Introduction to Differentiation for Middle School Science Teachers
Now What? The bell rings and students being flooding into your classroom, signaling the start of a new school year. As they wander the room for the first time finding their seats, you scan the new faces and recognize a few from the cumulative folders you glanced at briefly the previous week: ● Christina--she struggles to learn new vocabulary due to a learning disability, ● An and Marisa--the two English language learners, ● Jackson--hyperactive and exhibiting new behavior problems since his father was laid off, and ● Elisha--academically gifted in mathematics and science Anxiety settles into your stomach as you remember that out of the twenty-eight students in this class, eight have academic challenges while six others qualify as gifted. How will you ever meet all their needs? Teachers everywhere experience this nervousness at the start of each new school year. We wonder: ● What are the needs of my students? What problems in the classroom might a student have? Can I able able to teach a class with so many different types of needs? ● Will I forget about some children while helping the others? ● Will all students learn the curriculum? How many can pass the state science exams? Increasing diversity in science classroom due to widespread mainstreaming of special needs and gifted students along with the growing number of English language learners justifies these fears. Creating a more accessible curriculum using differentiation provides all students the opportunity to learn, then demonstrate their understanding of science. Start from the Beginning The federal government recognizes thirteen different categories of disability with multiple syndromes, illnesses, or conditions within each of those. As a result, differentiating science materials and instruction for all students often feels overwhelming due simply to the variety of needs students exhibit. Think of differentiation as a process instead--one that takes time, practice, and learning from one’s mistakes to understand. Simply implementing new strategies and altering materials to meet the needs of students encountered each year provides a testing period to ensure ideas translate into increased student success while allowing recycling of quality, differentiated materials from year to year. This publication attempts to introduce research-based strategies for differentiating classroom materials and instruction for students facing the most common challenges in science class. Before we delve into these strategies, please consider the following: research shows the number one factor contributing to student success is an effective teacher. These teachers depend on their strong behavior management skills to ensure the classroom functions efficiently. They have procedures governing almost all classroom movement, some rules outlining behavior expectations, and a system of reasonable consequences for those violating the rules. Without adequate classroom management, a teacher cannot effectively implement differentiation strategies essential for meeting their student needs. A list of resources at the end of this publication provide a good starting place for evaluating a individual teacher’s skills and suggests techniques for creating a well-managed classroom. Knowing student strengths and weaknesses is another critical factor in designing instruction which successfully meets individual needs. A school’s special education and English as a second language teachers possess invaluable information about a specific student’s academic skills while counselors and social workers may be able to disclose more information about significant home situations. Consider administering a skills and interests survey or learning styles inventory early in the school year to get a better idea of a student’s learning preferences so . A short list of inventories and surveys at the end of this publication are good introductions to these types of documents.
The Obstacles and their Solutions Middle school students typically struggle with the following areas in science class: ● English language literacy, ● Mathematics, ● Understanding science concepts, and ● Reading and vocabulary. It is difficult to modify all assignments to meet the specific needs of each student, but teachers often begin differentiating by adapting curriculum complexity, content presentation, or the assessment of a student’s knowledge. Consistently utilizing one or more of these in each lesson ensures the content becomes more accessible to students in spite of their needs. Curriculum Complexity ● Tier assignments--Altering the complexity of a question or required task in an assignment enables teachers to vary processes students use to reach those goals. For instance, you might ask a struggling student to list the pros and cons of nuclear energy while a gifted student would write a short opinion piece about nuclear power using the pros and cons as evidence for their argument. These students meet the same curriculum standard, understanding the positive and negative effects of nuclear energy, but the assignment caters to different levels of understanding. ● Vary classroom materials--Providing students with graphic or audio-visual representations of science concepts and leveled reading materials enables students with visual learning styles or reading difficulties to access the curriculum equally. For instance, many student have trouble understanding science textbooks due to the high number of technical vocabulary words which they struggle to decode and develop fluency for. If a teacher posts on the class website a recording of the passage read aloud that incorporates explanations of the new vocabulary, students better understand the pronunciation and contextual meaning of the new words. Content Presentation ● Multiple presentation methods--The traditional lecture many teachers experienced in science courses do not adequately serve the modern classroom. Adding other presentation formats such as field trips, discussions, laboratories, and problem-solving exercises reinforces the content taught in lectures while also students with an opportunity to interact with the topic. ● Flexible grouping strategies--Learning through collaboration is named as one of the most important skills students will need for success in their careers. Grouping students flexibly creates different learning environments depending on the grouping. For example, the teacher can group students based on ability or interest or even allow students the opportunity to independently form groups. Frequently changing groups also allows students the opportunity to work with the widest variety of people while avoiding publicly labels such as ‘gifted’ and ‘at-risk.’ ● Include real life! Students are more likely to understand a new concept if they successfully connect it to previously learned information or real-life events. Taking a ‘break’ from the prescribed curriculum or pacing guide may feel like a waste of time, but students rarely forget those experiences. For instance, eighth grade students learn about boiling and freezing points as part of the chemistry unit. Why not have students spend some one class learning about the chemistry of ice cream along with allowing students to make some?
