple countries is reading books about those countries and studying French on Duolingo.com. Knowing who the students want to be when they are an adult, even if they're only in 3rd grade now, allows me to break into their interest levels in a completely different way.
3.) Read their writing. The way that a student responds to a writing prompt says so much about the student. For example my students are currently writing narrative stories about a picture of a girl falling off of a swing. The stories I got range from a first person narrative where the main character helps a girl who falls off a swing and wins an instant friend; to a story where aliens were purposely breaking the swing each time the main character sits on it. In between, I also got a story where the main character's mother fell in love with the doctor who helped her and one story where the girl was pushed on purpose and the pusher got a large punishment. Reading each of these stories with my students helped me to better understand their background knowledge and their viewpoint as well as their writing ability. I often use my Genre Writing Journals as a way to give the entire class the same prompt.
4.) Ask students to visualize stories. Last year I demonstrated to my students how much background knowledge plays a part in the pictures they visualize. I read them two stories that I wrote, which were almost identical, about families that were having dinner. One story took place in Morocco where the family was eating couscous. The other story took place in New Mexico where the family was eating enchiladas. While I read each story, the students drew pictures of what they were visualizing. Then we looked at photographs of a family in Morocco eating couscous and a family in New Mexico eating enchiladas. The pictures the students drew of the family in New Mexico (where we live) were very close to photograph we looked at, but the ones they drew of the family in Morocco were not close at all. Background knowledge affects what we can visualize. So as often as possible let students draw pictures of the stories they read. How they visualize the story will sometimes surprise you, but will often give you good information about their own background.!
5.) Use turn and talks about their home life. Morning meetings are a great way to get to know your students. Often during morning meetings I will ask students to turn and talk to a neighbor about a topic, what they did over the weekend, their favorite food, the pets they own, a time they were scared, etc. etc. Then I let the students report out about what their friends told them. You get interesting information about both students this way, because what the person reporting hears as important is often something that relates to their own life!
6.) Allow time for Genius Projects or Passion Projects. Ask your students "If you could learn about anything, what would it be?" Their answers will be telling enough, but then give the students time to plan out and work on genius projects. Watching them work on these projects will tell you a lot about their commitment, their work ethic and their interest level. Genius projects in my room often lead to new read alouds, writing prompts, math scenarios and science experiments because I know better what will connect to my students' learning.
7.) Find Vocabulary Connections. One of my favorite ways to get to know my kiddos background knowledge is to discuss vocabulary with them. When I ask them for a definition or sentence for a vocabulary word, their background knowledge comes spilling out. Hut is a great word for this. Most students will tell me "Oh, like Pizza Hut", a few will say "Like the little houses in Africa", but my favorite was the one student who told me you mean like "hut, hut, hut in football?". Background knowledge, it just spills out, doesn't it? You might want to use my vocabulary graphs as a basis for some of your vocabulary conversations, the connections students make are great.
8.) Challenge students to an activity that you think may frustrate them. Watching students be frustrated can be an eye opener. It's always interesting to me to see "smart" kids hit a brick wall with something new and difficult, while kids who struggle often spend a lot of time trying to get to the answer before they give up because they are used to the struggle. Not only do frustration triggers tell us a lot about students, but watching students handle those frustrations tell us a lot about students. Once we know where students get frustrated and how they handle frustrations, we can better help students manage frustrations. We will also know how and when to support students so that they can either avoid certain frustrations or deal better with frustrations when they happen.
9.) Monitor group work. Students often work differently in a group than they do independently. Some students will automatically lead, some will automatically follow, some are peacemakers and some will respond negatively to other students. As you walk around and monitor your groups you will see how students react to each other. Then, mix up the groups and watch again because students often respond differently to different group dynamics differently.
10.) Incorporate activities that are not "normal" school subjects. Recess, PE, art, music, computer skills, cooking, sewing, nature skills - anytime that I incorporate these things into my lessons I see a completely different side of my kids. Students who often struggle will come out of their shell during a cooking lesson or run faster in the race than anyone else. Students who are the top of the class often get frustrated or scared to try new things. These activities remind us to think about our students as a "whole person" instead of just as a student.
Differentiation is a key part of teaching, no matter what type of school you teach in. Normally when we discuss differentiation, we discuss ways to meet the needs of our low achieving students who have deficits or gaps that need to be met. The high achieving students, who are doing well already, are rarely differentiated for unless they become a behavior issue due to boredom. Unfortunately this often means that students who are doing well often never meet their full potential. This is particularly true in lower income or lower achieving schools or classrooms where there are more low achieving students than high achieving ones.
