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It's Easier Than Ever to Provide Differentiation in the Classroom

Here are the apps, websites, and ideas working for my district.

Pamela Voyles | December 28, 2016

With so many apps and online programs available for students, it's getting easier all the time to provide differentiation in student lessons and projects. Classrooms and libraries are taking on a new look and purpose now that mobile technology allows a freedom of instruction and learning that was not possible a few years ago.

Over the last five years, our district's library staff has worked hard to redesign the elementary, middle, and high school libraries. Why? We wanted the libraries to do more than provide great books to read -- we wanted to provide students with differential learning spaces that include an assortment of books, library computers, space for students to work with their own laptops or mobile devices, reading areas, study areas, and open space for makerspace activities. Information is at our fingertips with a tap on a screen; the design of libraries should reflect that.

I also see a transformation taking place in classrooms, many of which no longer have the traditional rows of desks. Mrs. Adams, a fifth-grade teacher in our district, took out her traditional desks and added standing desks and stools. She gives students a choice of whether to sit or stand, allowing them to control their own physical learning environment according to their needs. One student said, "These desks help me focus and not get lazy. The fidget bar helps keep my brain energy high."

Online programs and apps are making other kinds of transformations possible, too. Our district has been using G Suite for Education (formerly known as Google Apps for Education) for the last two years, and it's made a huge difference in our ability to provide differentiation. All students within the district are given an account they can log into from a school computer or iPad or their own devices. Then, using Google Classroom, teachers can provide specific assignments to individual students or to an entire class and comment on individual students' work.

Students are more vested in an assignment or project when they're interested in the topic, and there are times when a teacher can differentiate a lesson to fit individual student interests. Mrs. Hardegree's seventh-grade science students were able to do just that by using ExploreLearning Gizmos to pick topics for a virtual lab. The students used the app when they were learning about the flow of energy through living systems. Gizmos allowed them to see the impact of overfishing on the marine ecosystem. The app allowed the students to use different factors to adjust for pollution and fishing and their effects on marine life.

Meanwhile, math classes across the district are using IXL or Think Through Math, easy-to-use apps that allow the teachers to differentiate instruction for students by assigning students to work on specific math skills. For example, the geometry class might be working on symmetry. One student needs to concentrate on line symmetry and another on rotational symmetry. The program allows each student to work individually with lessons customized for their specific needs.

Sixth- and seventh-grade math teacher Mrs. Alcorn said IXL is great for her middle school math students because it provides immediate feedback. Students who are successful can move on to something more challenging while a struggling student gets immediate feedback and remediation. She said some of her students have actually asked for a worksheet, because when they're struggling, the program requires them to immediately correct their mistake instead of turning in an incorrect answer. They're unable to just rush through the problems.

One of my favorite sayings is "wish it, dream it, do it!" I think this really applies to today's educational environment. By embracing the needs of each student and responding with differentiated instruction, we can create learning environments that foster learning for all students.