Differentiation and the School Library Teacher

Mia Morgan, EdD, MLIS

Differentiation and the School Library Teacher

Good teaching requires that we take the needs of all students into consideration as we plan our lessons. Most standard lesson plan templates ask teachers how they plan to differentiate for ELL and special education students, but really, our lessons have to be approachable for all of our students regardless of who they are or the skills they bring with them to class. Specialists have the added challenge of planning for every student in a school. In my district, I see 550 students each week for library class and there is a very wide range of set of skills and interests among those students. 

It is daunting to think of designing a lesson that will be accessible to every student in a school. You might wonder, is it even possible? 

Fortunately, there are many tools available to help us differentiate our lessons. What does it mean to differentiate a lesson? According to Reading Rockets, differentiation means to tailor instruction to meet individual needs. For example, in response to a student struggling to complete a writing assignment you might offer that student the option of recording a response using Padlet or Flipgrid. You might use EdPuzzle to create two or three different versions of the same YouTube video, but with different question sets in each version that target different types of learners. If you notice a student struggling to answer the questions in one version, or if you notice the questions are too easy for a student, you can offer easier or more challenging versions so that each student is appropriately challenged. You might take the few students who quickly complete an assignment aside and offer them a Quizlet to perfect their skills, or you might let them write a set of Kahoot! questions for their peers. You might pull a small group aside to review sticky points with a game such as Kahoot!, or Quizlet flashcards. You might provide a writing frame to help struggling writers get started.

Differentiation is about providing teacher controlled options to students at the point of need. We can differentiate every part of our instruction: warmups, lessons, activities, assessments, and exit tickets. It is no longer necessary or prudent for all students to show what they know using pencil and paper. It is no longer necessary or prudent for a teacher’s voice and a text to be the only sources of new knowledge for students. Now there are games, videos, podcasts, interactive websites, blogs, and quiz tools to name a few. There are many web tools that provide a variety of options for teaching and learning. A struggling reader can use read-to-me options. A struggling writer can use voice to text options. A student who struggles with organizing ideas might use a visual organizer. You might have a shortened version of an assignment for one group of students, and an expanded version of the assignment for another group of students.

Student projects might take the form of a TikTok type dance and rap, a digital poster, a traditional poster, a skit, a Google Slideshow, a decorated cereal or oatmeal box, a poem, or an essay. Presentations might be pre-recorded to help students with anxiety or language issues present their work without fear of presenting in front of a live audience. Students might create games to show what they have learned, blog posts, or a website. Students might take a picture of their work and share it to a class Padlet or Flipgrid. Tools such as these provide options for different learners, provide the opportunity for students to use their creativity, and give students some control over their learning.

Most lesson plan templates ask teachers to consider the unique interests of both ELL and special education students (students on an IEP or 504 plan, read more here), but there are many other students who might also benefit from personalized instruction. Research has shown all students benefit from personalized instruction (Murray). While our students on 504 plans and IEPs come to us with carefully prepared instructions for how to best serve that individual student, the majority of our students do not come to us with instructions. 

One type of tool that might help us to differentiate for all of our students, are the online self-assessment quizzes that provide insights into the test-taker’s learning style, personality, and interests. A teacher might use those results to offer appropriate differentiation, and to better understand the students in their care. Rather than force a kinesthetic learner to sit still, the teacher might work movement into the lesson. A visual learner might benefit from an instructional video. 

What struck me as I browsed my own test results, is the continuum. There is not a cut and dry label for every test taker, someone might fall into more than one category, visual and kinesthetic, for example, so it is helpful to provide all students with multiple options. As long as the students understand their own learning styles, they can then choose the option that is best. The teacher, meanwhile, can use the results to get insights, such as, ‘oh that is why Johnny won’t sit still’ but not to pigeon-hole Johnny based on the results. The results should be a tool, not a label.

