The ABCs of Providing CI Through Remote learning: D is for Differentiation

I belong to a group on Facebook for teachers who are currently providing remote instruction during the COVID19 pandemic. As you can probably guess, many of the teachers express how difficult their jobs have become and how much they dislike having to teach from home. But this week someone in the group asked for members to post some positives associated with distance learning. “I refuse to believe that it is all negative and stressful,” the member wrote. Upon reflection, I realized that the biggest advantage of the remote learning model has been that it provides me with the opportunity to provide more differentiation than I was able to do in the physical classroom.

Before the pandemic, I really struggled with my Grade 8 classes. All students had started French with me in Grade 7, and everyone moved up to the Grade 8 class regardless of whether their final grade was an A or an F. As a result, I ended up with students who were barely Novice Mid and others who were Intermediate Low in the same class. As you can imagine, those poor, tolerant high flyers quickly became bored with all the repetition and reteaching their weaker classmates needed. Many of the students who were barely Novice Mid were also discipline problems, which only made the environment worse (Incidentally, if you look through my blog, you will see posts about classroom management, like this one, this one, and this one. The class I am describing here is the same one I referenced in those posts).

When my school shifted to distance learning, I gave everyone the same assignments at first. Many of my stronger students made the transition to distance learning easily and turned everything in on time, but many of my weaker students struggled. I soon started differentiating based on student proficiency level, ability to work independently, and whether or not they planned to take French 2 at the high school next year.

So in a given week, I might send out three different sets of assignments. Here’s an example:

Assignment 1 is for students like Ashley and Zane. Ashley is a very strong French student. She plans to take French 2 at the high school next year. She turns everything in on time and can figure things out independently. She needs almost no support from me to complete her assignments. Zane is an average French student but is a hard worker who has turned in the majority of his work. He is not hesitant to email me if he has questions. Here is what Ashley and Zane might have to do next week:

  1. Complete an Edpuzzle based on a video about French grammar (to prepare for the high school program, which is more traditional) and fill out an accompanying worksheet
  2. Read a story from Notre Histoire and complete reading activities based on that story (with an option to review essential words from the story with a Quizlet set)
  3. (Optional) Choose two activities from a Choice Board designed to reinforce interpretive reading or listening skills.

Assignment 2 is for William and Calvin. William is planning to take French 2 next year. He is a pretty fast processor, but has struggled with the remote learning model. He has not been turning in assignments regularly, and when he does, he usually only picks the easy or fun assignments to do. Calvin is also a pretty fast processor, but he is very disorganized. Distance learning is really stressing him out. He struggles to learn independently and is hesitant to reach out when he has questions. Here is what William and Calvin might have to do next week:

  1. Complete an input-driven assignment from a previous week with structures that will facilitate comprehension of the current week’s assignments
  2. Review essential vocabulary in a story from Notre Histoire with a Quizlet set, read the story, and complete reading activities based on that story
  3. (Optional) Do an Edpuzzle based on a video about French grammar (to prepare for the high school program, which is more traditional) and fill out an accompanying worksheet and one activity from a Choice Board.

Assignment 3 is for Erica and Zach. Erica is a very slow processor, so she is going to repeat French 1 at the high school next year. She has been turning in assignments pretty consistently. Zach is taking a different language next year. Here is what Erica and Zach might have to do next week:

  1. Do an Edpuzzle based on a video about French grammar (to prepare Erica for the high school program, which is more traditional; to help Zach become familiar with a structure that is similar in the language he plans to study next year) and fill out an accompanying worksheet
  2. Choose one activity from a Choice Board and one activity from Notre Histoire, which may or may not be input driven.
  3. (Optional) Review essential vocabulary in a story from Notre Histoire with a Quizlet set, read the story, and complete reading activities based on that story

Having three different assignments in the same class may sound difficult to manage, but it’s really not. Instead of having one class list in my gradebook, I have three lists based on in which group I’ve placed each student. On PowerSchool, students just see “School at Home Week 2” as the assignment name, and since they all are more or less doing the same number of assignments (2 required, 1 optional), they either don’t know or don’t care if their friends have different things to do. I post all my assignments on Google Classroom, but I have the option of only assigning work to certain students on this platform, and the assignments for other students don’t show up in their feed. Another option would have been to create three separate Google Classroom pages, one for each group, but I had no guarantees that all students would have signed up for their new Google Classroom remotely, so I decided not to.

My seventh graders were halfway through the novel Brandon Brown Veut un Chien when our school buildings closed. Thanks to the generosity of the publisher, Fluency Matters, I was able to transfer my students to the e-course for the book for a reduced rate. Now, two months later, I am differentiating in that class because I have some students who have finished the e-course and others who haven’t (and I very much want them to finish, because a lot of what we do in Grade 8 builds off structures from the book). So each week I give out two different assignments based on whether they’ve finished the book or not.

Spanish teachers, if you have any heritage learners mixed in your Spanish class, I recommend you do something similar to what Jason Fritze, an elementary Spanish teacher in California, has been doing while teaching remotely. When school was in session, his heritage learners were mixed into his elementary Spanish classes, and Jason didn’t have the time to do much work with them. Now that he is teaching remotely, he created a Google Classroom and holds a class just for his heritage learners (his district approved the use of synchronous Zoom classes, but in theory he could still differentiate for them if he couldn’t ). It’s a win-win situation, because his heritage learners get instruction at their level and Jason gets to use more advanced language while teaching. BRILLIANT (Incidentally, Jason talked about this in a webinar he gave on the Fluency Fast Website. You can check it out here.)!

I’ve talked a lot in this post about using Google Classroom as an online platform. Other districts might be using a different platform, or maybe even no platform at all. I think teachers using a different platform would be able to differentiate, but I can’t really be sure, since I don’t have any experience with them. If you use another learning platform, I’d love for you to comment on your ability to differentiate with it.

Now that I’ve been differentiating remotely, I am starting to think about continuing once things go back to normal, since I’ve gotten pretty good at using Google Classroom. Jason Fritze also mentioned that he is planning to continue using it for his heritage learners when his school buildings reopen too. For both of us, and probably other teachers too, the ability to provide differentiation has been a definite positive during this crazy time. So even though this situation is far from ideal, at least there’s a silver lining.

3 thoughts on “The ABCs of Providing CI Through Remote learning: D is for Differentiation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s