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Using Digital Tools for Differentiation

Page history last edited by Bill 10 years, 3 months ago

Using Digital Tools for Differentiation


Direct Address to this Page:  http://bit.ly/asdn2012


Anyone who has worked in education for any length of time knows just how important it is for teachers to create differentiated classrooms.  If schools are truly working to ensure success for every student, learning experiences need to be customized and aligned to student interests, needs, and unique learning styles.  The challenge, however, rests in making differentiation manageable.  While few teachers doubt the importance of differentiating, many struggle to make customized learning spaces a reality.  


In this February 2012 Alaska Staff Development Network webinar, sixth grade classroom teacher, blogger and educational technology author Bill Ferriter will introduce participants to a range of digital tools that can be used to (1). provide structure for differentiated classrooms and (2). differentiate learning experiences by student interest.  His suggestions and strategies are designed to align with How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed Ability Classrooms -- a practical text on instructional differentiation written by Carol Ann Tomlinson.  





Today's Slides





Today's Shared Reflection Document


One of the things that we will do regularly during the course of our 90 minutes together is spend time in shared written reflection. By creating a shared document of our thoughts, we have time to (1). process and (2). share our collective expertise. Remember that NO ONE is as smart as EVERYONE. 


To access our shared written reflection document, click here.




Differentiating YOUR Learning


One of the reasons that I've grown to embrace digital tools for differentiating student learning experiences is that digital tools have changed the way that I learn over the past few years.  Specifically, online forums have given me the chance to connect with teachers who share similar interests.  Also, Twitter has become a constant customized stream of information connected to my personal and professional interests. 


To learn more about how digital spaces can change your own learning, check out these resources:


Posts introducing the importance of professional learning networks:


Why Teachers Should Try Twitter - Describes how Twitter can help teachers to differentiate their own learning. 

The Importance of a PLN - Points readers to several posts outlining the role that PLNs can play in teacher professional development.

Electronic Teaming for Singletons in a PLC - Introduces steps that singleton teachers can take to network with partners in digital spaces.

Twitter for Singletons in a PLC - Specifically designed to help teachers find meaningful conversations in Twitter. 


Sources for Online Conversations between Teachers:


English Companion Ning - Brings English teachers together.

Classroom 2.0 Ning - Brings educators interested in teaching and learning with technology together. 

Music PLN - Online home for choral and instrumental music teachers. 

Edutopia Facebook Page - A source of great conversations about the changing nature of teaching and learning. 


Tools for Managing Your PLN:


Twitter Search - Even if you don't sign up for your own Twitter account, you can learn a ton by searching hashtags. 

Hootsuite - An application that lets Twitter and Facebook users see all of their content in one place and at one time. 

Google Reader - An RSS feed reader that will check your favorite websites for new content every day.

Netvibes - Netvibes is an RSS feed reader with a more interesting visual layout.  Bill Ferriter uses it to manage feeds for his students.. 





Providing Structure for Differentiated Classrooms


For many teachers, the greatest fear of creating differentiated learning spaces for students rests in the reality that having multiple students and/or student groups working independently on tasks and projects that are uniquely aligned to their own interests and abilities can be a classroom management nightmare.  Addressing this fear, Tomlinson argues, depends on taking practical steps to structure differentiated classrooms.  


She outlines a series of 17 structuring strategies in Chapter 6 of How to Differentiate Instruction in a Mixed Ability Classroom.  Let's look at how technology can further support teachers interested in implementing a few of those strategies.




Strategy 4: Using Anchor Activities


Tool to explore: VoiceThread


My own personal struggles with differentiation start and end with one very real challenge:  Students working independently NEVER finish their projects at the same time.  No matter how hard I work to plan tasks that are equally challenging -- and equally time consuming -- someone is going to finish early and someone is going to finish late and I'm going to have to figure out what they should do next.  Tomlinson recommends the use of "anchor activities" to address this challlenge.


She writes:


"Ragged time is a reality in a differentiated classroom.  It is not your goal to have everyone finish all tasks at the same time, so some students will inevitably complete work while others have more to do.  Using specified activities to which students automatically move when they complete an assigned task is important both to maintaining a productive work environment and to ensuring the wise use of everyone's time." (p. 35)


To make creating anchor activities easier, consider using VoiceThread to design a series of ongoing classroom conversations around the issues that your class is studying for students to join after they've completed the tasks that they are currently involved in.  Students are naturally drawn to opportunities to interact socially with one another, so motivation levels will be high -- a key trait of the most effective anchor activities.  