It is helpful for teachers to take these tests themselves to get insights into their own style of learning and interests. It is important to realize that not all of our students share our personal learning styles. For example, while I do turn to YouTube to learn important skills such as how to make an origami Yoda, or how to perform certain functions in Google Forms, I do not care for lecture style videos, I would much rather read a script. I do understand that aural learners prefer video lectures so, during remote learning, I created both video lessons and written lessons, to satisfy both the visual and aural learners. A few times I took my video outside to the yard, even jumping on the trampoline, which I thought might help bring in the kinesthetic learners. A teacher who takes these tests gains insight into their own learning style, and also exposure to all of the other learning styles. Seeing and understanding these differences is a fundamental step toward understanding how to present knowledge to our students.

Web tools make it easy to differentiate instruction to satisfy many learning needs, so why not use them for everyone? One concern for busy teachers might be the time it takes to prepare additional materials. If I am going to create three different question sets to accompany a YouTube video, then I am doing 3x as much work. If I am going to offer materials to students in a variety of formats, then I have to find appropriate material, or create the material myself. Every lesson, every day, all year, will require multiple options and versions. Yes, that does translate into more work for the teacher. However, I have found that if I don’t offer material in a way that resonates with students then I end up having to reteach that material, multiple times, and that is time consuming. A little more time spent in the planning phase will free up more time in the classroom for the teacher to engage with students and enrich the learning, rather than reteaching material. Differentiation for warmups, exit tickets, activities, and projects really do not require extra work for the teacher because that responsibility would fall to the student to contribute using a pre-approved tool of choice. 

Differentiation provides options for all students. Options increase engagement, promote creativity, and help students develop personal connection to the material because they have had a say in what they create. Given a librarian’s busy schedule and high daily student volume, it seems to me that this approach, where you plan options right into the lesson might be a good option for meeting the needs of all learners, providing tools for differentiation when needed, tools for engagement, and tools for personalization for all students.Differentiation is about keeping your classroom flexible and ready to go for all learners. Differentiation also levels the playing field when teachers use those guidelines to adapt instructional techniques and fix problem areas in the classroom so that all students can participate equally in the content. Simple steps such as making sure all students can see the board or hear the instructions qualify as differentiation, as does including alternative assignment and content delivery options. Many of the apps we use to support reading, writing, or communicating end up benefiting multiple students in the classroom, by making the material more accessible or more engaging. An engaging classroom is a happy classroom. Our instruction has to capture student interest. We want our students to want to come to class. We can develop that desire by showing students tools they can use to communicate what they have learned that support their strengths and that will help them to succeed.

Cited Sources:

Murray, Jacqui. 4 Ways to Use Podcasts in the Classroom. Askatechteacher.com, Jul, 27, 2016. Accessed 8/5/20. https://askatechteacher.com/4-ways-to-use-podcasts-in-the-classroom/

Murray, Jacqui. 9 Good Collections of Videos for Education. Askatechteacher.com, Oct, 23, 2019. Accessed 8/5/20. https://askatechteacher.com/good-collections-of-videos-for-education/

Murray, Jacqui. Audio. Askatechteacher.com, Sept, 23, 2019. Accessed online 8/5/20. https://askatechteacher.com/great-kids-websites/audio/

Murray, Jacqui. Differentiating with Personalized Learning. Askatechteacher.com, Sept, 24, 2018. Accessed 8/5/20. https://askatechteacher.com/differentiating-with-personalized-learning/

Murray, Jacqui. Games. Askatechteacher.com, Sept, 25, 2019. Accessed online 8/5/20. https://askatechteacher.com/great-kids-websites/games/ 

Murray, Jacqui. Visual Organizer. Askatechteacher.com, Sept, 19, 2019. Accessed online 8/5/20.https://askatechteacher.com/great-kids-websites/visual-organizer/

TKI. UDL and Differentiation and How They Are Connected. ND. Accessed 8/5/20. https://www.inclusive.tki.org.nz/guides/universal-design-for-learning/udl-and-differentiation-and-how-they-are-connected 

Tomlinson, Carol Ann. What is Differentiated Instruction. Reading Rockets. ND. Accessed 8/5/20.https://www.readingrockets.org/article/what-differentiated-instruction 

Understood Team. The Difference Between IEP and 504 Plans. Understood.com. ND. Accessed 8/5/20. https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/special-services/504-plan/the-difference-between-ieps-and-504-plans