My DI Journey

Differentiated Instruction (DI) is nothing new in education-speak, but for me, it is a recent classroom changer, so I want to share my (limited) wisdom about DI.

In a previous post, I mentioned our district is doing our DI initiative right, which means slow implementation, training for teachers and administration, extra staff/support, and continuous professional development.  As a campus instructional specialist (IS) I was part of the initial training, and I helped roll-out the plans to our departments, common planning teams, and campus.  Our year-3 framework and goals are now in place, and this summer, I am working on a new-and-improved classroom.

My First Ah-Ha Moments…
#1: One of the first things we learned was the DI is NOT a set of strategies, but it is a way of thinking about teaching and learning.  It starts with Mindset.  It is about being proactive.  We plan to share this video with our new teachers to get them motivated about DI:

#2:  One teacher used the analogy that she previously thought of teaching as triage: kids who need the most help get a blood transfusion and transplant, but those who already “got it” would be fine with a band-aid.  But DI means to move kids, where ever they are, from one level to the next.  So that means if after the first week of school I already know a student would make a 5 on an AP exam, I must find a way to move her beyond that.  And when a non-English speaking refugee enrolls in my class, I cannot let him keep falling behind, but I must find a way to move him forward, even if by mere millimeters.  DI is teaching up.

#3: DI does NOT always mean “activities” and group work.  Parts of the lesson will be whole group instruction.  When you do utilize group work, the groups should be flexible.  (I intend to explain that part of my journey in another post!)

The non-negotiables of DI are high-quality curriculum, supportive classroom community, continuous assessment, flexible grouping, and respectful tasks, but all components are intertwined.  Texas is not a CCSS state (we have TEKS) and our district provides curriculum for tested subjects, so our district/campus focus is the remaining 4 non-negotiables. 

Side-note: I teach pre-AP pre-calculus, which is not tested, so one summer project was to transform my old curriculum to one of “higher quality.”  I researched Essential Questions and Understanding By Design to write my KUDs (know-understand-do).  (The “do” part is what I will differentiate!)

DI and Assessments…
I completely believe in the power of continuous assessment, so what happens next?  What does it look like in my classroom?

My students complete a pre-assessment/exit ticket/quick classroom check for understanding (which is why I’m lovin’ #EFAmath) and I realize that most kids are ready to move on, but a few are still stuck on one concept.  While the majority of the class is working on something else, I call those few kids to the board at the back of the room, and we hold a “10-minute tutorial” on the missing concept.  (One example of flexible grouping is to group by readiness.)  And because we have established a sense of community and respect in our classroom, no one has a problem with being a tutoree.  We have this sign hanging in our classroom, and students realize we will do whatever it takes to make each person successful!

Real-life example: one master teacher at our school was ready to “DI-it” from day one, and her level 3 students completed a pre-assessment during the first week of school.  She realized 1-2 students lacked a bit of knowledge, so she created an opportunity in class to pull those kids aside for a review.  The problem: one student was so upset and proclaimed, “I know why you’re pulling us aside! You took our quiz from yesterday and put us in groups! I’m not dumb!”  Teacher and student continued the conversation in the hall, and the teacher quickly soothed the student.  When the teacher reflected on the situation, she said she had not yet had time to build the community in her class and establish trust with her students.  Bingo!

DI Goals…
This process all makes sense in my head, and I can’t wait to try it out in this year’s classrooms.  I will have high quality, engaging lessons (thanks to EQs and TLAP).  Because I am familiar with the curriculum, I am aware of the typical tough spots, and will be proactive in my planning.  Formative assessments will be a regular part of the curriculum (thanks EFA) and I will immediately use the results to plan for and respond to students’ needs. I will create a supportive classroom community.  Students will understand that when grouped, their teams will change regularly, depending on their needs, the lesson, or activity. 

It sounds so reasonable, but there are so many other components that are part of this whole process. 

Whew, what a journey! To be continued…

Summer Educational Reads:
Embedded Formative Assessment, Dylan Wiliam
Essential Questions, Jay McTighe & Grant Wiggins
How to Assess Higher-Order Thinking Skills In Your Classroom, Susan M. Brookhart
Leadership for Differentiating Schools and Classrooms, Carol Ann Tomlinson & Susan D. Allan
Teach Like a Pirate, Dave Burgess