At Forest Lake Elementary School, in Columbia, South Carolina, the student population grows more diverse by the day. Income levels, ethnicities, family structures, first languages, interests, and abilities now vary so much, that a traditional teaching approach, with a uniform lesson targeted to the average-level student, just doesn't cut it. (Sound familiar to you educators out there?)
To challenge and support each child at his or her own level, the Forest Lake teachers and staff are deploying a powerful array of widely available digital-technology tools. Each classroom is equipped with an interactive whiteboard and a Tech Zone of eight Internet-enabled computers. Plus, teachers have access to gadgets including digital cameras, Flip cameras, remote-response clickers, and PDAs.
More important than the gadgets themselves, of course, is how the teachers use them to create personalized lessons and a productive environment where each child is engaged. Here are Forest Lake teachers' top tips on how to do it.
1. Deliver Instruction through Multiple Forms of Media
You now have at your fingertips far more than just the old standbys of words and still pictures. Teachers at Forest Lake use computers and whiteboards to access oodles of instructional videos, audio clips, animations, and interactive games, some through software and some available online. Children also cement their knowledge by doing hands-on activities with these media. When learning about shapes, for instance, the youngest students sometimes scour the school with digital cameras, taking photos of shapes wherever they find them. (Download Forest Lake's ideas for using interactive whiteboards.)
2. Gather and Use Immediate Feedback on Students' Understanding
Why wait days or weeks to deliver and grade a quiz to find out which kids missed important concepts? Teachers here routinely use remote-response systems (clickers), colorful little gadgets that allow each child to enter her answer to a practice question so that the teacher can instantly see who got it right or wrong. Computer software programs, too, can give kids practice questions, quickly diagnose trouble spots, and allow teachers to customize subsequent lessons for each child's needs.
3. Give Students Options
All students shouldn't be required to show their learning the same way. And digital media open up a host of possibilities beyond the traditional essay, poster, report, or quiz. For instance, fourth-grade teacher Kevin Durden gives kids additional choices, such as creating a PowerPoint slide show or a comic strip (using Comic Life software) or filming a skit (using Flip video cameras). "This way," says Durden, "you don't see the students' disabilities. You see their abilities." (Download sample rubrics from Forest Lake.)
4. Automate Basic-skills Practice
Free up some hours for more creative, fun technology projects (and for yourself!) by using software to do much of the basic-skills practice and assessment that would otherwise take up a lot of time. Educational computer programs (Study Island and EducationCity are Forest Lake favorites) can identify specific weaknesses in a child's skills, such as understanding analogies or adding fractions. Teachers can review these outcomes daily, then assign lessons to each student according to her needs -- for the next time she logs on.
5. Practice Independent Work Skills
Differentiating instruction often means setting up kids to work alone or in groups. And that, we don't need to tell you, can lead to chaos. The solution for second-grade teacher Tamika Lowe is "practice, practice, practice." Early in the year, she makes her expectations clear, and she and her students repeatedly drill their procedures -- how to use the technology, what to do if you have a question, how to behave if Ms. Lowe isn't standing right there. (Download a sample lesson plan for grade 2 language arts.)
6. Create a Weekly "Must Do" and "May Do" List
Give a classroom of students an array of different, personalized tasks to do, and they'll inevitably finish them at different times. That's a tricky part of differentiation. Forest Lake teachers tackle this by assigning a weekly list of "must dos" and "may dos," so kids who finish first can always find something to do next.
7. Pretest Students' Knowledge Before Each Unit
Before starting each unit of study, grade-level teams at Forest Lake brainstorm a way to assess prior knowledge so they can tailor the lessons effectively to each child. It can be as simple as a question that the class answers with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down or as rigorous as a one-on-one conversation.
8. Be Flexible When Plans Go Awry
Computers don't always perform the way you wish or expect, especially if the teacher in command is new to digital technology. So as you embark on this journey, expect the unexpected. When obstacles arise, you can model good problem-solving behavior by asking students to help you devise alternative approaches. "I say to students, 'You know what? If something doesn't work, it's OK,'" Lowe explains. "Every experience is a learning experience."
9. Let Students Drive
If you've got the tech tools, put them in kids' hands. In Lowe's class, students use Flip cameras to film each other doing oral book reports, then critique both the presentation and the videography. Other Forest Lake teachers routinely give kids turns at leading lessons on the whiteboard, either by hand or with remote tablets called AirLiners. These opportunities allow students to work at their own pace, capitalize on their skills, and discover ways to work around their challenges.
10. Share the Work of Creating Differentiated Lessons
To ease the burden of planning lessons for students at diverse levels, Forest Lake teachers often divide up this task. When they plan each unit of study, different members of each grade-level team design the activities for higher-skilled kids, lower-skilled kids, etc.
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