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Common Myths Debunked:Differentiation, Student-Led, Gradeless, Collaboration

Melissa Lewis

Before I begin this year blogging about how the year is going with differentiated, student-centered instruction with feedback replacing grades for activities (not semester grades), I wanted to debunk some common myths of those exact terms. I think the terms really scare a  lot of people away from even experimenting with any of them. I read books of course that debunked the common myths I'm going to mention; however, I didn't really understand until I started experimenting with it all on my own last semester.

Myth One: Differentiating means creating an individual lesson for each student, which sounds like an extraordinary amount of work.

What I've learned: Differentiating for each student by the aforementioned definition would be an astronomical amount of work, and that sounds terrifying. However, differentiating is actually far from creating 160 different lessons for each lesson taught. What I've come to truly understand is that true differentiation means simply taking a lesson and just adapting it for those above and below so that you meet each student where they are, in order to grow at their own pace. The majority of us probably create a lesson and pre-activities with the majority of our students in mind; therefore, we are leaving behind our struggling students and boring our excelling students.

So what does this look like? In my Julius Caesar unit that I mentioned in my last blog (Yes, the one that students were completely bombing in the beginning), I differentiated their instruction after reading their feedback. Instead of whole group instruction, I split them into small groups based on their level capability. Three levels: Average, Below, and Above. I, then, created packets of information for them that was essentially the same assignment. In addition to the writing assignment, my struggling students were given a multitude of resources to help them through: discussion questions, note-taking strategies, etc. I also allowed them to read the Fear No Shakespeare version. . . GASP! I did not?! I sure did. These students were struggling enough with the concept of the story, much less trying to understand Shakespearean language.

My average groups were given a multitude of resources to help them much like the struggling group, but they read the Shakespearean language and had Socratic seminar questions in addition to help add to their discussion. My above average did not need a lot of the additional resources that the others did. Making them go through a summary and analysis of each act before reading would be agonizing for them, whereas it was super helpful for the others.

Each group was given what they needed to help them be successful with the rest of the play. I asked for their feedback after the groups all finished moving at their own pace. They loved the groups and felt like they could be themselves knowing that the students they were working with were on the same page as them. This technique of differentiating instruction took me a few hours of upfront work, but for those next two weeks, I could just sit back and participate in the discussions. It was AWESOME! The discussions were absolutely amazing and went past the depth that I could ever imagine as I traveled from each group listening in, which leads me to the second myth.

Myth Two: Classrooms can't be student-led because kids cannot handle that responsibility.

It's more like we can't handle giving them that responsibility and control.Yes, some kids will test the boundaries while you are not huddled over them. Some kids might get sidetracked during their work; however, while they are working, unbelievable results are happening. If your kids seem off track for an extended amount of time, give them a gentle reminder to refocus. You'll be amazed at the work they accomplish while they are working when it is student-led. Some kids don't know how to work in small groups. Don't throw in the towel right from the beginning. Re-examine, re-structure, and keep trying until they learn. Some individuals and groups will need a lot more structure that others. Figure out who those students are and provide that structure. I think we sometimes forget that students don't know how to work in groups like we do. We expect them to know how and when they act like heathens, we give up and send them back to their desks. Don't give in! Coach them on how to properly be a part of a group. It won't happen over night, just like a ball player won't become Michael Jordan over night.

Myth Three: Student-centered and student-led classrooms look like chaos, and if my kids are talking in groups when my administrators walk in and I'm sitting with just one group, they will surely think I'm not doing my job.

This exact scenario happened to me. My kids were in groups working: reading literature, annotating, and discussing. I was traveling around and spending time with each group, which to an outsider really could look like me not doing my job. I was sitting on top of a student desk, laughing and talking with a group of my kids, not watching the group in the hallway or the group behind me, when my evaluator walked in. Want to know how I reacted? I jumped my butt up, ran to the front of the room, had the kids return to their seats, and had them bored out of their mind while I lectured. . . Kidding! I kept my butt on top of the desk, back turned to the kids in the hall and the other group in the room and now, my evaluator. I kept laughing and discussing the book with my kids. How did my evaluator act? Did he dock me points and take notes about how terrible I was?

I received the BEST feedback I had ever received from him. Why? My kids were all learning and discussing and being active in their own learning without me! He simply walked around, listened to them, and even asked them a few questions. . . all while I was in deep discussion with a group. PLEASE, stop believing that lecturing and students all in desks sitting quietly and compliantly is where real learning takes place at all times. It can take place in that scenario, but a talkative chaos of learning where I get to participate and learn with my students is way more fun. Again, don't expect your students to never get off topic. We get off topic at PD meetings all the time in our groups. Yet, it doesn't take away from our learning.

What was taking place was kids collaborating, not group work. I think we intertwine those two words often.

Myth Four: If I want to go gradeless, it has to be completely 100% gradeless from the beginning.

I wish it were that simple. The honest answer is that probably won't happen. If you teach in a traditional high school like me, there will be a lot of baby steps to this, regardless of how much research you show your administration, and you need to be okay with that. Like I mentioned in my previous blog, I still have to provide a grade for my kids every four weeks (midterm). I don't for each assignment but still have to provide a grade way more than I wanted. Ideally, I'd love to only provide a grade once a semester and rely solely on feedback for the rest of the year. However, it's going to take some evidence and demonstration of weeding out grades effectiveness in a classroom before an administration will even consider that. So for now, I'm okay with providing feedback on everything up to the four week period before conferring with students and assigning a grade.

A lot of people have questions on how to do feedback. I had to find something that would work in our gradebook online for parents, counselors, etc. to be able to check at any time. Therefore, I am using Google Sheets and pasting each kid's sheet url into their notes page on the online gradebook. Every time I update it, it will automatically be up-to-date for everyone to see.  My template looks like this:

We are two weeks out from the school year beginning, and I am so excited and eager to get to know my students and just begin! Don't be afraid to try new things this year, and debunk some myths on your own to truly understand their meaning.


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