As Americans, diversity is our middle name. Commonly referred to as “the melting pot” of the world, our society and our schools are diverse in our cultures, traditions, appearances and, on top of it all, our learning styles and needs. With this in mind, it is essential, as educational leaders, to be creative in ensuring there is equity for all students. This is accomplished through differentiation in order to meet all students’ needs, demonstrating courage in leadership as we address issues of social justice, modeling this within our schools, and celebrating success for all students.
Differentiation today is much more than simply giving students a choice between writing a paper or creating a poster, poem or song as the end product of a unit. At the core of differentiation is the relationship between students and teachers. In other words, how well does a teacher know his or her students and their learning styles or needs? Students bring with them, into the classroom, their own interests and prior knowledge. They also maintain a certain level of “readiness” to learn on top of their learning profile which defines whether they best absorb information visually, auditorily, kinesthetically and so on. It is essential for teachers to gather information on each of their students via interest surveys, activity-based assessments, examining cumulative folders which follow students through school, and other means of collecting information regarding students, their current skills and backgrounds. This information is critical for designing instruction which is tailored to students’ learning preferences and personal interests. As previously stated, no longer are the days of simply offering choice of product at the end of a unit. True differentiation also focuses on the content (knowledge, concepts & skills) and process (how students make sense of the content). Each of these areas can (and should) be differentiated in order to meet each student’s learning needs. It could be as simple as providing a means for reflection during the lesson (i.e. a journal or think-pair-share activity) or as complex as pairing graphic organizers with pre-recorded lessons so students may have access to the information at their own pace. In any case, the goal is the same – providing all students, regardless of their learning style or needs, with access to the curriculum.
When teachers are effectively utilizing student data to help meet individual needs, teachers will be more in tune with each student and, occasionally, teachers will identify disparities among groups of students. It is imperative for building leaders to create a climate and culture in a school building such that all school building stakeholders feel comfortable bringing serious concerns to the attention of administration. Both the teacher and the building leader should work together to address concerns within the entire school building. If necessary, the individuals should act as proponents to bring about policy changes and protocols which promote social justice within the school, district and community. This in turn, creates a sense of safety among the student body resulting in a climate and culture in which students begin to act according to the model which has been set for them, encouraging equity for all. It is important for staff and students to have an understanding that fair isn’t always equal and that each student gets what he or she needs to be successful. It is also essential for each person to feel a sense accountability to themselves as well as one another. Together, each person – student and staff alike, make up a community of learners in which each day is learning centered.
Fundamentally, it all comes down to relationships. When teachers know their students – really know their students – they understand their background, their family structure, their traditions, hobbies, strengths, and areas in need of improvement. As a result, they can more readily identify when each student is experiencing successes and seize opportunities to celebrate with them. Understanding individual student needs means understanding when each student is showing growth in any number of areas. Great teachers look for those successes and recognize them with the student – sometimes with their families, the school, the district, and the community too.
In my final year of teaching, prior to moving onto the administrative path, I experimented with a different way of getting to know my students. I surveyed students I was working with, in kindergarten through sixth grade, to learn what their specific “love language” was. This is a concept I learned from the book The 5 Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman and Ross Campbell. The premise behind the book is that humans show and receive love and appreciation based on the specific “love language” they speak. All humans speak all five of the languages but, based on their background, each person tends to speak one language more strongly than the others. The languages include gifts, physical touch, words of affirmation, quality time and acts of service. Once I learned my individual students’ language, I made an effort to speak it toward them more often. For example, if a student’s primary language was “physical touch”, when the student had a success to celebrate, I would give them a high-five or a pat on the back. I would let those students whose primary language was “gifts”, pick out of the prize box. Students who spoke “quality time” could earn lunch with the teacher. “Words of affirmation” students received a nice postcard home to praise the. Finally, I would help students who spoke “acts of service” to learn or complete something they were working on (outside of school) such as how to braid hair or, for older students, fill out their college application. The amount of investment within my classroom, skyrocketed. Students were more willing to work as well as more engaged in the learning! The bottom line is that teachers cannot depend exclusively on the official curriculum to achieve the desired learning outcomes for all students. It is necessary to understand students as individuals with diverse backgrounds and learning needs.