Differentiation and Inclusive Practices
Upon my very first day of teachers college, it felt like I was constantly hearing the word differentiation. To be completely honest, I had NO idea what the term meant, what it entailed or how important it would become in my daily practices. Throughout my time in teachers college, we have investigated the term differentiation in many different capacities and through many different vehicles. We have sought out to perfect the definition, we have looked for it within the curriculum, we have identified it within our placement classrooms and we have worked together to develop examples of differentiation in our own activities and teaching practices.
As per the Learning for All document, differentiation can be described and defined as being a practice that enables educators to respond effectively to the strengths and needs of all students (pg. 12).
To differentiate instruction is to recognize students’ varying levels of background knowledge, readiness to learn, language ability, learning preferences, and interests, and to react responsively. (Adapted from Hall, Strangman, & Meyer, 2003, pp. 2–3)
Through brain research, 3 concepts have indicated why it is so important to make differentiation and inclusive practices a priority in education. Firstly, learners who experience discomfort in regards to rejection, failure, pressure or intimidation may not feel safe in certain learning environments. Secondly, learning should neither be too difficult or too easy, meaning that learnings must be appropriately challenged. Lastly, learners must be able to make meaning of new ideas and skills through significant association with elements of previous knowledge and experience. Students different significantly in their strengths, interests, learning styles and readiness to learn (17), as a teacher, it is necessary to adapt your instruction in order to suit all of these differing characteristics.
While all of this makes sense, I see differentiation in a quite simpler sense. The lack of differentiation is why I thought I was not “smart” for most of my elementary and secondary school experience. For the longest time I thought, “I am just not good at math”, “I am just not good at science”. It wasn’t until years later when in my 2nd undergrad that I took a biology course. The course was taught extremely hands on and made the students be very active in the investigations. Gone were the long textbook readings that were full of words and concepts that I had to try and make sense of myself. Instead, there were experiments, interactive videos and visuals that brought the concepts to life; I finished with a 96% in the course and loved it. There have been many other similar experiences but in short, I realized, “I am completely capable, I am smart”. I was just not being taught in a way that connected with me or that suited my learning style.
Being in a kindergarten classroom I see differentiation everywhere. Quite honestly, I feel like kindergarten should be the poster board for differentiation! Every station in the classroom caters to various learning styles; hands on, audio, visual, etc., You watch students run to their favourite stations; why are those their favourite stations? Because they connect to them! It makes sense to them! Of course it is important to encourage the students to try different stations in order to work on different skills and to challenge themselves. But in kindergarten, I think we often forget that we are constantly looking at differentiation because it gets disguised as just making lots of different stations that will be great for the different kids in your class!
Mental Health and Well-Being
In Fogarty’s “Invite, Excite, Ignite”, she discusses the importance of the teachers attitude and the way they view their students. “Teachers must demonstrate in words, actions, and deeds that they do indeed believe in each and every student in their classroom” (chapter 12, Fogarty) and from my limited experience, this couldn’t be more true. Let me begin with a little anecdote:
Coming into a new year’s in a kinder class, we began the year with intake interviews. There was one student registered who briefly attended the school last year because their parent pulled them from the program. I was heavily warned and cautioned that this student coming into my classroom would be very high needs, extreme behavior problems and a downright terror to deal with. As a fresh teacher, I was immediately taken aback and began to worry. I went home that night, anxious for the day ahead as I knew I would be meeting this student tomorrow. However, something didn’t feel right to me… there was something in my gut that was telling me that I was already failing. I realized that I had no place starting the year off with these preconceived notions about this student, especially since I had never met them. Of course, I must prepare myself to understand what I could be faced with, as is documented in the student’s file. But it was my duty as this student’s teacher to approach them with an open mind and heart. That is what this student deserves, right?
Students come to school incredibly vulnerable at the age of 4 and 5. As a kindergarten teacher, you are not only tasked with starting the educational learning of children, but you are a foundational piece to how they approach and view themselves as a learner and as a person. While they may only be 4 and 5 years old, students are incredibly perceptive and able to pick up on how you feel about them. “The difference in the attitude, disposition, and sensibilities of a teacher can literally make or break the year for particular students” (chapter 12, Fogarty). As educators, it is our duty to help build and solidify the character and self-confidence of each of our students. How you think of your students, how you treat them, the faith you have in them, will be directly represented in the faith these students have in themselves and how they behave. Let me return to my anecdote from earlier:
After 6 weeks of working with this student, I had developed my own opinions. Of course, the student has some behaviour problems but the student I see before me and who I interact with each day is a stark contrast to the student described to me at the beginning of the year. This student is incredibly conversational, looks to be friends with all of their classmates. Excels academically, loves being involved in any and all classroom activities. This student is affectionate and makes you feel loved each day. As I look at my colleagues, I can see that my mindset is quite different than theirs. While I decided to go into this experience with fresh eyes and no opinions, they did not. What I see from my colleagues is a lot less patience exercised towards this student. What I see are colleagues predicting the worst behaviour from this student before giving them a chance. I hear a lot of chatter between colleagues about all of the problems or down points that have happened with this student. What I don’t hear is talk about all of the successes this student is achieving. What I don’t hear is how intelligent and exceptionally more advanced this student is than the student’s report gives them credit for. What I don’t see is this student being given a fair chance.
