With all of the mandates (often unfunded), standardized testing and public scrutiny, it is easy to see why teachers retreat into a “this is how we do it” mentality and treat students more or less the same. After all, fairness is so often questioned, why would we want to differentiate? The answer, when you scrape away all of the politics, is actually simple: because differentiation works. Loads of research supports differentiating instruction, like this Edutopia piece, this ASCD list, and this piece on professional development from Teaching Tolerance.
My first book, The Flexible ELA Classroom, provides lots of strategies for the academic part. However, my new book, The Flexible SEL Classroom: Practical Ways to Build Social-Emotional Learning in Grades 4-8 takes differentiation and expands it, answering the critical question: How can we differentiate our classrooms to meet the needs of all students, socially, emotionally and academically? Here’s an excerpt from the introduction, which provides the back story and explains the way I’m moving forward with a plan to be flexible in my approach to all aspects of my students:
Just like everyone else I’ve ever met, I changed my college major. I originally went to college to be a psychologist, but one well-timed compliment from my freshman English professor, Dr. McGoldrick, sent me running to my advisor. I had written a short story about a mean, unlikeable child who listened to the goings-on of her house through an air vent and unreliably rambles on about what she hears. What did he say that was so powerful? He said, “You feel for your characters, and it shows. It even makes your flawed characters incredibly sympathetic.”
Retrospectively, this compliment might have served as a reason to become a therapist, not quit the program; however, his words have stuck with me through the years, and I think this is because I love the flawed character. It is not the hero of the story who I watch with anticipation, but rather the character on the verge of greatness, thwarted, of course, because she can’t get out of her own way, or maybe the would-be-hero’s circumstances seem too large to ever overcome. There is, to me, beauty in imperfection, and I am inspired by the countless flawed characters who populate my classroom every day.
Some people might suppose I teach in a “tough” school or one where parents are not engaged. I’m not a teacher in an inner city, and I’m not even a teacher in a diverse school. I’m a middle school teacher in a fairly homogenized environment, yet I find that these “flawed characters” are everywhere—in my own home, in the homes of my friends, and on the playground. Children are children; though their problems vary in degree and severity, their experiences are real, important, and an integral part of their chances at success at school and in life. Through the years, I’ve found that the best way to reach all students is to differentiate in content, process and product, as I learned from great educators like Carol Tomlinson; however, I began to feel that there was even more that needed to be done and said about differentiation.
Ultimately, I wanted to differentiate the culture of my classroom based on the needs of students and families. I wanted a “whatever it takes” attitude to pervade my teaching and classroom culture in a way that makes everyone want to show up. Moreover, I wanted the flexibility my classroom provides to inspire students and families to work toward common goals that would change the story of generations. Pretty lofty, right? Yes, it is, but why else would any of us become teachers if not to wield our influence like superpowers? The Flexible Classroom concept was born, and I never looked back.
I’d always known that I must attend to the social and emotional needs of children before academic learning could occur. The social emotional well-being of students is the currency of the future; the ability to survive our “character flaws,” and to grow from the experience is crucial for this generation. The world has changed so dramatically that the soft skills, the ability to collaborate and contribute, as well as manage the wide range of emotions adolescence brings, is actually the learning, not the appetizers to some greater meal where students are stuffed with knowledge, facts and figures.
Instead, the economy today dictates that we change our way of thinking about the skillsets we value. For instance, students can find so much of the content virtually and much of industry is automated; student success now and in the future is going to largely depend on how well students can synthesize information and contribute to their communities, not spew facts and obscure content.
In the United States, we all practice a particularly dismissive form of Dr. Phil armchair psychiatry, and unfortunately real conversations about mental health and happiness are the last taboos. This pop culture treatment of our collective well-being undermines the ability of schools to appropriately and successfully help students achieve academic, social, and emotional success. I’m as guilty as the next person, so this isn’t a condemnation, but actually a reframing of how we look at students. Schools haven’t looked at the whole child in a long time—if ever. We say we do, but it is in the same way we skim a book. We look for the obvious, well-defined traits, skim past parts that aren’t interesting or don’t fit with what else we know, and come to a conclusion that may or may not be a correct interpretation of what is actually within. This book is going to ask you to read students, to stop skimming and start investigating the flawed characters that are our students, knowing full well that we too bring our social and emotional selves into the story every single day.
It can seem daunting when we consider that classes of 30 are common, IEPs and 504s plentiful, free and reduced lunch counts are high, and absent parents are the norm for some students. What can we possibly do? I can hear some of you now—“You can’t save them all” and “When did teachers become the parents?” And, though I can fully empathize with these thoughts and admit to mumbling them after a lackluster parent meeting or a particularly difficult day, I’m suggesting a radical approach: Differentiate the way we treat students socially, emotionally and academically.
In other words, social emotional learning is teaching children how to “do life.” School plays a crucial role in students’ developing these skills and a multiyear, integrated, and intentional approach can prevent future problems such as drug use, violence, dropping out, etc. As teachers, we recognize that we are all flawed characters. It is our calling to rewrite the story and to redefine the narrative by differentiating the culture and the curriculum in ways that will result in unprecedented growth and a positive, productive future for all students.
This year, in my eighth-grade inclusion classroom, I’m differentiating the culture and curriculum to meet the social, emotional and academic learning needs of my students. This is both deliberate and systematic, with a specific emphasis on providing choice. Through a generous grant from the NoVo Foundation, I was able to purchase flexible seating for my classroom. My new classroom has bean bags, cushions, bungee chairs, padded rolling desk chairs and short stools, as well as a tall table for students who prefer to stand. We are in our first month of school, but I attribute the smoothest opening of a school year and the fastest “bond” with students in my two decades of teaching to the new seating.
How, you might wonder, can a simple change in seating produce such grand results? Because I was nearly obsessive about setting students up for success in regard to behavior, I spent the first week making sure that procedures were in place. For example, as students enter the room, they find the magnet with their number on it, place it in the quadrant where they will be sitting. Next, they go to the computer cart where they pick up their computer of the same number. They log in, go to Google Classroom, and begin the activity (usually a discussion question), while we do attendance, which is simply a count off by their number. Believe it or not, we are already able to start class in about three minutes. Compare this to other years where I let the routines evolve or didn’t spend so much time overtly training students, and it is clear that procedures and protocol are going to keep me sane!
Of course, this is just the teacher in me needing order, which is not a bad thing, but certainly shouldn’t be the thing. I also have spent a great deal of time getting to know my kiddos, helping them determine their leadership styles, and this week I’ll be watching their Credo presentations, which are a statement of their beliefs. By starting with who they are as people, I’m able to differentiate the instruction to meet their needs, as well as support their social and emotional learning.
This transformation of my classroom has been a long time coming, as I’ve been on a path to “all in” differentiation for years. However, it was fascinating to hear my students share their reactions to the classroom. I love their candor—particularly that they thought the seating was “crazy” and that maybe I was too! Watch here or below
Follow our journey to a fully differentiated classroom on my blog by subscribing to FlexibleClass.com. I’d love to have advice from those of you who have walked this path before me, and I’m happy to help anyone who is completely new to these ideas. We’re all in this together, and the sooner we are able to collectively meet the needs of all students, the more we’ll all grow professionally and personally.