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Differentiating Writing in the Classroom

by Gini Cunningham

posted in Reference and Education

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For the purpose of this article, integrating writing and differentiation into your classroom, I have designed techniques that meet most writing needs most of the time. Teaching writing and differentiation fluctuate with the student and the assignment, the moment and the timing, but the information that follows provides some insight for you.
Differentiation focuses on what students need to know and be able to do
Just as it focuses on what students already know and are able to do. Differentiation also recognizes that there may be gaps in past learning and so materials and techniques are combined to fill those gaps. Think of this as rebar and cement re-enforcement, not sand and a dab of paste. Differentiation accepts that some students already know what they need to know and be able to do at their current level of education and then creates scaffolding, challenges, and adventures to let that learning soar while also accepting that students learn at different paces and that sometimes "One Size Fits All" works because there is essential information all students need to know and be able to do (plus realizing that the teacher is just 1 to so many) and acknowledges that "One Size Fits All" does not work at other times because every student has different needs
When differentiating writing (or any subject), teachers must remember that what is remembered today may be forgotten by tomorrow just as knowing that what worked dynamically today may be in tatters tomorrow. Differentiation in the big picture of learning is a goal for classroom learning and lifetime success and leads to advancement in learning for every child.
Through all of these facets, differentiation is not magic but it must not be overwhelmingly difficult. Differentiation is a combination of your analysis and evaluation of many aspects of classroom instruction including your lesson and instructional techniques, student output, earning goals and expectations, building on what came before this instruction and planning for what comes next in instruction while implementing individual and small group intervention to support student learning and writing success.
Writing comes in many forms. Part of differentiation is recognizing that these variations transmit meaning as well as and sometimes better than a standard paragraph or essay. Offering choices to exemplify a response while also encouraging students to mix it up expands the possibilities for thoughtful reflection and writing. When teachers do not do this, acrostic poems may run rampant. Because they are relatively quick and easy, they suit recalcitrant writers. But an acrostic a day, a week, a month, or even a term may cause your hair to fall out by the handful.
However, with choice, acrostic is just one method of expression. Students select it from the menu this time and next time something new must be utilized. This works opposite for prolific writers. This writer always excels, though often with excessive verbiage and exhausting phrasing. On a busy, overwrought day of grading, this is either the paper you grade first: "It's done!" or last, "It's over!" You still offer your standard respect for the writer and honor the writing but if you have 20 or 100 of papers to assess, your day of rest is just restless.
Writing responses in a variety of forms makes grading more fun, too. Reading 180 3-paragraph essays can become tedious, but when there are 40 essays, 43 28-line poems, 3 song lyrics, 22 book reviews, and so is more entertaining. Keeping the grading even and fair is tougher with so much variety but with well-designed rubrics and clear parameters for acceptable formats, length, sentence variety and word choice, it is doable. The only rule I do implement is once a student has used one form, say a poem, s/he must do something else next time. A handy checklist helps the students and teacher keep track of this.
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