Differentiating Your Instruction Through Seminars
Culled from higher education, seminars offer powerful opportunities to personalize instruction in a small-group format—and involve an element of student choice.
There are many ways to differentiate instruction so that each student receives “what they need, when they need it,” writes Jennifer Gonzalez in Cult of Pedagogy. Seminars, a practice more commonly found at the university level, are uniquely adaptable to K-12 classrooms and offer meaningful opportunities for teachers to avoid “planning the exact same learning experiences for everyone, every day.”
In Melanie Meehan’s classroom, seminars are brief 7 to 10 minute mini-lessons—usually scheduled during her independent writing period, she explains in a podcast with Gonzalez—focused on topics some students need extra instructional time to master. The key is that the seminars are optional, giving kids some leeway and agency in their learning.
Students select and sign up for different seminars based on their interests and academic needs, a step that allows them to think about gaps in their knowledge and understanding of the content. “Ultimately the goal of learning is transfer,” says Meehan, an elementary writing and social studies coordinator in Connecticut. “It’s owning your learning and being a learner out in the world without a teacher at your side. So I love having kids sign up for their own seminars.”
Consider starting small, integrating the practice flexibly where more focused work could help specific students but your whole class doesn’t need the boost. While Meehan uses seminars in her writing class, Gonzalez argues they can be used in any subject area. “Even if you are teaching a content-heavy subject, as long as you build in some time for students to work independently, you’ll have an opportunity to offer seminars on the unique set of skills needed for success in your subject,” Gonzalez writes.
Here are a few considerations for implementing seminars in your classroom, based on Meehan’s practice:
Choosing Seminar Topics
When introducing the concept of seminars to her students, Meehan explains that her daughters attend seminars in college and that they’re “special classes where they got to really work on what they were interested in.” Aiming to generate “some excitement and joy around the whole process,” Meehan likes to include students in determining seminar topics, asking them: “What are you really interested in learning about?”
But she also identifies topics based on her own classroom observations and asks students to complete surveys where they pinpoint skills they’re comfortable with, such as using transition words, or coming up with writing ideas, for example, and skills they’d like to work on, like spelling, or using paragraphs.
Seminar topics can explore “any of the learning targets that align with the standards that the unit’s going after,” Meehan says. “So that could be developing sections for my writing, it can be making sure that I have enough information in a given section. It can be making sure my reason’s clear… If I get four kids who have checked that they need some work on including small stories into their argument pieces, I’ve got a seminar going.”
Sign-ups for seminars can be digital via Google Forms or Excel spreadsheet, or something as simple as a large piece of chart paper attached to the wall with lined sticky notes for each of the day’s seminars. Students pick a topic and write their name on the appropriate sticky note.
Because popular topics can sometimes attract quite a few students, Meehan recommends limiting seminars to around four or five students. If more than five kids sign up for a session, consider splitting the group between two sessions. If many more students show interest in a topic, consider making it a whole-class lesson.
Meanwhile, because seminars require keeping the rest of the class occupied while the teacher focuses on small-group instruction, Meehan finds the practice well-suited to 20-minute independent writing blocks. Once her class is working quietly, she assembles her small group of students and teaches a seminar. Because she keeps the mini-lessons short, she can usually also fit in a quick conference with a student. After that first 20-minute block, she’ll briefly regroup with the class—highlighting something she noticed, addressing an additional teaching point, or asking somebody to share something they’re proud of—before diving into a second seminar.
Occasionally Let Students Take the Lead
Student choices won’t always align with areas they need to work on—and some may even choose to attend a seminar on a skill they already have a strong grasp on—but it’s important for students to feel they’re active participants in their learning, Meehan says. Occasionally suggesting or even assigning seminars is necessary to nudge students in the right direction.
Once her class is comfortable with the seminar format, Meehan may give students with a firm grasp on a topic the opportunity to take the reins and teach one themselves. She’ll approach the student and say: "You’ve used transition words brilliantly in your piece. Could you run a seminar on that for your friends?” Then she’ll ask the student to observe as she teaches a seminar so they learn how to lead a mini-lesson themselves.
Having students teach a seminar now and then builds their confidence and also helps with Meehan’s workload. “I think that we run past the power of the abilities of some of the kids in the room. Kids are sometimes really effective teachers to each other,” Meehan says. “A kid might have a specialty or a strength that they want to develop, and [teaching a seminar] forces them to prepare for it and make sure that they’re extra good.”