Many good and tough experiences with differentiation have made me realize that differentiation is not something that we must do because some students need help, or because some students are more able to carry out certain kinds of tasks. We differentiate because learning happens in different manners; because the route to get to it is more stimulating when we are touched by differences; because when we become aware of the warning bells that signal opportunities to conduct different explorations, we can experience creativity and curiosity flow through our veins.
The differentiated classroom is defined and described in many ways, but I could just simply say that it is the environment that recognizes teachers and students as a human beings. Basically my conception means that both of them share the credit for learning successes and the responsibilities for the difficult paths that need to be walked to experience with new ideas.
The classroom is a place where any learning and thinking individual should feel different, for it is the kitchen where good ideas are being cooked; it is the lab where new formulas are being tested; it is the playground where we are allowed to be playful with tools, before we put them to practice in the real world. So, what do I think about when I differentiate? Like any kind of reflection, there is a prior, during and post differentiation stage.
The stage prior to differentiating feels like a roller coaster: it has its ups and downs; it is filled with excitement and anticipation; grains of anxiety could be experienced; but I enjoy the readiness for doing in my fingers; the voices in my head that prompt me with ideas and dangers; the electric sensation that is produced when creating something that will help. There are times when I feel like Ironman or like a great X-Men with awesome skills. Many times I am unafraid, but there are times when I also feel nervous about new things that I am willing to try.
The stage during differentiation defines challenge in every way. This stage forces me to act as a shape-shifter; I need to be whoever students need me to be, since the questions that are asked pursue different kind of knowledge and because each student is operating in a different level of learning. The layers of learning in this stage are simply extraordinary: I need to find ways to stay engaged with the connections students are making, while being observant of what students have to say about the conceptual knowledge that is unwrapped. It is part of my job to remain curious about the learning that is constantly evolving in the classroom, understanding that I need to be willing and ready to let students do the talking and the thinking. This stage is exhausting, but the feeling I experience is the substance dreams are made of.
After differentiation a moment of silence is required; I need to make room for digesting the experience; I need to listen to the voices in my head again. The questions they now pose have to do with the way I operated in the narrative of the class that was just delivered; they ask me how I will talk about learning with students; they ask me to look at how this experience fits in the whole architecture of my teaching and, most importantly, they encourage me to plan the next best thing. And yes, I understand that after each success or struggle, I will have to plan a next best thing.
After a differentiated class, I need to start working on generating a new universe of work. This is normally best done with a good cup of coffee or tea, or with the joy of dialogue with some of my colleagues. This is the stage where I reaffirm to myself that teaching includes the demonstration of the skills we foster and aim to develop in students; that students’ thirst for knowledge activate creativity instincts in teachers and we must, therefore, create environments where this happen. When my attempts did not work as planned, I can feel a maelstrom in my skill toolbox, I can feel the noise; I can sense the silent encouragement; I can touch the texture of my thirst for resource-exploration and problem solving; and I can hear the voices of the dialogues that will follow the next best thing, when students and I celebrate that we have made it.
I differentiate, therefore I learn; and I am convinced that it is part of my job to sail the waves of creativity to generate the environment where students can tell the difference between my teaching style and others’.