Every student in your classroom has a right to be pushed to their full potential, no matter their level. As a teacher though, there are only so many hours in a day, so how do we differentiate for our highest achieving students? Here are ten strategies to help you meet those students' needs:
1.) Allow students time to work on their individual deficits, even if they aren't academic. High achieving students are NOT great at everything. Even your best student will have weaker areas. For some students it is handwriting or spelling. For other students it is social skills or athletic ability. When they have finished their work, give them additional time to work on these weaker areas. Students might be given additional time to practice cursive writing or they may use the internet to research different ways to stay physically fit. Allow students to weigh in on where they are weak and encourage them to to use their time to help fill in these gaps for themselves.
2.) Let students expand out instead of up. If a student is doing very well on 2nd grade standards, it is often the case that we go ahead and give them 3rd grade standards. While this is an okay strategy, often there is more that can be done within their own standards if we allow students to dig deeper.
For example, it is tempting to move students who have mastered addition with regrouping problems into multiplication. But is there more they can do with addition with regrouping? Can they develop their own word problems with this skill? Can they complete error analysis on problems completed incorrectly? (Some error analysis problems like this can be found in my Addition with Regrouping Tiered Activities at the Fix it Level.) Can they create a video teaching others how to solve problems like this? (You can find a Video Creation Planning Sheet and Rubric at my Teachers Pay Teachers store.)
This is also true with reading. Often we push students to read harder and harder books because they can. While reading new books is wonderful, students often run into books with more grown up situations than they are ready for. Students can learn about new vocabulary and new ideas from reading additional books on their own grade level as well, or by digging deeper into the books the entire class is reading. Perhaps that student can do an author study and read additional books from the author of the book you are reading in class. Perhaps that students can be a topic and read multiple books about that topic. Students might be encouraged to do a self-guided novel study using my Student Selected Novel Study Packet on a novel that is really interesting to them.
3.) Allow students a chance to teach. Some students really enjoy being peer tutors. Others do not. However giving students a chance to teach others will expand their own thinking and memory of a topic. We remember 95% of what we teach. For students who do not want to be a peer tutor in person, they can easily create video tutorials, using my Video Creation Planning Sheet. Either way the process of teaching will help students further process their learning.
4.) Give early finishers ongoing projects to work on. Often high achieving students become the "I'm done." students. They finish work quickly and then become bored. Or because they know they will finish early, they become distracted and socialize instead of putting forth their best effort. Alternatively, some will rush through things because they are used to being done early and having time to chill. Having ongoing projects can help alleviate these behaviors by making sure students are always busy with quality activities. Some projects from my Teachers Pay Teachers store that work well for this are:
- Mystery Book Reports
- Informational Trade Book - Book Reports
- Country Study Reports
- Math Projects
- Biography Projects
- Self Selected Book Studies - Fiction or Non-fiction
5.) Use technology to develop a PLC for students. Just like teachers need to connect with other teachers, students need to connect with other students. High achieiving students often have few peers in their school who are on the same level as them. As a teacher, you can allow students to connect with other high achieving students around the world using websites like Edmodo. Students may also connect with adults in a field of interest for them. For example a student who is very interested in science, may contact a scientist at the local college. Once students have made an initial connection, they may write penpal letters or e-mails with these people, giving them a chance to interact with someone who will push their brain to new levels.
6.) Provide puzzles and brain teasers. Higher achieving students often enjoy solving a puzzle that seems unsolveable. Puzzles and brain teasers challenge their brains to process at a higher level than normal school activities. Of course puzzles and brain teasers are great for all students, so I usually call them "early finisher activities", leaving these activities open to everyone, but accessed mainly by my high achieving students. Some of my favorite puzzles are my Math Tiling Puzzles, which work on basic math standards, but take it to a higher level of understanding.
7.) Allow time for community outreach. Social skills are often one of the hardest skills for our highest achieving students. One of the best ways to encourage social skills like empathy and compassion is to encourage students to work in the community. Within the classroom, this could be as simple as a letter writing campaign to soldiers or children who are in the hospital. Or students could leave larger community outreach projects like food and clothing drives for the needy.
8.) Give time for individual interest projects. Genius projects or passion projects are a great way to allow students to truly pursue their own interests while still building on their literacy skills. While these projects are great for all students, high achieving students will be able to dig the deepest. These students may also use these projects as an "early finisher" activity. The great part about individual interest projects is that they can be completely individualized. Students can learn another language. They can learn how to design a YouTube channel. They can study fashion design. They can literally study any topic that is interesting to them.
9.) Keep expectations high, but achievable. Be careful when working with your high achieving students to not set the bar too high. While we want to stretch students, we sometimes forget that high achieving kids are still kids. They don't want a bunch of extra work. They want to be interested. And they still don't have the same understandings as adults. So keep your expectations high, but still make them kid appropriate and achievable for your students.
