How can we work with differentiation in the classroom? My Jimmy Fallon challenge

So yesterday I had a revision lesson about VERB TO BE in the simple present tense, among other things. I wanted my students to be able to write a letter about themselves stating their names, nationality, age, and something else about their lives. The problem was: my students have varying degrees of skills with the language, and some of them need special attention to be able to complete the task. I have a student with dyslexia and others who are on the average.  One student, though, is very comfortable with the language, which brings me back to high school when I was sitting beside Bruno Tadeu Costa, my old classmate, in a math class.

Bruno and I had the best grades in math. You’re probably asking yourself: How can an English teacher have the best grades in math? Well, somehow I did. But the worst part was that we didn’t feel challenged enough. We would often solve the equations faster than the whole class and get bored. Once, Bruno actually solved an equation on the board because our high school teacher was struggling to find the answer. Seriously, that actually happened! And our teacher simply said that he was not prepared for that particular equation. Unfortunately, that is the only memory I have of that teacher – and also the fact that he had extremely long fingers! We used to talk about them in class.
We had another who was great, though. Nevertheless, we were not challenged enough. I remember Bruno and I used to sit in the front and one day we were trying to create a formula for logarithms after having finished a list of equations faster than anyone else in the class. Our teacher noticed we had finished and approached us whispering: “I wish I could give you something extra. You two are excellent students”.

But she never did…

What if those teachers had read about differentiation? What IS differentiation after all?

According to The Glossary of Education Reform:

Differentiation refers to a wide variety of teaching techniques and lesson adaptations that educators use to instruct a diverse group of students, with diverse learning needs, in the same course, classroom, or learning environment. Differentiation is commonly used in “heterogeneous grouping”—an educational strategy in which students of different abilities, learning needs, and levels of academic achievement are grouped together. In heterogeneously grouped classrooms, for example, teachers vary instructional strategies and use more flexibly designed lessons to engage student interests and address distinct learning needs—all of which may vary from student to student. The basic idea is that the primary educational objectives—making sure all students master essential knowledge, concepts, and skills—remain the same for every student, but teachers may use different instructional methods to help students meet those expectations

I read about differentiation and tried to apply its principle in my last lesson. As a matter of fact, I’ve been trying to do it for a while now. It’s all about challenge and how you offer different levels of it according to your students’ learning needs. It taps deep into motivation as well. The greatest challenge, I confess, is to create different levels of challenge for the same content. Here’s what we did:

1. I assigned the role of official translator and writer to the student who had more familiarity with the language. I also asked her to be my assistant and help the others with their activities.
2. I graded the list of exercises in a way that there were less challenging activities, moderate activities, and more challenging activities. That meant that the students could move through the exercises according to their needs.
3. I sat with my dyslexic student to make sure things were going well. I tried to assist as much as possible.
4. I asked my official translator to write a letter to Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. That made her feel very special and it gave her purpose since she finished her list before everyone else with little difficulty.

See what I did? I set an example and linked it to a real-life purpose. Instead of just asking them to write a letter about themselves to me, I asked them to write it to Jimmy Fallon. I’m pretty sure that makes the activity far more special. Now, my other students will do the same at home to practice. They’ll have to write a letter to Jimmy Fallon. They got excited when I showed them a video of Jimmy reading his Kids Letters.

Want to know more about differentiation in the classroom? Check out Richard Rogers’ blog’s wonderful tips – where I first saw the definition I mentioned above:

Ironically, Richard Rogers is a high school science and, guess what,  MATH teacher! And you know what’s even funnier? My friend Bruno is a math professor at a university. Lack of challenge never stopped him from following the career, luckily, and he’s a great professor. However, if we’re not too careful, it might stop one of our students.

Special thanks to my only British Council Teaching for Success: Learning and Learners course. We’re talking about differentiation this week, and I got the idea for this post from you!

By the way, I’ve already sent the letter to Jimmy Fallon’s staff. Want to help my students’ letter get to Jimmy Fallon or at least be shared all over the world? Save the photo above and share it on your social media with the hashtags:

#pleasereadourletter #ccbeugoiania #edcrocks

Do you have a great story about differentiation? Share it here!

If you don’t, why don’t you check out my other post about Young Learners:

A fun class for Young Learners about the power of friendship, time, and connections

Or my two posts about how to use neuroscience to improve your teaching:

Neuroscience of Learning/Language Acquisition – Neurociência da Aprendizagem/Aquisição de Segunda Língua

Neuroscience of Learning/Second Language Acquisition – Part 2 – Neurociência da Aprendizagem/Aquisição de Segunda Língua – Parte 2

5 thoughts on “How can we work with differentiation in the classroom? My Jimmy Fallon challenge”

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