In general, every class has 5 kids that work far above the rest of the kids. They hang on your every word, their notes are impeccable, their work is far superior to everyone else and they generally are well behaved. You feel like a genius teaching these kids because they make it easy and really; they are the geniuses. You also have 5 kids that can’t handle the work, feel the need to interrupt the class or are in just need of a hug but insist they cause trouble instead. The rest of the kids are happy to play along and sit in the middle and keep up with the class without too much trouble. Teachers generally teach to this middle group and the class progresses through and on to the next grade with a decent competency.
That is a very simplistic look at it but I am sure that you are shaking your head in agreement to a certain degree. We spend a great deal of time creating lessons to make sure that the 70% will get it and wonder why the bottom 5 can’t get with the program and how you would like to adopt the top 5 as your own. That is fine because it generally works but how could you reach the top and bottom 5’s without investing in 2 new lesson plans? You’ve heard of differentiated instruction but that would be insane.
The Open-Ended Product
It might not be so insane with one small tweak: Introduce an open-ended result for those groups of kids. If you can tweak your lesson to allow for two additional products you might just engage those top 5 and bottom 5 without doing any extra teaching or work. Just throw it out there and see what comes back.
Let’s say we are studying the travels and impact of Lewis and Clark. We might read some of the journals and wonder what it was like to come across the frontier, not knowing what they would see. One possible expected outcome would be to describe some of the things highlighted in the reading and explain what they might have been feeling entering the unkown. That may come in the form of a short writing assignment and the average student will be comfortable writing that. To appeal to my special groups I can add the following options:
1) Compare the challenges of Lewis and Clark’s voyage to the development of the computer, the internet or something else you see as monumental. This can be in essay, presentation or slideshow formats.
2) Create a comic strip or play describing a scene in Lewis and Clark’s travels that illustrates the challenges they faced.
The smart kids will take the challenge or just do their regular awesome work. The kids at the bottom may fall victim to their usual antics but you might be able to leave with them no option to fail.
Can they express that they understand the concept you are trying to convey?
Can those bottom kids convey that they understand the concept by any other means other than regurgitation? If so they are at least with you.
Their work ethic may be in question but do they have the fundamental concept. If so, great! If not, tweak again to see if on the next lesson you have their attention. The other students will benefit from a different look from their classmates, a new look at the same content and you will enjoy reading less essays while everyone takes a step deeper in their learning. You can continually test the options without adding any extra work. Just give them some alternatives and see what sticks.
Back in the day when I walked up hill both ways through the snow I was in the habit of using an open-ended assignment method I called mini-projects. This was especially used for the outer reaches of a concept or unit, to allow the students to explore some of the fun extras surrounding the concept we had learned without getting too sidetracked from our main goal. The students could choose from a list of topics to explore and with many different products to show understanding. The students could then share some of what they had learned with the rest of the class and I got to enjoy where their curiosity and creativity had taken them. The stars would soar as always and did fun things and some of those that struggled did as well, getting far more out of them than normal. Initally the biggest surprise to me was always how many students still turned in an essay instead of doing something different. These students found it to be more work to do something different than to just repeat the same steps they had done so many times before with other classes and assignments. I shouldn’t have been surprised since most students will take the road they know but the real surprise is seeing how high your stars can soar and more importantly how high that bottom 5 can go. Not all of them will rise to the occasion but you might be surprised with a little time how many will. I had some students turn in videos or presentation slides and comic strips and we got to expand on the topic without me preparing another lesson or dragging everyone through every possible activity related to the topic. The students got to see the different facets that they themselves had “discovered” to put together the pieces of this concept we were building. So much fun for all parties and so simple to implement.
It always sounds daunting to differentiate instruction when pulling a good lesson plan together is already challenging. How can you possibly come up with two more lessons or enough varied content to keep everyone active and busy for the duration. It can be done but while you strive for multi-faceted greatness you can open your assignments to different products and let the students do the work. It is amazing what a simple change to the required outcome can make to the overall impact.
Tweak and Retweak
With anything new there is always the chance that it may not work but as master teachers we are committed to seeing our students to success no matter what. That still applies to us and so we owe to the students and ourselves to continually try new things until we have them all on that train towards success. If you find that no one takes you up on your alternative product offer then adjust it slightly for the next assignment. It may not work for every assignment either but you now have another tool to try and reach every student. Eventually you can find that mix that will work for each student without you having to do 35 individual lesson plans.
Pick a traditional assignment and jot down a couple ways the product can be changed to allow these groups to shine.
Share your comments or your ideas below.