Change The Objective

Differentiation isn’t always about creating lots of different activities or worksheets. It can be, and in an ideal world in my classroom at least, I love it when circumstances allow for that. But the reality is that sometimes that can’t happen, and sometimes it doesn’t need to happen. In fact sometimes, it’s best if everyone does the same piece of work.

Most of my students find extended writing challenging, so much so that many come to me not being able or willing to even try them. So when I plan extended writing activities, I like it to be an all singing, all dancing kind of affair. I like to act things out, show films, read books, get out the Lego, make potions, or even throw Baby Corn in the air. And, yes as those of you who have been reading for a while will know – sometimes I even like to break the rules by standing on a chair on a table!

These kind of lessons, the ones with the real ‘wow’ factor, work best if the whole class is engaged in the same kind of activity. Apart from anything else, the craziness I embark upon to get everyone interested and engaged with what we’re going to write about, would make it far too distracting for anyone to concentrate on doing anything else!

So in these lessons, I have to think about differentiation in a different way. I have to think about outcomes rather than input. OK, so I want all of my students to produce an extended piece of writing, but what do I really want individuals to focus on? What do I want them to learn?

For me these learning outcomes are usually something different for everyone, but in a larger class it may be that groups of students have the same objective. For one of my students it might be, ‘I really want you to focus on using full stops and capital letters’, for another it may be ‘I want you to challenge yourself and see how many different connectives you can include’ and for another it may be content based ‘I want you to really think how you could create a surprise for your reader within the story.’

So whilst my class are all essentially writing the same piece, which allows me to make sure my input has been as engaging as possible, their individual focus is different. What they are working on and learning is personalised. The key to the success of it; is to find a way that works for you, of letting your students know what you want them to focus on; what you want them to learn. I use post-it notes, but you could stickers or even large pieces of paper in the middle of tables in larger classes.

This is really easy differentiation, but it’s differentiation that will make a difference. It will make a difference to how well your students learn but even more importantly it will make a difference to how they feel about themselves as learners. These small steps and an individual focus will make them realise that they can achieve. Go on, give it a go, personalise your objectives! What have you got to lose?

Let’s Get Writing

If there is one thing I am really passionate about, it’s enabling students to become independent writers. Giving them not only the skills but in the belief in themselves that they can do it.

It’s very easy with the most challenging students, to avoid challenges and the behaviours that come along with those challenges. No teacher and no parent wants to see students upset. However, we also have to ask ourselves what our purpose as teachers is? And if ultimately one of our purposes is to prepare students for real life after school, we have to ensure not only that those students who are cognitively able to read and write do so, but also that the are able to face challenges head on and deal with those challenges, believing that they can.

Over the past few years, in two different locations, I’ve encountered students who have come to me as non-writers. Some at 11 haven’t yet been able to form letters, some haven’t had the phonetic knowledge to create sounds and others have the skills but have simply refused to write in their previous placements. All of these students have learnt to write and learnt to write confidently. They have learnt to believe in themselves.

I don’t have a magic wand, but I do have a lot of perseverance. I believe strongly in the fact that it’s worth going through the tough times to come out the other side. I believe that all my students can do it. And most of all, I believe that a small amount of independent work is worth a page full of work that has been done by someone else.

Scribing can be really harmful. All too often it’s used as a way of covering material, a way of differentiating for students who have no way of keeping up. And I understand that, I understand the why. Content, especially in today’s exam driven world is important. But, we need also to look at the bigger picture. We need to ensure that students have the basics. We need to be flexible enough to stand up, be counted, and change the lesson objective for that child. We need to allow them time to write, to develop their skills. Whether that be through handwriting, or through the use of technology – we need to give our students independence. We need to give them belief in themselves.

So next time there is a student in your room who can’t keep up, stop a minute and think. What does this student really need? Do they really need all the facts of the industrial revolution recorded in their book in year seven? Do they really need to write a full page story? Or can you use this time to build their skills, build their independence and belief in themselves?

It’s only by doing this that we will see true progress. If we scribe for a student throughout year seven, we will still be doing so in year eleven. If we promote independence in year seven, who knows where that student will go…

Ode To The Envelope

If there is one thing I love as much as Post-it notes, then it has to be envelopes. They are I feel, a seriously underrated teaching device! So, here are my top five reasons why we as teachers should worship (or at the very least use on a regular basis) the humble envelope:

1) Envelopes are a ready made way to make any lesson seem far more exciting than it really is! Put them on desks and you can be guaranteed interest, students will be literally desperate to open them and therefore by default already have a vested interest in whatever challenge is lurking inside. Packaging matters to students just like it does to us. Imagine going into your classroom to find a brightly coloured envelope on your desk. What would you want to do?

