Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Differentiating Instruction through Student Choice

I was fortunate to do my student teaching with an amazing mentor, supervisor, and friend, Deb Blaz. As I student taught, she was writing Differentiated Instruction: A Guide for Foreign Language Teachers, and I was completing some action research and writing my Ball State Honors College undergrad thesis on the same topic. She helped me take the theories of differentiation I learned as a student myself and turn them into real lessons that produced results. One of the most intriguing ideas was that student choice could sometimes shift the decision making in differentiation to the students, allowing them a voice and some autonomy while meeting their needs.

One means of offering differentiation through choice is as easy as offering a Tic Tac Toe grid of options for the learning process. The teacher simply offers nine learning activities, mixes them up by interests, learning styles, and/or readiness, and allows the students to choose any 3 activities he would like to complete to make a Tic Tac Toe on the grid. This differentiates the process of learning and practicing the skills, and the student is free to make the choices.

Ch 1 Vocabulary Tic Tac Toe
Write a poem of at least 16 lines that uses all 10 vocab words
Create a comic strip of at least 6 panels that uses all 10 vocab words
Create a Frayer Model organizer for each vocab word
Create a crossword puzzle for all 10 vocab words, using the definitions as clues. Turn in a clean copy and a copy a classmate has completed!
Complete all of the activities for this chapter in your vocab book
Write a short story, at least 1 page long, that uses all 10 vocab words
Write a context-clue rich, juicy sentence for each vocab word
Find examples from the “real world” for at least 6 of this week’s vocab words
Draw a picture to represent each vocab word

Another way is to offer review activities at a unit's end which cover the variety of skills and ideas included in the unit; this may look and feel like learning centers. Students would have to choose which activities to complete (always offer more than they could finish, to ensure everyone is learning the whole time), thereby differentiating the content of the lesson for themselves based upon their own unique needs and interests.

But perhaps my favorite idea for allowing students to differentiate instruction through choice is on assessment, where my student teaching mentor would build an assessment worth more points than she truly intended (usually 5-10% of total test). She would then give the assessment to students that way, allowing them to "skip" the number of points she didn't need. This is tricky, and it takes some time to train the students how to do it correctly. Since some questions or sections of the test may be worth more points than others, teachers have to keep the students focused on the number of points rather than the number of questions. Also, students are never allowed to use all of their "skip points" to skip an entire section of the test, so they have to attempt at least one of every type of question or skill. Finally, it's best to have the students write "skip" in place of the questions answer, so the teacher has no question on the student's intent (did you leave it blank or want to skip?). Even for Scantron/bubble sheet users, students can write skip to the left of the number! Finally, if students choose not to use their skip points, it's not bonus; the number they get wrong is simply subtracted from the total points intended on the test. This teaches them to be purposeful in deciding which questions to complete and which to "skip."

While some content is non-negotiable and we certainly can't provide "skip points" on standardized tests, allowing students to choose in the classroom leads to more relevant, targeted, differentiated learning. In fact, it can teach students to differentiate for themselves and develop more ownership of the learning process. Just because it's not allowed on the five days of testing doesn't mean we shouldn't try it the other one hundred seventy-five days we have our students!

How do you allow for student choice in your lessons? Do you have any creative ideas for differentiating through choice? I'd love it if you would share!