BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER DOROTHEA HACKETT
For years, teachers have been told: “Be sure to differentiate your instruction.” “Individualization is key to reaching the students to provide the optimum learning environment.” We have heard it again and again. We believe it. The problem: how to make that happen effectively in a class of 30 high school freshmen.
Then along came Corona. Overnight, this changed what we have called education for years. How would we reach our students both educationally and socially/emotionally? The scramble began to provide the optimum learning environment to all of our students. Wait! We knew we had heard those words somewhere before.
My district may be more fortunate than others. When COVID-19 closed our school, we faced the issue of equity: internet and technology access. We are officially in a “town: remote” according to the state. However, when I can see cows in pastures on my way to school, and some students need to ride the bus for 45 minutes to get to school, I consider that rural. Due to the economically depressed area in which we live - even prior to COVID-19, many families do not have internet access or the devices to use that access. Our district gathered devices from all buildings and distributed them, along with district-purchased jet pack hot spots, to all families in need. Tech access? Check!
When the academics restarted, I was confident that my freshmen and AP English students would make the transition seamlessly because I had used Google Classroom and various other platforms throughout the year. That indeed was the case. Smooth sailing for me and for my students. We had this.
Now that we are weeks into this learning platform, I have had time to reflect on my students’ learning. I choose not to hold “officially scheduled” office hours through Google Meet since other teachers rely on those. I choose the “email me whenever you need me” method, and many different students email me daily with questions or ways to improve their assignments. Now it has hit me. I am truly differentiating! I am providing that individualized instruction that educators find so valuable! I am able to do it successfully because, serendipitously, I am exclusively using an online platform to deliver my instruction, my assignments, and, most importantly, my feedback. When students need face-to-face support, I can schedule with a small group without wondering if the other 25 will interrupt the learning scenario. With the online platform, they don’t. I am available to help that individual or small group uninterrupted by others.
A big difference I see occurs in discussion protocols. In the physical classroom, the students discuss in whole group or small groups. Even though I circulate among the groups, there still seem to be some students who hide in the shadows of the discussions. Since the change to all online discussion, I can schedule a specific small group of students for a discussion and “eavesdrop” on that discussion for the entire time period. I can vary the student groups and schedule students according to their individual needs staying with that group to assess their progress in meeting that need. In the physical classroom, I would lose this concentrated period of time believing that I would need to move to the next group to ensure contact with all students in a period. I see all students engaged in this type of discussion. Google Meet has no shadows.
Another difference I see is in students’ writing. I frequently assess comprehension through written responses/reactions to texts. When I ask for a written submission in the physical classroom, some students rely on others for ideas and then reiterate those students’ contributions.When they receive the graded response, they look at the grade - completely ignoring the feedback - and put the response in their notebooks never to be seen again. In online learning, I receive a unique response from every student. With this submission, I am able to assess both comprehension and writing skills. I am able to post individualized feedback for the students’ metacognitive opportunities. I continue to pose revision and metacognitive questions targeted to each student’s needs which forces a return to revision. For reference, I also post Mentor texts that target the students’ needs and direct students to what aspects of that text will enhance their particular writing skills. Students are more willing to revise their digital copies since the rewriting is less time consuming with copy, cut, and paste.(We are not a 1:1 school so most physical school writing is hard copy on paper.) In addition, I am just an email away if a student needs to reach out. I can spend as long as necessary without others getting impatient for my attention, therefore, providing that truly differentiated and individualized instruction.
COVID-19 has presented our state and our country with a multitude of challenges that we would not prefer to meet ever again. However, the success that my students and I have experience with differentiation and individualized instruction challenges me to find similar ways to make this work when we return. Yes, Corona has changed education, but, in some aspects, for the better.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee