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September 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 1

Shifting into High Gear

Language arts teachers can differentiate to help all of their students improve reading, writing, and thinking skills.

Educators expect versatility and some freedom of expression in literature and writing classes. Yet, we often find sameness: If it's 9th grade, it must be Romeo and Juliet; 10th, Julius Caesar. Students shape their essays into five paragraphs. The institution prefers write-by-number thinking. Teachers encourage details in quantity, so students line up descriptions like so many LEGO bricks to snap together. Persuasive essay topic? How about gun control, euthanasia, or abortion, the same ones students' parents wrote about in their high school English classes.
Charles Schultz, creator of Peanuts, compared people to multispeed bikes, noting that "most of us have gears we do not use." Schroeder's musical genius thrives in random expression, while Charlie Brown's moderate efforts predictably fail, falling through the gaping holes of his confidence net. With rising standards, published test scores, and an increasingly diverse student population, language arts teachers struggle to give their Schroeders and Charlie Browns the appropriate challenges and safety nets necessary to kick into higher gears. As a coach for the New York State Education Department's Designs for Differentiation Project and presenter of differentiating instruction workshops, I work with teachers who are interested in helping students reach those high gears.

From Personal to Pedagogical

My belief that differentiation could energize and expand learning for the teacher and students was formed early. As a new teacher, I was determined to challenge all of my students. One semester, I proposed a study of the short story through dialectical journals, linking my New York University (NYU) expository writing students with students who were inmates at Eastern Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison that offered college courses. The NYU honors course students were 18 years old with high SAT scores, some publishing experience, and mostly private high school backgrounds. Inmates in my class at Eastern had earned high school equivalency and associate's degrees behind bars.
I asked students, as readers, to respond to one another's writing. I grouped the literature in diverse ways—science fiction by women, stories by a single author, stories about alienation, stories about rites of passage into adulthood, and others. In addition to creating different ways to approach the text, I offered a menu of options for writing tasks and committed to using open-ended questions.
On the first day, I did a dramatic reading of Chekhov's "The Bet," in which a lawyer and a banker argue about whether capital punishment or life imprisonment is less humane. I asked the NYU students to write a journal response. I followed the same plan at Eastern, before handing each inmate a journal entry written by an NYU student. "Agree, disagree, extend, illustrate, compare—whatever seems most meaningful," I instructed. The students responded immediately. The writing became voluminous, and the quality of thought and word surged.
My experiment revolutionized my thinking about teaching. Before I learned differentiation strategies that would change my classroom, I had intuitively asked myself, How could I mediate the diversity of the NYU and Eastern populations without seriously considering how I was and was not honoring student differences?
I'm still concerned with meeting the needs of diverse students. Two years ago, I joined a project about differentiating instruction to improve outcomes for the gifted learner. That work led to differentiating instruction workshops to improve outcomes for the struggling learner.

Goals 2000 Design for Differentiation Project

New York State wants to raise standards, detrack students, and practice inclusion. Targeting the needs of gifted students and focusing on English Language Arts Standard 3, Reading and Writing for Critical Analysis and Evaluation, the Design for Differentiation Project invites middle school English teachers to attend summer training to develop differentiated curriculum units. With the support of peer review and coaches, teachers work from concept-based questions to design Socratic seminars, learning centers, and tiered tasks. The teachers expand methods for preassessing, building community, compacting the curriculum, and designing learning contracts.
Prompted by Carol Ann Tomlinson's definition of differentiation (1995, 1999), teachers practice differentiating content, process, and product in response to differences in students' cognitive readiness, interests, and learning profiles. The backward design process of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe's Understanding by Design (1998) advises teachers to identify desired results and determine acceptable evidence before planning learning experiences and instruction.
As coaches work with teachers in class, during conferences, and online, they focus on students' work. How do students analyze, interpret, and evaluate primary and secondary sources? How do they demonstrate differences in perspective? How do they support hypotheses? How do they mediate content with high-level questions?
To monitor meaningful progress in students' analytical writing skills, teachers begin and end the school year with writing prompts. Documentation from each coaching visit includes sample student texts from five advanced learners, along with evidence of differentiation from lesson observations. Coaches assist teachers with four scheduled visits a year. The first visit supports designing efforts, and the following three encompass a planning conference, observation of a differentiated lesson, and a reflective conference.
We've found that the Socratic seminar is an effective differentiation and instructional strategy. In Washingtonville Middle School, Jeanne Rose's 8th grade English class reads Twelve Angry Men. Jeanne integrates material from Us and Them: A History of Intolerance in America from the social studies curriculum. She creates an inner-circle rotating system with 16 chairs and encourages each of her 32 students to rotate in to voice their ideas, hear others, and cite the text.
The class begins with a think-write-pair-share activity, which challenges students to respond to one of five views on intolerance posted on a large piece of paper on the back wall. Students come to the circle with the Us and Them text, lines prenumbered for easy reference. One student asks why people formed the Ku Klux Klan. This leads to defining white power. Jeanne challenges students to find supporting documentation in the text for why and how people form groups. The students cite evidence connecting identity to group membership, noting that the equality declared in 1776 referred exclusively to white men. Another student observes that every race and religion is represented in the United States and then cites a textual reference that describes the concept of them vs. us.
When Jeanne poses questions about the causes of intolerance, one student speaks about people not taking the time to learn about others—their families and what makes them different. Someone else responds that Americans took land from, betrayed, and killed Native Americans. A student highlights the term savages from the text and notes that people perceived as different are often labeled as dangerous. When the students make reference to ethnic jokes and antigay graffiti, Jeanne asks them for other examples from their own lives. As the students comment, they return to the role that fear plays in intolerance. By the end of the seminar, students search for a definition of and raise questions about silent approval of intolerance. The teacher's open-ended questions in the Socratic seminar differentiate process, allowing each student to deliberate and respond at his or her own level using a variety of reasoning strategies.