10.) Provide time for creative thinking. For some reason we often stretch our high achieving students in standard school subjects, but we forget about the arts. Art, design, music, dance, drama and programming all use different parts of the brain. Giving students a chance to be creative also feels more fun to students, which makes them less resistant to extra work.
No matter which of these strategies works best for your students, the important thing is to be sure to differentiate your instruction for these highest achieving students just as we do for our lowest achieving students.
Recently I wrote a post about why low level/ low income students need projects as much as higher level students. After I wrote this post, I had quite a few questions about how to implement projects with low level students. So today's post is 10 Tips to Making Projects Work for Low Level Students:
1.) Model clear expectations - Be very clear about what you want your students to do, step by step. I often have these steps written out, like in my Math Projects, AND I discuss them with the students before we begin. Then be ready to explain the expectations again when students get stuck. Be patient, especially the first few times when the expectations of a project are completely new to your students.
If possible, show students examples of possible end projects. I like to take pictures of student projects to show next year's students. You can also create your own versions of the project to help them have a good visual of the expectations.
2.) Share rubrics with students BEFORE they begin working - Just as you want them to know what the end project will look like, you want them to know what their grade will be based on. With worksheets students generally understand what they have to do to get a good grade. With projects there are many ways to work hard but not be focused on the "correct" key elements they'll be graded on. For this reason, before we begin working on our projects, I always go over the grading rubric with my students. I point out the things that will cost them or gain them points so that they know how to get a good grade.
3.) Gather resources - Lower level students will often benefit if they have specific resources to use, rather than just being asked to "Google it". Especially during the first few projects, I gather together books, articles, videos, website links and other resources where I KNOW my students will be able to find the information that they need.
Often, I may even have students complete an Internet Scavenger Hunt on the same topic before we begin a project. This way the students have been led through the research and built up their background knowledge before they're being asked to create a project with this information. For example, I may have the students complete the Amazing Americans Internet Scavenger Hunt first, which covers 9 different American heros. Then we'll do the Amazing Americans Project where they choose one hero, do further research and create an informational power point about the person.
4.) Prepare "background building videos" - Similar to gathering resources, I often spend time building up our background before we begin a project. I often do this with videos. Right now my students are working on the research for the Ancient Civilizations project of their Country Study. Before they began researching their own individual countries' ancient civilizations, we watched multiple videos about ancient civilizations in general. We started with videos about civilizations in general and then moved into videos on the move of people from generally nomadic to generally agricultural. We also watched videos about archeology and how we learn about these ancient civilizations. All of this background helps our low level students to better digest their individual research because they have a frame of reference already built for them.
5.) Be ready to "guide from the side" - Projects are a great way to build independent work skills, but this is an area where most low level students are lacking. Be careful not to take over your students' projects, but be ready to guide your students with a well posed question or a suggestion of how to find their answer. Make sure students are still the ones who are researching or creating, but be available to them when they get stuck.
6.) Start with group work - Group projects provide their own set of challenges, especially the meshing of different personalities. However, group projects also allow higher level students to model good study skills for their peers. This is true even in a "low level class" because you will always have a few students who are higher in level than other students. Often the first few projects of the year will be group projects with the work broken up differently each project. This way students learn what is expected of them and have a chance to have someone other than you help them out.
Group projects can also help out the teacher because instead of having 20 different projects going on you might have 4 or 5 to focus on. This means less resources to gather and less chances of a project needing you to prop it up. Eventually you will want your students to work on individual projects so that they have the chance to find an individual area of interest but as you are starting out, group projects can ease the work load both for the students and for you.
7.) Develop procedures for projects - Just like any other activity you are going to do in your classroom, you will need procedures. In my classroom some of the project procedures include:
- Students who are working on projects have first priority on a computer or tablet.
- Students work on their projects at the same time every day. (Country study gets done first thing in the morning. Math projects get done during math centers. Research projects get done during our literacy block.)
- Students are encouraged to take their projects to the floor in order to spread out, especially with poster making.
- "In progress projects" can only be stored on one table.
- All materials must be cleaned up and stored when we move into another activity.
- Projects must be edited by a peer before I will do a final conference.
- Projects must be checked by the teacher for spelling, grammar and conceptual mistakes before they can be published. (ie. typed in a blog post or hung in the hallway)
Project procedures may differ from project to project, but as with everything else students will respond better to procedures that stay the same. So think carefully about how you want projects to look in your classroom for the school year. Then you can teach procedures once instead of each time you start a project.