What's more, VoiceThread is a remarkably easy digital tool to use -- which means that students can contribute in meaningful ways without a lot of direct technical support from teachers.  Finally, VoiceThread conversations are asynchronous -- which means students can make contributions to ongoing conversations whenever they have a few spare minutes of class time.  That makes VoiceThread conversations a perfect option for teachers interested in anchor activities as strategy for structuring differentiated classrooms.


I've used VoiceThread conversations successfully with middle grades students for years (see here, here and here for samples), and along the way, I've learned a ton of lessons that may help you.  Here's three: 


Good conversations are dependent on good questions and provocative content:  It's essential to remember that VoiceThread -- just like any digital tool -- doesn't motivate kids.  Good questions and provocative content motivates kids.  That means if you plan to use VoiceThread conversations as anchor activities, you'll need to really think carefully about the kinds of topics that you're going to ask them to wrestle with together.  


Students -- especially those who struggle with language -- benefit from comment templates: I realized early on that students had little practice with making quality contributions to digital conversations.  This lack of experience led to conversations that were riddled with insignificant content -- and to kids who were frozen because they weren't sure exactly what to say and how to say it.  I now use this handout to teach students about the kinds of comments that work well in conversations and this handout to help students to plan their participation in digital conversations.  


It's important to share great comments  early and often:  Whenever my students are engaged in a VoiceThread conversation -- which are usually open for 5-7 days at a time -- we spend a few minutes at the beginning of every class looking at one or two comments from the conversation.  We talk about the strengths and weaknesses, specifically discussing whether or not the comment made a valuable contribution to our conversation.  Doing so accomplishes two tasks:  (1). It gives students tons of samples to model their own comments after and (2). It gives me the opportunity to celebrate the learning that's happening in our asynchronous anchor activity.  


Probably the most important lesson for teachers interested in using VoiceThread conversations as anchor activities is that it will take a bit of time to teach students to be productive contributors to digital conversations.  Don't assume that a literacy with digital tools means that your students will be superstars in collaborative conversations.  Instead, take the time to talk through the kinds of behaviors necessary to build knowledge together.  



Additional Voicethread Materials:  The following handouts may also be useful to teachers interested in making Voicethread a regular part of their differentiated classroom. 


What Can Digital Conversations Look Like :  I use this handout to introduce my students to the characteristics of good contributions to digital conversations.


Reflecting on Asynchronous Conversations:  Students in my classroom fill out this handout at the end of our Voicethread conversations.  It provides me with a sense for what they've learned -- whether they've added comments to our conversation or not. 


Scoring Student Participation in Asynchronous Conversations:  While I NEVER "grade" the contributions that students make to Voicethread conversations, I'm never opposed to giving students feedback on their ability to drive conversations.  This rubric helps me to do just that. 




Strategy 13: Promote On-Task Behavior


Tool to explore:  Class Dojo


Successful differentiated classrooms depend on students who are skilled at staying on-task while working independently.  Not only does on-task behavior help individual students to learn more, on-task behavior ensures that teachers are freed to work with small groups of students without interruption.  Tomlinson argues that this kind of instructional focus can be taught by teachers who actively track on-task behavior during independent work times.  She writes:


"You may want to let students know that you will be giving them a daily check on how well they are using their time.  You can make a list of students who are working with extra concentration and put a plus by their names.  Similarly, you can make a list of students who find it very difficult to stay on task, even after coaching from you and reminders from their peers, and put a minus beside their names.


Letting your students look at their pattern over a period of a week or a month can help them to see how you're assessing their concentration.  Also importantly, seeing patterns in the students' concentration provides good assessment information for you.  It may indicate a student who is frustrated because work is too hard or too easy, a student who needs a different seating arrangement, or a student who is really taking off with their work."  (p. 37)


This makes perfect sense, doesn't it?  Not only does tracking on-task behavior help to teach students the kinds of important behaviors that define self-directed learners, it helps teachers to spot students who may be struggling with the content and skills that they're being asked to tackle.  


To make this tracking process easier, consider using Class Dojo, a free service that allows teachers award points to students for demonstrating specific on-task behaviors -- and to take points away from students who are demonstrating off-task behaviors!  Paired with an LCD projector showing the landing page for a particular class, Class Dojo provides students with a concrete reminder of the importance of staying focused during independent work times.  


