In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve is joined by 8th grade physical science teacher and PLS Classes instructor Gloria Herlihy, to discuss differentiated instruction and its application in the classroom.
Differentiated Instruction for Today’s Classroom™ Online is an online course offered through PLS Classes. Visit PLSClasses.com to learn more.
Get in touch with Gloria: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Steve: Hello. Welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For the last 35 years, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels both nationally and internationally. In each of the coming episodes, I’ll explore my thoughts and my learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning, and leading. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: A look at differentiated instruction. On today’s podcast, I’m excited to welcome Gloria Herlihy, an eighth-grade physical science teacher in Millcreek Township, Pensylvania and instructor of graduate classes that deal with differentiated instruction. Welcome, Gloria.
Gloria Herlihy: Good morning.
Steve: Great to have you here. For a starter Gloria, give me the description or the definition that you used for differentiated instruction.
Gloria: That’s a tough one to define. There are so many parts to differentiation. I look at differentiated instruction more as a way to find a way to make things work for the students in your classroom, whether that be incorporating some choice, adapting materials, changing a product that you want them to produce. There’s no one size fits all definition for differentiation just like there’s no one size fits all approach to education.
Steve: Are you taking the outcomes that you want students to reach and you’re exploring different ways that students can get to that outcome?
Steve: Does that fit?
Gloria: Yes. Perfectly.
Steve: If I was observing in your eighth-grade physical science class, what are some of the things I’d see happening that I would put the label of differentiated instruction on?
Gloria: You would see some differentiated materials. I have multiple levels, particularly in one of my classes. Students don’t all have the same ability, therefore, they don’t all have the same materials. You would see different assessment for these students as well. Our class we have honor students, they’re materials look different from my academic students. Sometimes it’s just the way we go about things whether it be a straight up pencil, paper test or a performance-based test. Sometimes students have a choice whether they take a regular test or do some kind of project to demonstrate their understanding.
Steve: How much time are you working with whole group instruction in your classroom?
Gloria: That varies from day to day. Some days it might be the whole class. Other days it might be none of the class. Depending on whether we are looking at new material or a review type thing or some kind of reinforcement. The reinforcement is where I find I differentiate a lot more because the students could be a little bit more independent at that point.
Steve: Has differentiated approaches always been part of your approach to teaching or have you gone through a changed process?
Gloria: I’d say a changed process, definitely. I’ve been teaching since the mid-’80s, things in education have certainly changed in those 30 years and so has my teaching style. That’s not a note lecture-based instruction anymore. It has its place certainly, but it can’t be the whole basis of instruction anymore. We’d lose too many students. Too many kids fall through the cracks.
Steve: Looking back at that history of time and mine goes back further [laughs] than yours does, would you say there’s an expectation on all students getting to an outcome that perhaps wasn’t there earlier that drives that need and push for teachers to be exploring differentiation?
Gloria: To a point. There used to be self-contained classes for everything for learning support students. There were students that I didn’t have previously in class that are in class now because there’s more of a belief that the teachers can help them get there. Before, well, they can’t do it, so we’re going to put them in a different classroom. Now they expect us to help them get there and many are. They’re achieving pretty well when you can work with them on a level that makes sense to them and help them understand things more. I think particularly of an autistic student that I have right now that even earlier in the year they talked about taking him out of the class and I’m like, “Well, that doesn’t even make sense.” I have an aid in my classroom and between me and her, we’re able to- we call it sometimes ‘adapt on the fly’ but really just change what he’s doing a little bit so that he’s still getting the main concepts and he participates as much as the other kids. I think he’s is really benefiting from this change of attitude toward education.
Steve: Would you describe a little bit of how you build student choice into assisting the differentiation?