8.) Allow for plenty of time - However long you think a project SHOULD take, double it. Especially with low level students, projects will take longer than expected, so allow for that time. This might mean starting a project before you start a unit. Or you might continue working on a project from one unit while you move into another unit. This is okay. Call it preview or review. Either way, I'd rather allow plenty of time for a project and have my students (and myself) feel we succesfully completed the project, than to rush through it just to be done "in time". In fact most teachers that I know who get frustrated doing projects are frustrated because the students don't finish in the time they allotted. The teacher often then throws the project out, leaving both teacher and students feeling like they didn't accomplish something. Prevent this feeling by allowing plenty of time. If students finish early, awesome! That gives you more time for revising, editing, publishing and sharing. I'd always rather my students feel like they finished too early than to have them rushing because I didn't allow enough time.
9.) Start out slowly - I've been doing student projects for 10+ years. Right now in my classroom I have three different projects going on simultaneously. We are almost done with our Be an Architect Math Project where we are designing our dream school. We are right in the middle of our Ancient Civilizations project (which is a small part of our larger, year long Country Study Project). And we have just begun the research for a City Comparison Project. My students started doing projects during week 2 of the school year.
However, my first year in teaching we did 4 projects during the entire school year. For a long time I never had more than one project going at the same time. You don't have to try and do what I do or what any other teacher does. If you've never done projects before, choose one small project and try it out. When you're done, take some time to hash out what worked and what didn't. Then choose another project that's slightly bigger and try it, maybe even after you've taken a significant break. Use your reflection to build better procedures or guide your students differently.
Don't overwhelm yourself, just give projects a good solid try. Eventually you (and your students - no matter their level) will find your groove with projects. Projects can and should be fun for you and your students. They should also make your job easier, not harder. Projects that are working well will allow your students to begin to "teach themselves". Projects should also decrease the amount of grading you need to do. I'd always rather grade one solid project, which integrates several skills than ten seperate worksheets.
10.) Celebrate the results - No matter how the projects turn out, take time to celebrate. End projects will often look different than what you dreamed about when you were planning. However, that final project is the result of your students' learning and persistence. Take time to celebrate that learning with your students.
Allow students to share their projects with someone else as well. This could be their own classmates, another class, their parents or even administrators. Students DO NOT have to stand in front of the class to share out their projects. No matter who your students share with, watching them get excited about the work they did is one of the best parts of doing projects with students, especially low level students.
If you're ready to start projects in your room, but you're not sure where to start, consider one of these projects from my Teachers Pay Teachers store:
In my experience, I have found that low level / low income students often don't get access to the same projects and higher level thinking activities that their higher level / higher income peers do. Mainly this is because teachers feel like there isn't time for those things when students are behind in basic skills. So instead, we spend a lot of time drilling and skilling low level students in hopes that they will remember those basic facts because of the repetition.
Now I'm a big fan of repetition. I use it in certain ways in my classroom. It's great for building math fact fluency or memorizing site words. It can also be helpful for building classroom routines. But, it's not the end all and be all of education. In fact, it often leads us to the quote "Doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results is the definition of insanity." Understanding content and using critical thinking skills to solve a problem do not come from drill and skill repetition. Those types of understanding come from making connections between what we already know and what we are learning.
Brain based learning research shows us that students need to be able to connect what they are learning with background knowledge in order to understand and remember what they are reading. One thing that many of our low level students are lacking is background knowledge. So realistically the best thing we can do to help our low level students is to build their background knowledge. Student will more background knowledge learn faster. As teachers we know this to be true because we see it in our classroom all the time. I can personally think of multiple students in my classroom right now who do better not because they have better processing skills but because they have more background knowledge to connect to.
Projects are a wonderful way for students to build their background knowledge. They are also a wonderful way for students to make connections between different background knowledge that they already have because projects ask them do work with multiple different skills and concepts simultaneously.
Another thing that brain based learning research shows us is that students (and people in general) remember things better if they are invested in them. The choices that projects allow students make it more likely that they will be invested in these learning experiences. For example, my students who are working on country study projects have chosen their countries for their own personal reason. This gives them buy in and personal investment in their learning, ownership if you will. How many students take ownership for drill and skill worksheet learning?
Maria Montessori is famous for developing a hands-on curriculum that gets students engaged in learning through real life projects like cooking meals. Few people remember that her first famous schools was in a poor, inner city area of Rome. She saw unprecented growth in students of low income, low background knowledge and low academic levels. Why then are our American Montessori schools private and geared towards middle to high income students? Why are we not using the Montessori methods, or at least project based learning, in our low income/ low level schools with the kids who need these methods most?
I teach in a school like this and I try to incorporate as many projects as I can. Here are a few of the projects I have used this year with my 3rd graders:
Sign Up for Monthly News Releases