2) They are a perfect way of disguising your differentiation. Using colour coded envelopes means that you can ‘randomly’ assign tasks whilst in reality knowing exactly which students you are giving them to. Students feel like there is a variety of work being given out and therefore do not feel signalled out or different because of the task they have been given.

3) Chopping the top off them means that they can be made into fantastic pockets to stick into students’ books and filled with exciting notes, revision tips, targets etc. All of which are infinitely more exciting (and therefore more likely to be read) than a simple piece of paper stuck into a book.

4) They are a great way to make sure your carefully made resources stay firmly together. I love them for enticing students who profess not to like poetry to engage with it. Chop up lines of the poem (laminate), and put inside your envelope. Hand them out their envelopes and challenge them to rearrange in a way that makes sense.

5) Last but not least; they are an essential communication tool! There are some things in my room that we don’t reveal until the last minute. A cancelled swimming trip for instance causes a domino effect of meltdowns. So the parents are informed of the date in a sealed envelope, students know there is a trip planned for some point in the week, if there’s a problem with the pool – all can be resolved without any upset. Some secrets are best kept!

So there you have it, the perfect excuse to embark on a bit of stationery shopping over the holidays. I mean, come on, what more excuse do you need? They are practically essential…

Push Your Own Boundaries

If there is one thing in the classroom that terrifies me, it’s technology. It’s something I know I need to get better at; I mean apart from anything else, if I can master it the differentiation possibilities are endless. My students love anything technology related, it instantly motivates them and I have no doubt that when my lessons include it they produce better work and learn more.

So this summer, my self-set mission, is to improve my knowledge and work out creative ways to include more technology in my room. Yesterday, the perfect opportunity came along. Whilst I was sitting totally in my comfort zone at home cutting out pieces of paper for the interactive notebooks I’m making for my GCSE group, a suggestion was made to me by a fellow twitter user (well worth getting onto if you haven’t already – the teaching community on there is amazing). The suggestion: Why don’t you add QR codes? QR codes, I thought – what on earth are they?

Anyway it turned out the QR codes are those little picture links that you scan which take you directly to websites. After the initial ‘There is no way I can do that’ panic subsided, I followed the link sent, to http://ictevangelist.com an amazing blog full of wonderful tips, downloaded the recommended app QRAfter (only £1.49) and started to play.

Much to my delight, it was ridiculously easy. Pick a website, type the web address into the app, press a button and hey presto, you have a little picture link. The app emails the link directly to you, meaning you can immediately print it off. I’ve stuck mine directly into the interactive notebooks I’ve made, so they’ll lead straight to links about what it was like to be a cotton picker in 1930s America, and what racial segregation at the time of Maya Angelou’s childhood looked like. But, for larger classes you could just as easily print the link out and put it on a poster in the room.

We have access to two iPads in the unit and I’m going to download the scanner onto them (totally free of charge), but I’m thinking I may also let students use their own phones. The excitement in my KS4 group would be literally palpable if I TOLD them to get their phones out in a lesson. It would be a sure fire way of guaranteeing engagement, even in an early morning lesson.

This app is differentiation at its best. It allows you to incorporate visual content into your lesson. It promotes engagement from those students who find traditional methods of taking information on-board challenging. It even provides a way of allowing students who are unable to read and/ or write to access online video content independently.

This is technology that anyone can do. Trust me. If I can do it, you can. What are you waiting for? Give it a go today….

Lego In The Classroom

Ok, Let’s face it, as teachers we love to play. In fact that’s probably one of the main reasons we’ve spent our life in school. It allows us to be Peter Pan. As my GCSE class frequently tell anyone who will listen; I do stand on tables, pretend to be a goat and have been known to be a princess. I mean let’s face it, in what other job would we get to have so much fun on a daily basis?

So when I read about Lego’s range of educational products last weekend, I have to say I was thoroughly excited.  Not having any budget left though, I turned not to those but to my daughter’s closet, where I raided her lego supply to spice up my lessons. So this week we’ve used lego as a starter both in maths and in English, and I have to stay it really worked, in maths we had 100% engagement from all students, and in English even my most reluctant writers managed to write a full side of A4.

In English, students (both in KS3 and KS4) built their lego models to give them a starting point for their story. I have never seen more excitement in my room, and the task involved zero preparation time, I literally picked up the box of lego and put it in my classroom.

In maths, my lego work involved slightly more preparation time because I prepared individual lego bags for students based on their own learning objectives (e.g. a bag of 12 one by two bricks for a student working on his two times table) – that said, the bags are now made, and I know I’ll use them again and again, so it was well worth it; especially when students arrive expecting to see a worksheet on their desk and instead saw a bag of lego. Maths has never been as much fun!

For more information about Lego’s exciting range of products check out https://education.lego.com/en-gb/lesi