Gloria: Sure. Sometimes with a particular project, I might give them an option of maybe writing a poem or producing a poster or I’ve even said, “Well, maybe you prefer a test.” Because some kids actually they’re so ingrained into the way they’ve been taught that they have a hard time getting out of their comfort zone and having a choice. Teachers think it’s so great to provide students choice and I have students who panic over it like, “Tell me what I have to do Mrs. Herlihy.” Like, “Well, what do you want to do?” There are students we actually have to choose for which is funny but there’s others who are, “Thank you for letting me make a poster instead of taking a test because I really can show you that I know this but not with a test.” That’s a fun thing to do with assessment for them and they’ve enjoyed it. You don’t typically get a thank you after regular pencil and paper test, it’s not their preferred mode but if you can give them options– Even on just a basic assignment, “Here’s two different things that you can do to make this happen. You can do this or you can do this and pick one.” and they’re like, “I don’t have to do both?” Like, “Oh, either one will show me that you’ve demonstrated your understanding, so go ahead and pick one.” and they’re like, “Cool.” They get it. For the most point, kids enjoy the choice, but it is really funny when they can’t make a choice.
Steve: How about the role of students working collaboratively or students teaching students. Does that fit into your strategy for differentiating?
Gloria: It does, especially with science because we’re always doing activities in labs and hands-on experiments. If I creatively can craft their groups, you can really have students learning from one another every once in a while, pull somebody aside prior to a lesson and say, “Hey, I want you to do this part of the lesson for me.” and they’re like, “What?” They don’t understand having that role. They think, “No, you’re in charge, you’re the teacher.” and I’m like, “That’s okay, I’ll help you. I’ll support you don’t worry about it.” So many kids just like that in charge role. I feel like when the kids are seeing other students in charge, they think, “Maybe I could do that next time,” and just gives them a little boost.
Steve: Is it that the students are taking on a challenge in the role that you put them in?
Steve: Sometimes communicating something differently than we can communicate it.
Gloria: Yes, absolutely. I have had that conversation with people so many times like, “Just let them figure that out for themselves or learn it from somebody else,” because we don’t think like 14-year-olds, which I think is probably a really good thing.
Steve: I’m sure.
Gloria: They communicate with each other so much better than we communicate with them. They don’t understand everything that we want them to get to everybody sometimes, but they sometimes just break things down totally differently. When we’re doing some activity that maybe requires a lot of reinforcement, instruction and guidance, once I have three or four kids who get it, I’m like, “Okay, now get up. Get up, find somebody who needs help.” and then I have everybody who gets it raise their hands and like, “If you need help grab one of them.” They’re okay sometimes to admit to one of their friends that they need a little bit of help but they maybe don’t want me to help them because it’s not cool.
Steve: That’s a great learning environment that you create there. I know I was always shocked when it would happen, that a student would turn to a student who was confused and say, “What Mr. Barkley really means is–” and suddenly the kid gets it. That’s exactly what I was saying what the other students said, but I was sure glad somebody stepped in to make the communication happen because what I was doing wasn’t.
Gloria: They get it. It’s pretty cool if we can trust them then they can help out a lot.
Steve: Gloria, a lot of the folks who listen to this podcast have roles in coaching, instructional coaches or in some cases administrators who are observing in teachers classrooms and providing coaching feedback. If you had the chance to have a coach in your classroom, what is it that you would like a coach to be observing and giving you feedback on that would assist you as the teacher in either assessing your differentiation or identifying maybe where more was needed?
Gloria: It’d be neat if there was somebody there who could really take a look and almost break down the class by five, 10-minute increments and say, was this whole group- was this more student-directed? Were students collaborating at this point? To really take a look at that time breakdown because as a teacher it’s really hard to do that kind of thing yourself. That would be a great support to have. We don’t have coaches in our district, but that would be neat.
Steve: If a coach did that for a class period when you were looking at the coach’s notes, what is it that you’d be looking for to use this information for yourself?
Gloria: I would look to see if I had too much teacher-directed instruction or did I have a lot of student-centered activities whatever, and how productive was that. There’s group work and then there’s effective group work and sometimes students learning from students, that’s exactly what’s happening, and sometimes students collaborating has to be managed a lot better than it always is. That’s the piece I’d really like to look at. Were the group’s right? Sometimes random grouping can be really effective, but sometimes you have to put that 15-20 minutes into arranging these groups of kids to make sure that those activities you’re trying to provide are going to meet those needs.
