Let’s Get Real about Time, Differentiation, and Sustainability

Elephant in the room:

Elephants” by Mila Marjanovic, 2nd grade year (May 2021)

100% commitment to 24/7 differentiation in any classroom, in its purest and most consistent form, is probably unattainable for a teacher with any semblance of work/life balance.  Why? It takes a whole lot of that slippery, precious precious resource: time.

Maybe it’s possible if you are homeschooling your single child at home. Maybe then.  Only then.

When I was barely 21 years old and looked about 10, I spent my first three years teaching seven preps (6th Grammar/Writing, 6th Reading, 7th Grammar/Writing, 7th Reading, 8th Grammar/Writing, 8th Reading, 8th US History)  at a tiny private Catholic School in Terre Haute, IN.  The entire 6th grade class had 31 students in it, so I needed a few extra chairs.  7th grade, though only populated by 10 students, made up for it in their constant talking over me.  8th grade was a more manageable 25 or so. I had never had a full time teaching gig before, so I didn’t know enough to know this was an insanely challenging load for a first year teacher.  I had a brand new husband, which in my opinion shouldn’t need any maintenance. I remember distinctly thinking: “Oh this is a job you have to work hard for?  I’m good at working fast.  Time, for me, is a flexible heuristic.” (Oh dear, dear Julie before three kids.  You had no idea just how finite time would become.)

So, I dedicated my life to this new adventure: morning, noon, night, weekends.   I rode my bike in the just-rising 6am sun to arrive early to the building, in time to begin my daily routine of faking it until you make it.  Sometimes I was reading the history chapter for the first time as I taught it. I had copious stacks of worksheets just-in-case I ran out of lesson plans.  (Spoiler: I never ran out of lesson plans. I eventually recycled all of the worksheets.) I would sometimes watch a movie with my husband on a Saturday night while responding to letters my students had written me about the books they were reading.  I found a bag of chocolate chips was a wonderful way to get through an impossible load of essays. 

Lesson planning was my favorite world of exhilarating possibility.  How might I spend the next hour, day, week, month, unit, year as I intentionally met the needs of each of my students?  I buried myself in articles clipped from English Journal and Voices from the Middle and resources I gobbled up at every conference I was able to get my hands on.  It was completely exhausting and completely unsustainable and completely wonderful. I fell in love with my students and my profession as I fell in love with my husband.  I grew into my authority as an adult in the room as I literally grew into being an adult.  I don’t recommend this kind of entry into teaching for any first year teacher.  Funny thing is, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What could possibly take me so much time? Well for one, I was a complete novice with no English teaching buddy or mentor in the building.  There was no existing curriculum that I thought was worth its salt.  So I painstakingly built it from the ground up.  But there was something else at play here too  . . .an annoying persistence to live out my educational philosophy that the best teaching involves giving individual students what they need in relation to interest, skill level, etc.  Why put on an existing play when students could write a play based on their local reality?  Why use an existing lesson plan on persuasive writing when I could craft an authentic series of activities related to my overdue library books and have students work on letter writing at the same time? Kids are complaining about homework? Let’s turn this into a research opportunity and have them lead a debate for the full school on whether homework in middle grades improve achievement.  Every comment a kid made was a learning opportunity, a data point . ..one that if I listened hard enough could totally shift the trajectory of our curriculum.

For me, the calling to differentiation also often took the form of copious individualized feedback-tracking at every turn.  Every journal entry required a personal response that both affirmed and gave a suggestion for improvement.  Every worksheet was graded for accuracy and put into a spreadsheet I utilized to track individualized mastery of ELA Indiana Academic Standards.  Sometimes feedback took the form of one-on-one conferences which I tracked on a different spreadsheet so I could account for what each student was working on and their progress.  We talked individually about their books, about their writing pieces (which were individualized by genre based on interest of course.) The days and class periods flew by.  Sometimes, the results of my work on student growth were astounding.  Just as often, though, I found the first draft of an essay I had lovingly written all over crumbled on the floor.  My feedback had never been read.  By the end of most days, when I tried to read a few paragraphs in a book for myself, my eyes either refused to focus or I fell immediately asleep.

You can see where this story is going.  I almost lost my mind those first few years of teaching.   This “all the differentiation all the time” approach was killing me and exhausting my kids.  It was also having the unintended impact of creating a curriculum that was all-over-the-place and failed to re-loop enough for most students to grasp full mastery.

This I believe: Differentiating and following individual students’ interests, skill levels, etc. is a TOOL in the TOOLKIT.  It is not the whole kit and caboodle.  On the other side of the coin, if we are never doing it because “it takes more time” or because “this isn’t how I was taught” or “this isn’t how we did it 20 years ago,” shame on us.  But let’s not go crazy either.  Sometimes, we can all benefit from the same lesson, the same message, the same way, at the same time.  Sometimes the kids that are stronger in an area can then help teach the others and bring them along.  This is slowing down their content acquisition process, sure, but is also helping them grow some skills: communication, collaboration, articulation of understanding, metacognitive skills. This is, at its heart a number of game.  And if there is one of us and 20 of them in a classroom, well . .. you do the math. 

And also there’s this: sometimes differentiating would be better, but for the sake of a healthy and balanced teacher that needs to have a life outside of school, we go with second best.  

And guess what? Everyone still survives, learns some stuff, and goes on to live and learn another day.

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