In my recent article regarding using Universal Design for Learning in remote classrooms, I mentioned Todd Rose’s term, “design to the edges,” which is what educators attempt to do each day as they accommodate the variety of learners in their classrooms.
While there are some ways to allow this to happen organically, such as with open-ended projects, differentiation also needs to be purposeful. With large class sizes and children of diverse abilities, backgrounds, and interests, this may seem to be a daunting task.
However, there are many tools that are out there that can be helpful, especially if the teacher and students have access to technology.
There are generally four areas where educators can adjust their lessons to support differentiation: Content, Process, Product, and Environment. For this article’s purpose, let’s assume that the environment is online - whether at school or at home - and look at some of the tools out there to help with Content, Process, and Product in the virtual setting.
To decide on the exact content to be addressed, teachers usually need to determine students’ ability levels and interests. Pre-tests are quick ways to assess ability levels.
It’s helpful to leverage technology for these because most online tools will automatically grade and give data reports. Educators familiar with Google may use Google Forms for this purpose. Some other popular tools are Kahoot, Quizziz, Socrative, and Gimkit. To select one, consider the learning environment.
For example, a classic “live” Kahoot quiz shows the questions on the teacher’s screen, while students see the responses on their own. This works well in a classroom where the teacher can project onto the main screen while students use individual devices but can be difficult when students are at home with only one screen. Instead, the teacher may assign a Kahoot challenge, which does not require multiple screens and allows students to work at their own pace.
Once teachers have data about student ability and/or interests, this can inform the content you select and the small groups that you may create within your class. Some districts have tools for grouping based on academic ability. If this is not available to you, or you would like to group by interest, intentional grouping can be done using a spreadsheet with your own specific criteria using this template from Jen Roberts.
Because English/Language/Arts courses usually require skills that can be addressed using many different types of literature, teachers in these areas have a lot of freedom in selecting the content that may best serve their purpose.
Some technology tools to consider are CommonLit.org, where they can search by theme and standards for quality fiction. Epic is also a favorite way to read books online. The New York Times Learning Network, Newsela, and Tween Tribune are all places to find content based on current events. Both Newsela and Tween Tribune will also allow you to search by reading level. For informational nonfiction text that is highly engaging, students can go to Wonderopolis.
Read more: Top tech to teach Art remotely
For other ideas for content differentiation in the core subjects, teachers may look to Khan Academy or TED Ed. Both of these sites offer video lessons and practice problems for practically every subject, including math and science. Another favorite is Prodigy Math, which allows students to use a game-based method for advancing at their own pace on math skills.
Once the content has been selected, the next decision the educator needs to make is how to proceed with presenting that content to the class. One way to differentiate the process is to alter the assignments for each group. Most learning management systems will allow you to send out different assignments to different students. This article, for example, shows how to use various G-Suite tools for differentiated assignments.
Specific online tools can also be used for creating various versions of assignments. Some of these may interface directly with your learning management system, so you can import student rosters, assign, and gather assessment data seamlessly.
For example, EdPuzzle, which allows teachers to assign videos with questions embedded, is a good tool to use for formative assessment as the class is introduced and learning the content. Other tools that are similar to EdPuzzle are Vizia and Play-Posit. Newsela is another site that allows the teacher to assign articles based on student lexile level, offering the option to assign the same content to all students, while keeping it matched to their reading ability.
These days, some of the best digital tools for differentiation are those that help struggling readers. With extensions like Snap & Read and Immersive Reader (which can be used in the Microsoft Edge browser, or as an unaffiliated extension on Chrome), students can have websites read out loud, adjust text size, highlight particular words, and more. They can copy and paste the text into Rewordify to have it summarized in more straightforward language.
It has recently become popular to give students digital choice boards, where they can select their own assignments that will advance their learning from a set of activities. SlidesMania offers engaging choice board templates that can be used for PowerPoint or Google Slides. This article includes more templates, links, and instructions on how to make your own choice boards.
Students who are ready for working independently with some support might enjoy the challenge of Hyperdocs, which are interactive Google Docs or Slides that encapsulate entire lessons. If students are working collaboratively in small groups, here are some suggestions for introducing and managing virtual breakout rooms.
Whether for summative or formative purposes, educators will need to assess their students’ learning. This is another opportunity to differentiate, where student interest and/or ability can be addressed. Students can be given choices for ways to present their learning, or the teacher can create assessments that can be adjusted for different groups.
One example of the latter is a digital worksheet creator called Wizer. This is not a typical PDF generator of physical worksheets. In Wizer, teachers make interactive assessments that can include several different types of questions, such as reflective, multiple-choice, videos, sorting, and even drawing questions. The teacher can record audio instructions, as well as written ones. Students can also record their responses. One of the game-changing aspects of this tool is that teachers can create groups within Wizer (with a Premium subscription) and send different versions of their worksheets to different groups.
Another tool that allows for audio responses is Flipgrid. Students can record themselves (video and audio) and add their responses to a class grid where others can view them and comment, or the educator can select the feature that makes their responses only visible to the teacher. As another alternative, although it isn’t always precise, students who have difficulty with writing or using a keyboard can use voice typing in Google Docs or the dictate feature in Microsoft word.
With open-ended assessments that allow students to choose their own way to “Show What You Know,” teachers will want certain benchmarks to be met. Rubrics outline the expectations for these projects. These can be created within Google Classroom or by using online tools such as Rubistar or any of the other sites in this article.
The purpose of this article is to empower teachers so they, in turn, can empower their students. In order to avoid becoming overwhelmed, educators need to differentiate their own learning as well. While continuing to use the resources that make them comfortable, teachers can choose tools that will fine-tune the student experience and implement them at a pace that does not create additional stress during an already challenging school year.