Steve: Interesting. In some of my work in coaching, one of the things that pops up analyzing the piece that you’ve described there is the amount of time that students had to wait. As the teacher’s attention was in one group or one activity, how much of the time were the other students actually engaged or more in a waiting stage? Of course, the same thing can happen with whole group. When I identify a student or two that are struggling and now as part of my whole group instruction, I’m trying to work on the two kids who are struggling, realizing that everybody else is waiting through that time. That’s extremely difficult for the teacher to realize what’s happening because our focus is on the need that jumped up in front of us.
Gloria: Absolutely. I experience that a lot still today and you almost have to preload the day understanding that that’s going to happen, especially when you have some new difficult material and have something available, some anchor activities, things that students can keep in their binders or folders, that they can turn to and you see the hands going up and you hear the questions, “Take out that activity on properties of matter and use that for some reinforcements right now.” “Oh, okay.” Once you get something to focus on usually then that wait time doesn’t seem so bad, but you got to set it up.
Steve: It’s pre-thinking it.
Steve: Gloria, tell us a little bit about the course that you teach, differentiated instruction for today’s classroom.
Gloria: Right. It’s a great class. It’s one of the classes that has a lot of activities in it. For some people, they get a little bit overwhelmed but as you start to work through the course, you find that everything that is assigned to the teachers who are taking the courses is something you can work on today and use tomorrow in class, that was my biggest takeaway from this class, was, “Holy cow, I can do this tomorrow.” Some of the assignments are take a lesson you’re about to teach and create a choice board for your students. If you’re thinking, “Two weeks in advance, I’m going to be doing balancing chemical equations,” you can create that choice board now. Get it copied and there it is ready for you. It really looks at what differentiation is, what differentiation is not. It’s not just trying to plan 28 lessons for 28 students. Some people have that in their mind, and it’s just not really what it is. It’s a lot about providing choice or mixing things up in the classroom, providing stations and centers, and sometimes you vary the process for somebody or you vary the content for somebody else, you vary the product for somebody else, and you’re not trying to differentiate every single lesson every single day. There’s that part of it too that we really clarify, is that we’re not saying you aren’t differentiating enough, but you probably could do a little bit more and that you can’t differentiate every class every day. The people who say they do that every day are maybe over inflating themselves.
Gloria: It’s just to get started. We leave the students with so many takeaways that you can almost incorporate something right away. There’s a part of the classes called the DIA instructor toolbox. It’s a 58-page document which sounds insane, but I keep it in my school bag all the time, and if I’m planning, I’ve been teaching this content for many many years, I’m like, “That needs something else.” I pull that out. Our hope is that students from our classes will do the same, and just say, “Oh, yes, this is a place I could use think dots or choice board or tic-tac-toe. There’s just so many strategies in there that they will have used throughout the course. So they know how to use them. They’ve used them as students, and then we want to transfer it over and have them use them as teachers as well.
Steve: Sounds like the participants build a lot of options?
Gloria: They do. They do. Especially when they’re taking it during the school year, I think it’s great because they can again use it right away.
Steve: Test it out.
Gloria: Yes, exactly. Teachers using it in the summer, they always have these lessons in mind, they’re like, “Huh.” They kind of have to look through things for a while, and then they go, “Oh, this would be great next year.” They get a little bit more excited and gives them that energy sometimes to get started for a new year too.
Steve: I’m hearing it sounds like there is a reflection opportunity built in here where you’re causing people to look at their current practice and consider where they’d like to have more options than they have now, and then be able to gather up what those options might be.
Gloria: Absolutely. That’s the whole goal of the course, is not to trash everything you’re doing but just to add to it. You’ve got one thing going, two things might be better and maybe you can have three things going on in a class, but you’re not going to have 28.