Workshop Simulations

The Design for Differentiation Project targets the advanced learner; the Orange-Ulster's Special Education Training and Resource Center in New York focuses on the needs of the struggling learner. Collaborating teachers, the regular classroom teacher, and the special education teacher attend a four-day series of workshops staggered over the school year to learn, apply, field test, and reflect on differentiation techniques. Some of the techniques are described below.
Circle writing. In groups of three, each participant receives a photograph from Family of Man. In one photo, a graduate blows a bubblegum bubble as she finishes rolling up the jeans hidden under her black gown. Another shows a shirtless father rolling on the rug with his newborn child.
For the first two minutes, each teacher describes one photograph in writing. We talk about what the photographer foregrounded and backgrounded and how to tour with the eye. Next, participants pass the photos and writings clockwise. I ask the teachers to tear a small hole from the center of a paper. They use the paper to telephoto in and away from the picture and the text, and we talk about authorial distance. The teachers look at the picture as a whole and then zoom in on a detail, which they write about for two minutes. One teacher describes the bubblegum bubble as an image of protest from the child-woman not ready to transition into adulthood.
The teachers pass the photos and writings a third time. We create a cube and arbitrarily label its six sides: historical background, prediction, description through the five senses, comparison using metaphor or memoir, classification, and evaluation. One teacher chooses comparison through memoir. Looking at the jeans under the graduation gown, she recalls graduating from high school two months pregnant, temporarily hiding under her gown the condition that would change her future. We mix up the groups for paired sharing, asking participants to abstract their reasoning processes in their writings.
Some of the group decide to use a template for designing opening questions for a Socratic seminar. The opening question is, In Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," is the speaker adventuresome, confident, regretful, or ambivalent? Participants experiment with creating question structures that offer possibilities in the form of three to five adjectives or nouns, inviting students to fill in with an alternative choice. The opening question becomes a starting place for circle writing. During the first round, the participant responds to the question. The paper rotates and the next writer agrees, disagrees, elaborates, or illustrates. After the third rotation, the participant poses an open-ended question, and participants respond to that question during a fourth rotation. Looping, cubing, and circle writing—like the Socratic seminar—differentiate process with open-ended cues. Responding from his or her level, the struggling student benefits from exposure to responses from advanced learners or peers with different perspectives.
Sketch to stretch. I divide the first chapter of Maniac Magee—a novel about racism, homelessness, and literacy—into four sections. We work with the questions, How does community influence character? What is the need to belong? Participants fold papers into four sections, taking two minutes to sketch what's most important to them from each reading segment.
In the first segment, the protagonist is orphaned at age 3 when a drunken train conductor causes a crash. Some of the participants draw the train wreck; others create icons that communicate loss of family; a few draw from the imagined perception of the 3-year-old.
We brainstorm ways to tier the experience. When participants share their representations of the chapter in a round-robin, the struggling and advanced learners witness each other's process. Ideas emerge about varied choices, ranging from visual representations alone, to titles, to sentence summaries, to cartoon-style bubble talk, to metaphoric labels. When the teachers think about applying this strategy to their own curriculums, one teacher decides to use Aristotle's description of the tragic hero from Poetics.
Biostrips and differentiated literature roles. In a variation of the jigsaw structure from cooperative learning models, teams of four participants each construct a short biography using randomly distributed strips of paper containing biographical information. How do the circumstances of the author's life affect the work? Participants choose from four author biographies: Robert Frost, Dr. Seuss, Virginia Hamilton, and Sandra Cisneros. After establishing social roles, one participant deals out the strips and the participants confer, each thinking aloud and offering reasons for where the information should appear in the biography.
How can the process be tiered? As students move to the individual accountability part of the jigsaw, one student classifies the events into reader-friendly labels; another identifies a pattern from the subject's life and compares it to a similar pattern from the life of another well-known person; a third creates metaphoric labels for periods in the person's life.
Literature circles. In differentiating the content of a literature circle, we use one of Andi Stix's simulations (1999). To explore the impact of war on character development, each student reads excerpts of varying difficulty from one of four historical novels set during the American Revolution and featuring an adolescent protagonist: April Morning, Fifth of March, Johnny Tremain, and My Brother Sam Is Dead.
To differentiate literature circles by process, we use reader roles that appeal to differences in students' interests and learning profiles. We read "My Name" from Sandra Cisneros's House on Mango Street. First, participants share their name history (what the name means, if they like their name, or if they are someone's namesake). In groups of four, one reader, the literary luminary, finds quotable lines. The illustrator creates a visual representation of an important message from the text. The vocabulary enricher looks for unfamiliar words or those used in effective ways, and the connector makes bridges between the text and real life.
For instance, Esperanza, Cisneros's Latina protagonist, is named after her great-grandmother. One participant, speaking from the role of literary luminary, cites the passage where Esperanza characterizes her ancestor and namesake as looking "out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow. . . . I have inherited her name, but I don't want to inherit her place by the window" (p. 11). We switch the four roles and suggest others, such as discussion director or summarizer, and invite participants to continue generating alternatives.

Rewards for All

Differentiated instruction revalues learning for the Schroeders, Charlie Browns, and countless other variations of learners. Using techniques that provide emotional safety and meaningful student work, teachers can help students shift into higher learning gears and, at the same time, find a higher gear of their own.

Cisneros. S. (1991). The House on Mango Street. New York: Random House.

Stix, A. (1999, October). Blast from the past. Workshop conducted at the meeting of Advocacy for Gifted and Talented Education, Albany, NY.

Tomlinson, C. A. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Tomlinson, C. A. (1995). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Evelyn Schneider has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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