What's most exciting about Class Dojo is that it allows teachers to generate detailed student and class level reports that show the kinds of on and off task behaviors that are common across classrooms -- providing the exact type of information that Tomlinson argues can be a source of valuable assessment information for teachers in differentiated classrooms.  While her paper-and-pencil solution for recording on-task behavior would definitely work, it would quickly become a management nightmare for teachers.  Class Dojo eliminates that challenge by automating the recording and analyzing of data for teachers.  


Here's an external review of Class Dojo that will give you a broader sense for what's possible with the tool.  






Strategy 5: Create and Deliver Instructions Carefully


Tool to explore: YouTube's Video Recorder


Another trick to making sure that differentiated classrooms run smoothly is providing students who are working independently with clear sets of directions that can guide their work while you are meeting with small groups of students to deliver direct instruction.  The challenge, however, is that different students working on different projects are going to need different sets of directions.  Here's Tomlinson's solution:


"It is also helpful to tape-record directions, especially when they are complex, so students can replay them as needed.  Tape-recorded directions are also handy for students with reading or sequencing problems."  (p. 35)


To make this direction recording process easier, consider exploring YouTube's Video Recording feature -- which allows you to use the webcam on your computer to record yourself and then post your final videos to YouTube.  While finding the Video Recording feature in YouTube can be tricky -- first, you have to sign in to YouTube using a free Google account and then you need to navigate to http://www.youtube.com/my_webcam -- the actual tool is remarkably simple, making it the perfect option for recording directions for students.


What's most exciting about using YouTube's Video Recording feature to record sets of student directions is that you can include visual demonstrations into your directions.  Asking students to use new materials or manipulatives that they haven't seen before?  Videotape a demonstration.  Have students who are working to complete sets of lab procedures?  Videotape a demonstration.  Need to create a tutorial showing students how to edit a sentence or complete a math problem?  Videotape a demonstration.


Be prepared: Recording sets of directions can be initially time consuming.  You'll probably want to write a script that addresses the most common questions that your students are likely to have while working alone.  If you are introducing a particularly complex task, you may even want to cut your directions into several short videos.  


Remember, though, that thorough directions can eliminate one of the greatest sources of frustration in a differentiated classroom -- confused students who end up off-task simply because they aren't sure what they're supposed to do next.  And because your recorded directions are permanent, you'll only need to invest time in creating them once!





Differentiating Learning by Student Interest


One of the most common first steps that teachers take when differentiating learning experiences is allowing students to pursue areas of deep personal interest. Doing so, Tomlinson argues in Chapter 9 of How to Differentiate Instruction in a Mixed Ability Classroom, allows teachers to hook student learners. She writes:


"If a student has a spark (or better still, a fire) of curiosity about a topic, learning is more likely for that student. Similarly, a sense of choice about what or how we learn is also empowering, and thus an enhancement to learning. The trouble is, of course, that not all students in a class have the same interests, thus the need for differentiation again" (p.52).


Tomlinson goes on to spotlight several fictional teachers working to differentiate by student interest. Let's look at how each of these fictional teachers could use technology to further support their efforts.



Ms. Bella's Jigsaw Activity


Tool to Explore: Google's Related Search Feature


One of the first examples of differentiating by student interest that Tomlinson shares in Chapter 9 is the story of a teacher named Ms. Bella who uses the popular Jigsaw instructional strategy to give students opportunities to study individual parts of complex concepts.  She writes:


"As she and her students explore a broad topic, she asks each student to select a facet of the topic that is intriguing to him or her.  At some point or points in the unit, Mrs. Bella creates Jigsaw teams that ask students to specialize on the facet they selected with other students who selected the same interest area.  They then share what they learn with students in another group comprised of representatives of each of the facets explored" (p. 52).


The challenge for Ms. Bella is clear, isn't it?  Student researchers often struggle to efficiently break larger concepts into smaller subtopics that are worth studying -- particularly when they lack significant background knowledge about the original concept.  Differentiating by interest is only effective when students can clearly articulate what exactly they are interested in.


Luckily for Ms. Bella, Google recently introduced a new-and-improved Related Search feature that automatically breaks larger concepts into smaller subtopics worth studying.  Found under the "More Search Tools" link in the sidebar of Google's search results page, the Related Search feature generates a new list of searches that are similar to the original query submitted by the user. 