Steve: I’m wondering what resistance might emerge when people first come into the course and are exploring the concept of differentiation. Are there resistances that the teachers are kind of worried or concerned about that you end up having to address in the course?
Gloria: I think some of the stuff I already mentioned, it’s just getting that idea that it’s trying to teach every student separately, and it is a little overwhelming, the planning involved. They think like, “oh, well,” It’s enough to plan one thing going on. How do I plan three things? Once they realize if you’re putting your energy into your planning, your teaching becomes a lot easier, and that time in class is– It’s a shift of what the teacher is doing instead of standing up there and trying to keep the attention of 26 kids for 48 minutes or whatever that might be. The kids are actively engaged because you’ve spent the time planning the activities. I think once they understand that front-loading of time makes that time and class so much less stressful, and at the end of the day you’re not like a wet rat because you’re running around like a crazy person and you aren’t trying to keep the attention of 28 kids because the activity is keeping their attention and if you’re meeting them at the right level and allowing them to choose, they’re so much more engaged. The thing that usually comes up is, “Wow, there’s so much planning. How can I plan so many different activities?” You don’t have to plan so many different activities if you have one good one. How can change a little bit so you have two?
Steve: How about classroom management, does concern about classroom management emerge?
Gloria: A little bit. Differentiation depending on the activities and how it’s planned assumes some independence of students. As the teacher, you know who those students are that you probably have to stay a little bit closer to. It gives you that opportunity to build the lesson so that you can spend more time with this particular group of students. A lot of it is quick check-ins with certain groups and maybe 10 minutes with this group, but you’ve just checked in with the other groups who are a lot more independent. Depending on if you’re doing groups, setting up roles for these students and making sure that everybody has something to accomplish within the group too and some group responsibility makes a whole lot of difference as well. Sometimes the management does become difficult and then you have to set back with anything. Teachers are constantly reassessing what they’re doing and saying, “Cool. Yes, maybe this isn’t the best way to do this.” Then you start over just like anything.
Steve: I was hearing in there that planning for the management is another part of the planning.
Gloria: Yes, absolutely. Because you know your students and it can be as simple as where you’re putting people in the classroom, seating charts, is huge. I know teachers who don’t use them and I can’t possibly understand why, but giving them choice in where they seat, that’s fine. You do, you definitely have to plan for the management of how it’s all going to work out. If you have different activities, you have different materials for different activities and super clear instructions, super clear procedures make a difference in any classroom and certainly in a differentiated classroom, that would be really important as well.
Steve: Thanks. Gloria, I’m wondering if you have a favorite story about your own discovery or implementation of using differentiation or something that’s happened to one of the participants in your classes that’s maybe illustrative of the rewards for putting the effort on the teacher’s part into the process.
Gloria: I know when we do certain activities at school and again, it comes back to the students appreciating the opportunity to have the choice. In my honors class, a lot of people think differentiation is all about helping the kids who struggle, but that’s one part of it. You also want to be able to challenge those kids who are very high achievers and we do independent projects in that class. At the end of the project as they’re going through saying, “Oh my gosh, this is so much work.” by the end of it, they’re like, “I’ve learned so much.” and that’s really cool. I really spend a lot of time at the beginning telling them to do something that interests them and I’ve had students– I had one particular student who was, he was in my honors class, but he was not the top of that class, but his project, he did it on Hockey. He was a Hockey player and it was the best project that year because he was so into it. Instead of me saying it has to relate to a topic in physical science, it was more about teaching the process of working through the scientific method, experimentation and sharing your data. He was so into– The kids were so impressed, even. The other kids were like, “Oh my gosh, he surely did such a great job.” I’m like, “Yes, wow.” It wasn’t a really neat opportunity for him to shine because he was able to understand that he could put his own interests into that project.
Steve: That’s great. Well, Gloria, thanks a lot and just want to check that you’re okay if I put your email address into the heading on the podcast so if anybody has questions they could connect with you directly.
Gloria: For sure. No problem.
Steve: Okay. Thanks and have a great day.
Gloria: All right, you too.
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