Let me clarify- I in no way think my colleagues are intentionally doing these things. I think they love their jobs and their students. I think sometimes it can be hard not to get caught up in the opinions of others and that by listening to others, it makes us feel not as bad about our situations. By having previous teachers or other colleagues tell you how difficult a student was, then it allows us as teachers to unload some of the responsibility because, well that’s how they were last year…its obviously not me.
But let me tell you- the day when this student had an emotional melt down and I went to them and asked them to take a deep, deep breath, they responded with:
“Miss. Lyons, I know I’m such a bad [person].”
….. Cue heartbreak. This student is 5 years old. This student is far too young to already have these kinds of opinions about themself. This is a learnt statement that needs to be rectified immediately. If this is not addressed immediately, this student is going to carry on through their entire education experience being labeled as a troubled student. This student is going to begin to truly believe these opinions about themselves. Once these opinions are manifested into their belief system, it will act as an excuse for the student to act inappropriately… it will be too late. In reality, this student has infinite possibilities and has the ability to achieve whatever they set their mind too. It’s us as teachers who are limiting them. We must not fail them- no matter how difficult, no matter how trying, no matter how long it takes. They deserve our belief and support.
Knowing Your Students
Being that this is my first, true experience with Kindergarten as a Teacher Candidate, understanding the importance and concepts behind inquiry based and lead learning is imperative. It is imperative to my success as a Teacher Candidate, future teacher and as a life-long learner. Getting to know and understanding the new Ontario kindergarten program is a feat in itself, when we as teacher candidates have spent so much time learning and adjusting to anchoring our teaching practices and goals to the curriculum. However, the kindergarten program is very much anchored in child-lead learning, where inquiry learning, which Robin J. Fogarty speaks to in her book, “Invite, Excite! Ignite” is at the forefront of everyone’s overring goal.
“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”- Xun Kuang
The above quote is where I, as a teacher candidate and future teacher, intend to ground my practices and education philosophy. While my experience is education and teaching is just beginning, I find myself being extremely comfortable in the junior grades. In my first year placement, I was readily and easily able to connect with my Grade 6 class and students. However, knowing that the following year I would be carrying out my final placement in a primary class, I was quite apprehensive; then to find out that I was placed in a kindergarten classroom! I was so scared because as a primary teacher, you are responsible for helping tiny humans learn and gain the basic fundamentals that they need to propel them and carry them through the rest of their lives. That scared me. What an enormous responsibility. Not to mention the character development and shaping that you as teacher inadvertently inspire. All this to say, that going into my first day of placement, I was a nervous wreck!
But let me tell you… child-lead and inquiry learning is the best thing that ever happened to me. It has taught me to take the focus off of myself as the teacher and to put the focus on my students. Granted, I know what I am looking for and what I need to be observing in my students but my daily inspiration comes from within my classroom, in my students.
Inquiry learning starts with a question… children are full of wonderful, enormous questions- they are endless! “It is not about questions with an answer; instead it involves questions with an investigation to drive learning and uncover the best solution” (Fogarty). Students learn best when they are active participators in their own learning, without even knowing it! In order to make students active participators and drivers of their own learning, I as an educator must “trust the learner”. This means allowing students to struggle a little and take the time to figure things out. For example- I was watching student A putting a puzzle together during quiet time. She was growing frustrated because she couldn’t get the last puzzle piece to fit. It was my first instinct to run over to her and fix the puzzle piece for her in order to eliminate her frustration and provide her with satisfaction. But instead, I sat back and watched her work through her frustration, trying to force the puzzle piece into place. When all of a sudden, she rotated the puzzle piece and the realization that she had figured out how to make the last puzzle piece fit, had landed. The joy that the student and I felt was more than it would have been for either of us, if I had simply come in and told her to turn the piece.
The struggle that I believe we face as educators today, is to abandon the perceived obligation that we must stick and cover all of the curriculum. Rather, we should use the curriculum as our guidebook, but look to our students and our environment for inspiration and as our tool to lead our learning. I am understand that this will be, at times, an uncomfortable experience- but will ultimately help me flourish as a teacher and a learner.