As a teacher, I frequently hear, “When does class end?” I respond, “Class never ends.” I want my students to learn that they can never stop learning. My approach to teaching English focuses on the social justice principle that everyone deserves access to the highest levels of writing, reading, and thinking. Differentiated instruction helps create the multiple pathways needed to get there.
Differentiating curriculum provides teachers with the multiple entry points they need to meet each student at an ideal learning junction. Lev Vygotsky called this the ‘zone of proximal development’ and Mihály Csíkszentmihályi called this ‘flow’ — both theories articulate the dilemma of a student in a classroom where the discourse, while worthwhile, does not link up to one’s readiness to engage. Students have a role in this interchange, and I help them practice to advocate for themselves, for they know best what lines of inquiry and types of work electrify their passions to stay in the room long past the bell.
Maintaining a healthy dialogue with students about curricular choices helps them to navigate the conflict of how their interests and passions might subvert dominant culture norms. The teacher’s role can remain flexible, however, we still must provide equitable access to those canonical texts and established intellectual, emotional, and ethical conversations. Balance is essential, and an authentic flow will shift frequently. Students choose material because those books, poems, and stories matter to them. It will come as no surprise to any of my students — past or present — that I consider Hamlet essential.
However, I have found that no matter what a student reads, my instruction on how to diagram sentences helps them to identify, understand, and manipulate sentence structure. This crucial skill set assists their growing relationship to words and structure. It also provides me with specific data about a student’s achievement level with reading and writing; that data allows me to further differentiate my teaching. Some students will need to review parts of speech and punctuation, while others need guidance in experimenting with syntax to best convey their meaning.
I teach students to write online blogs to develop a variety of writing skills, hone their individual voices, purposefully construct multimedia arguments, and assist them in shaping what it means to write for an Internet audience. The writing topics on the blogs come 100% from the students. We use technology in innovative ways to build writing and communication skills. Students turn on voice typing to capture classroom discussions — our conversations about texts, ideas, artwork, current events, and writing. Students then use this captured ‘sea of text’ to write their own pieces, parsing out sentences and paragraphs to create new narratives. These dialogues in person and on ‘paper’ help students deepen their understanding of how to communicate their perspectives, think critically, remain open to multiple perspectives, and write convincingly. Ungraded free form writing, developed from a large variety of student and teacher generated prompts, serves as yet another important tool in the never ending quest for differentiated instruction. It helps students hone their individual voices and strengthens their ability to transfer their thoughts into compositions.
Tapping into individual student interests and passions, honoring them, and cultivating them so that students can choose to have an impact on the world — when you go to my school, class never ends.