For a student studying World War I -- a broad concept that needs to be broken down -- Google's Related Search feature returns these potential subtopics:



If Ms. Bella's students are anything like mine, they would be drawn immediately to World War 1 Weapons as a potential subtopic worth studying.  After selecting that link in Google's Related Search list, Google sorts the original World War 1 search results, returning only those pages that are focused on weapons. 


More importantly, though, Google also adds a "More Like This" link next to World War 1 Weapons in the Related Searches list:




If students click the More Like This link, Google generates a NEW list of related searches focused specifically on World War 1 Weapons:



What that means for Ms. Bella is that with a little bit of practice, her students can become experts at defining their own interests -- which is an essential skill in a truly differentiated classroom.  Without having the ability to independently break larger concepts down into subtopics worth studying, students end up intellectually frozen, dependent on teachers who have the time to walk them step-by-step through the topics that they care about. 


If you're interested in showing your students how to use the Google Related Search feature to break larger concepts into smaller subtopics, consider using this handout developed by session presenter Bill Ferriter:






Mr. Nickens's Interest Centers


Tool to Explore: Wikis provided by PB Works


Learning centers are a strategy that most teachers -- particularly those working in elementary classrooms -- are familiar with.  More importantly, learning centers are useful for teachers trying to differentiate by student interest.  In Chapter 9, Tomlinson spotlights the fictional Mr. Nickens -- a teacher using interest centers to engage students in his elementary classroom:


"In Mr. Nickens's primary classroom, there are always times when students can meet in interest groups.  For whatever his students are studying, Mr. Nickens creates an interest center to allow his young learners to find out more about what they are curious about.  For example, while students studied animal habitats, there were interest centers on habitats of varied animals such as badgers, beavers, and polar bears...


Ultimately, students who wanted to do so could form an interest group with one or more peers to create an interest center on the habitat of another animal for their peers, as well as students next year.  In interest groups, students sometimes read together, sometimes had book discussions, sometimes shared what they were finding out from their own research, planned the interest center they would design, and did the work necessary to create the interest center" (p. 54)


While I love Mr. Nickens's plans to create interest centers for his students, I'm even more convinced that allowing students to create their own interest centers is a great practice in a differentiated classroom.  When developing their own centers, students are given the freedom to pursue their passions -- a key for engaging any learner.  More importantly, asking students to develop learning centers that become reference sources for others provides a real-world purpose and audience for student work. 


Wikis -- which are nothing more than easy to edit websites -- could make the perfect home for student generated interest centers


Because they are incredibly approachable tools, the level of technical skill necessary to create wiki pages is low.  Regardless of their age, students quickly master the simple steps necessary for adding content to wiki pages. But don't let the simplicity of a wiki page fool you.  Content creators can embed pictures and video into their final pages, making points with multimedia content.  Content creators can also add links to external sources, allowing their audiences to dig deeper into the topics that they are studying. 


I've used wikis successfully with students for years.  Perhaps the project that best resembles Mr. Nickens's interest centers was a Russia ABC project that my students tackled in 2007.  Groups of 4 students were asked to find a vocabulary word connected to Russia that started with a letter of the alphabet that I assigned.  Then, they needed to develop a wiki page that could be used to teach their peers about the vocabulary word that they'd selected. 


Probably the best examples of what's possible when students use wiki pages to develop interest centers are the Arms Race and Gulags pages.  Both include extensive and accurate detailing, both are formatted nicely and both use external links to connect readers to sources for continued study.  Had this project been completed today, my guess is that students would have taken the time to embed streaming video clips from online sources like YouTube.  That content is engaging -- but it wasn't widely available to middle school students in 2007.


One of the questions that I'm often asked is, "Couldn't you do this same kind of work on a blog?"  The answer is yes -- blogging applications also allow teachers and students to create interest centers.  In fact, a group of my current students has decided to document the birds that they spot on our middle school campus using a blog. 


Typically, though, if the content in a project is going to be changed frequently, wikis are the better digital choice.  They're designed to be edited often.  Blogs aren't.  That means if you have a group of students who are working to develop content together over time, wikis are a better choice. 


I've also always felt -- and taught my students -- that blogs were homes for opinions and wikis were homes for facts.  While that's certainly not a hard and fast rule, it does resemble the ways that people use blogs and wikis beyond school.  Follow that logic, and wikis are again the right choice for classroom interest centers.