Student choice--Choice in the science classroom initially feels uncomfortable, but keep in mind that choice does not mean students design their own assessments a la “I am not a good writer, so I will not write this lab report.” Students love showing teachers how smart they are, especially when they can use their strengths to do so! The paper and pencil multiple choice tests favored by most states for end-of-year assessment cater to the strengths of a particular type of student, but many students do not possess the skills or strategies to properly exhibit all their knowledge. If the same student above were artistically inclined, allowing them to draw a cartoon strip including the information you asked for on the written report uses their strengths to complete the given assignment.
A Classroom Example One example of differentiation utilizing several of the strategies listed above comes from an eighth grade science teacher at my school. On March 11, 2011 I awoke to the news that a massive overnight earthquake produced a tsunami which had devastated northeastern Japan. Although my students were supposed to complete a lesson about evolution, I immediately began creating an alternative plan knowing that my students would have questions. That day in class I divided students into groups based on their reading ability and they used the Internet to research information about tsunamis and the destruction they cause. Each group used a different news service for their work--struggling readers used American sites such as CNN and Fox News, average readers used the British, Canadian, and Australian broadcasting networks, while advanced readers consulted Chinese and Japanese news outlets. Each group produced an acrostic poem for the word ‘tsunami.’ They could list words, phrases, or sentences to describe facts or emotional reactions based on their research. Throughout the class, groups called each other over to watch videos of the event, look at before and after pictures of the affected area, and corrected each other as more information became available. Before the period ended, each group shared their poems with the class. Students left class fascinated by the power of water and returned the every day for the next month demanding more information from me on ranging from how tsunamis form to the current situation in Japan to how students could help. This particular teacher frequently incorporates the same differentiation strategies throughout her lessons, regardless of the topic. What strategies did she use this day? Although these presentation methods might not be successful in your classroom, how could you effectively incorporate the same differentiation techniques into your lesson plans? Conclusion Differentiation is an invaluable professional skill that creates a science curriculum accessible for all students by meeting their individual learning needs whether those are struggles with vocabulary or extraordinary mathematical abilities. Creating a mindset of differentiation demands dedication and learning from unsuccessful first attempts. The students benefit academically, the teacher grows professionally, and learning continues.
Sources and Resources Classroom Management
Harry Wong's Weekly Column--If you have not yet read The First Days of School, I highly recommend you do. Most used bookstores carry at least one copy. It is a quintessential guide to classroom management. ● Four Steps to Better Classroom Management ● Managing Middle School Classrooms ● Discipline Help--The name says it all--”You Can Handle Them All!.” The site provides excellent suggestions for dealing with specific student behaviors such as “The Agitator” or “The Loudmouth” ● Stages of Discipline Learning Style Inventories ● VARK Questionaire for Younger People ● Simple Learning Style Inventory ● What's Your Learning Style? ● Find Your Strengths!--Multiple Intelligences Based General Differentiation Information ● Differentiating Instruction: Meeting Students Where They Are ● Differentiating for Tweens ● Teaching Methods: Differentiating Instruction ● Considerations for Teaching English Language Learners ● Deciding to Teach Them All Differentiating for Science Instruction ● Science Differentiation ● Differentiating Science Instruction ● English Language Learners in Science ● Improving Reading Skills in Science