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Differentiate ‘How” You Teach -- Not What

by Kristen Koppers, NBCT

On a recent vacation with my family to the mountains of Tennessee, we traveled along a winding road. At one point, the road was straight with one white line on each side and two single solid yellow lines in the middle. Traveling on the road is easy as the direction is clear. There were no bumps, exits, entrances, or forks in the road. Yet, with one blink of an eye, the road began to wind with one curve after another. As we were traveling around these curves, I thought about the curves in my life. The ones that felt straight at the moment but then changed. These curves are similar to the obstacles in our life.

This is how parents, students, and educators view education this past year. With schools across the country turning to e-learning during the Spring of 2020, students practically lost half of a semester of learning. Now with the continued aspect of remote learning, many feel another year will be lost.

I published my first educational book, Differentiated Instruction in the Teaching Profession, in 2019, after years of altering the way I taught. I wanted my teaching to be authentic and my students work to show that. The book focuses on ‘how’ to alter one’s teaching instead of focusing on the ‘what.’ Don’t get me wrong what we teach is important but how we teach is more important. With remote learning, there are limits to what we can teach in order to ensure understanding and comprehension.

When educators think of differentiating instruction, we often think about how to modify assignments to meet the needs of our students. In remote teaching, meeting the needs of all students is the educator’s goal. But meeting the needs of all students is difficult but not impossible. For this to happen, we need to change how we teach our students as the way we teach has changed.

Whether you're teaching remotely, in-person, or teaching a hybrid class, we can all agree that we need to change ‘how’ we teach through differentiation. Teaching differentiated instruction in a remote environment needs planning ahead of time.

The first step, as with any class, is to know your students and their prior knowledge before coming into your class. It’s important to know your students and what they already know. In order to do this, creating a diagnostic anticipatory test (sort of like a pre-test) on or about the content is the key to see what your students already know or will need to know. There is no reason for a diagnostic formative assessment to be difficult, especially during remote learning.

We know that 2020 is and will continue to not be like any other year as many states have gone to remote or hybrid learning due to the recent virus. Unknowingly, many of us have been preparing for something like this already through online teaching or blended learning. However, there are some educators that have not taught online or blended courses before; as a result, creating an online course takes more time as the lessons need to include “in-person” type instruction.

As a community, we first must think about how this situation will benefit our staff and students. Working together is not only essential but crucial at this point. We must focus on utilizing the resources we have: each other. But it’s not just the lesson plans we should be collaborating on; it’s the educator support that we need.

I didn’t want to purchase another desk for myself during remote learning. Since we already have one desk in the den/toy room, there was no need for a second desk. Instead, I opted to reuse items in my house to create my “temporary” workspace. I moved some of my son’s items out from the den to a new spot in the finished basement (I’ve been wanting to do this for years). The desk was used by my son for his paintings and had paint and marker marks all over it. To create my own desk, I placed chalkboard contact paper on top of the desk where I can use it to take notes with a paint marker.

Creation of current workspace for at-home remote learning. Instead of purchasing a new desk or extra material, I used what I had at home to create a private workspace. With my son going to remote learning, he needs a separate workspace to complete his work. I just added a chalkboard to the top of the desk.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I was going to create my own area without purchasing new items. Because we are unsure of how long we will teach remotely, I didn’t want to invest in new furniture if I didn’t have to. Trying to create my own workspace took more of my time thinking about it rather than implementing it. Even using 2x4’s on sawhorses would have worked as a desk if needed.

(Photo Credit: Natalie Eich)

Even students need to learn how their education will be different during this time. My 10-year old son’s school was changed from in-class instruction to remote just three days before school was to begin. Unlike in the spring when he and I sat every day at the kitchen table to do his work, I wanted to create a separate workspace for him and me.

Creating my son’s workspace for his remote learning for the first quarter. Even though he would rather be in-person learning, I wanted to create a space just for him to learn.

Already going into the third week of school, there has been a lot of changes that continue to be made. This, by no means, is going to be easy for the teachers, the staff, the students, and even the parents. This is not what anyone wanted. We want to be back in school; we want to be teaching the students on a daily basis; we want to do it safely.

It’s all about how we teach our students not what. Because the what will follow the how.

Kristen Koppers is a National Board Certified Teacher in English. She is a blogger, presenter, self-published author, and a high school educator as well as an adjunct professor at a local junior college. She has been teaching for twenty years and is currently teaching high school English in Illinois holding a Master of Arts degree in English and a Master of Arts degree in Education Administration. Kristen is the author of Differentiated Instruction in the Teacher Profession (2019) and The Perfect Puppy (2020). She shares her ideas on how to use Differentiated Instruction inside the classroom. As an educator, it is important to find innovative ways to meet the needs of students. Kristen is often on Twitter (@Mrs_Koppers) participating in chats and collaborating with other educators. #DITeaching #ThePerfectPuppyEdu

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