The key to successfully introducing wiki pages in your classroom is remembering that despite growing up in a digital age and having a high level of comfort with technology, your students are going to need guidance when creating their first pages.  Just because they'll master the technical steps necessary for creating a wiki doesn't mean they'll know what a quality final product is supposed to look like.  These handouts may help you to structure early wiki work in your classroom:


Characteristics of a Quality Wiki Page: This handout walks students through a study of three student-generated wiki pages and is designed to spotlight the kinds of steps that wiki creators take when producing polished final products.


Exploring Wikis in Action: This handout is designed to help teachers think through the role that wikis may play in their own classrooms.  It introduces three different wiki projects -- one from an elementary school, one from a middle school and one from a high school. 


Wiki Roles for Student Groups: This handout is designed to introduce students to the different tasks that must be tackled in order to generate a quality wiki page. 





Ms. Paige's Interview Project


Tool to Explore: Skype in the Classroom


Inevitably, learning in a differentiated classroom depends on social interactions with others -- whether they are peers or adults with expertise in areas of personal interest.  In Tomlinson's text, Ms. Paige -- a fictional sixth grade math teacher trying to show her students the connection between her curriculum and the real world -- is determined to provide her students with these social interactions:


"She has asked each of her students to interview someone whose job seems interesting to them to find out how that person uses fractions and decimals in their occupation.  Students will ask preliminary questions to determine whether a potential interviewee does, in fact, use fractions and decimals in important ways.  If not, a student will continue the search for someone who does use fractions and decimals as an occupational tool" (p. 55)


Ms. Paige's decision is a good one, isn't it?  Anytime that students -- particularly those pursuing their own passions in a differentiated classroom -- have the opportunity to interview individuals with expertise, learning is bound to happen.  Not only will students walk away with a better understanding of the topic that they are studying, they will walk away with a better understanding of the kinds of skills necessary for carrying on a meaningful conversation.  Both of those learning outcomes are important.


The good news -- even for teachers and students in remote locations -- is that connecting in real time with others who share similar interests is just plain easy to do.  Most popular social media services -- including Facebook and Google Plus -- have made streaming video chats a central part of their platforms.  For educators, however, Skype's Education Community should stand at the center of any efforts to connect students -- to one another OR to adult experts. 


The technology that Skype uses to connect individuals to one another is nearly identical to the technology offered by other videoconferencing services.  After creating a free account, one-to-one video calls are easy to pull off from any computer with a web cam.  The picture and audio quality of calls are satisfactory -- and users can even share their desktops AND their files with one another. 


What makes the Skype Education Community unique, however, is that it is designed to bring together teachers and students who are looking for partners for specific projects.


That makes it the perfect tool for supporting students who are pursuing their own interests in differentiated classrooms.  Have a student who is interested in knowing how the average German feels about World War II? Post a project description in Skype's Education Community and wait for a reply. Want to introduce students to the challenges of living in a developing country? Look for teachers working in one and see if they'd be willing to work with your class. 


In my own room, Skype provided a group of my students who were studying the impact that humans have on habitats with the opportunity to learn from an expert in Western Canada who volunteered her time to mentor them through a project.  In regularly scheduled weekly conversations, she reviewed their progress, asked questions, provided answers and pointed them in new directions. 


The key videoconferencing lesson that I learned early on was a familiar one:  While my students had no trouble using Skype, successful conversations with their digital mentor depended on structuring their thinking before, during and after their weekly conversations.  The technology wasn't a barrier.  Instead, it was the infinitely more complex skill of learning from conversations that caused them to stumble. 


To make sure that your students learn to conduct successful videoconferences, consider introducing them to these handouts:


Tracking Your Videoconference: This handout provides a series of questions to consider before, during and after a videoconference session.  While the questions may not be perfectly tailored to every circumstance in a differentiated classroom, any teacher can use it as a guide to craft their own set of guiding questions to share with students.


Student Videoconferencing Preparation Checklist: While students can generally figure out the technical details of using Skype, preparing for a videoconference means more than just knowing how to sign into the service.  This handout can help students -- particularly those that are working independently -- to know that they are ready for a videoconferencing session. 









Just Who ARE the iGeneration


To learn a little more about today's students, explore the video titled Joe’s Non-Netbook which was created by a group of high school students commenting on the nature of today's schools.  Consider using the handout titled The People Formerly Known as the Audience to guide your reflections.






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