Monday, November 17, 2014

Differentiating for High and Low in the Workshop Model

Over the past few weeks there have been a number of similar requests for help with differentiating instruction.  I have put together a short list of online extensions (in the next post), but I wanted to make sure and address this with respect to the Math Workshop model of instruction.  This can really make a difference, whether you are trying to engage the higher achiever in your room, or you are trying not to neglect the slower learners among the group.

Every math class you teach has different dynamics, and sometimes the diversity of learners among a class of 20 or so students can be a major challenge.  Maybe you have more students than usual who are really struggling and are demonstrating great gaps in foundational concepts.  Or it might be that you have one or two students who seem to be miles ahead of the others and are getting bored.  Or you could be experiencing both of these conundrums.

Will Pidden has let me borrow a book from a professional development session that happened before I joined RSU 5 that offers a way of clustering groups for learning.  This model of grouping students in a way that honors a diversity of abilities and learning styles while attempting to create a manageable range is attractive.  But I am going to assume that is not possible, and you simply have a wildly diverse group of learners.

There are different teaching styles and different learning styles; every district in which I have taught has had its range of each!  Some teach math in the more traditional style, with mostly whole-group instruction, and do it very well.  New concepts are demonstrated in front of the class, often with teacher play-by-play narration, followed by an opportunity for students to attempt the new work together as a whole group, perhaps with guidance from the teacher.  Then, triumphantly, students complete the new tasks all on their own,  and practice more for homework.   The next day, homework is gone over in class and a new concept is introduced in the same manner.

This is how not most, but all of my math classes were taught when I was in school.  It worked for me at first. I didn't love math as a child, but I was reasonably good at it and found most concepts easy to understand.  That is, until I became a very distracted teenager.  Advanced math was agony.  I sat in the back and zoned out, completely unengaged, handed in dreadful work, and "got by" with mediocre grades and test scores.  I was neither gifted nor exceptionally challenged, but I was definitely not engaged.

The most effective workshop-style classrooms I see allow opportunities for independent work to be done by a small group of students while others play math games or work with the teacher to complete problems they are having trouble with.  It involves a certain mastery of classroom management; students must be very aware of the routines and respectful of the learning environment, which takes practice and time.  But the benefits can be pretty amazing.

Not only does this model allow those students who need extra help to receive more attention from their teacher, but it also allows some flexibility for differentiating independent work.  If Johnny is breezing through this unit, maybe he can be working on a more challenging and engaging task instead of plowing through his math boxes at lightening speed.

Ed Techs in the room can help facilitate this model, but it is not impossible to conduct if you are the only adult.  It takes practice, both for you and for your students.  Maybe experiment with one transition at a time.  "Today we are going to try something different for twenty minutes.  I'd like group A to work with me over at the table, group B to start your math boxes on page 78 at your seats, and group C may partner up and play Multiplication Top-It on the floor.  Let's practice transitioning to this new format today, and tomorrow we will switch groups."

Practicing is essential.  Students should know exactly what is acceptable for working on the floor with partners, independently at their desks, and in groups at the table.

This workshop model, sometimes referred to as stations or centers, does not have to be the rule every day, but it can offer opportunities for students to learn in different environments, take brief breaks as they transition, and receive the learning opportunities they thrive most from.

Students at the table with the teacher are receiving in-class (or "tier 1") interventions for their difficulty with the math of the current unit, while students doing independent work have the opportunity to experience "tier 1" interventions for their accelerated learning needs.  On a different day, or after a rotation of groups, the teacher might have the opportunity to work with a small group of faster paced learners and could even experiment with some extensions related to the unit.

Trying new things in the classroom involves some uncomfortable risk-taking, and can be quite challenging to carry out.  Your trusty math strategist can be a resource for this kind of thing!  Also, your colleagues may have some great tips for classroom management and workshop-style strategies for teaching a diverse group of learners.

I am hoping to do some math learning walks this winter, and I also hope to find ways for teachers to watch other teachers teach whole lessons in math.  I see an impressive variety of great teaching strategies everywhere I go, so I can't wait to share notes.  

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