Ok, get into your groups and start working.” I was sitting in one of my grad school classes and twice in one night I realized I had absolutely no idea what to do when I found my group. This was the second time in one night that I had missed the teacher’s directions. It wasn’t that I was doing something else, it wasn’t that I was intentionally ignoring the teacher, I just don’t process information well orally. Thankfully after years of school, I’ve developed coping skills. I moved into my group, received clarification on the assignment, and started to work. I realized, though, that many of my sixth grade students haven’t developed these skills yet. When they miss directions, I sometimes grow frustrated with them making comments like, “I just said that.” It made me think about how I give directions. I offer different forms of differentiation in assignments, and wondered if there was a way to differentiate the directions as well. I decided it was worth a try.
I have made it a goal to have a class meeting at least once a month to bring up and discuss class issues. Both the students and I are able to bring issues to the table. We happened to have a class meeting scheduled, so I brought up the idea of differentiated directions with the class. I told students what had happened to me that week in class and they found it humorous. I asked them what we could do to make the direction giving process more effective for their individual learning styles. They agreed that they would like to have more choice in how they receive directions. Some kids requested a specific checklist for the day of what they were supposed to do. Some kids wanted to work with friends to clarify directions. Others wanted to get more one-on-one directions from me. We came up with a plan. Each time I presented a new assignment, I would have clear directions written out and would have five minutes to give a brief overview of the assignment for the day. Then students would have a choice:
1. Get right to work.
2. Clarify directions with a friend.
3. Work in a small group with me.
I was excited to try it out. I decided to start with a concrete math assignment on integers and to embed varying types of differentiation throughout the assignment, not just in the directions.
My students have a wide range of background knowledge in mathematics. They also process new information at varying speeds. In order to accommodate for this, I usually create three levels of assignments and title them “mild, medium, and spicy.” The assignments all provide access to the same concepts, but at different levels. The mild level is the background knowledge necessary to achieve grade level standards. It usually includes content knowledge from previous grades and builds to grade level content. Medium is considered at grade level. Spicy applies the concept in a more advanced way. Students understand that, although the levels increase in difficulty, they all address the same general content and help them achieve an understanding of grade level content. They are able to choose which level they feel most comfortable with, and usually choose assignments that are appropriately challenging. In this assignment on absolute value and integers, I was only able to develop two “levels.” All students were asked to write integers from real life situations. For example, they translated the phrase “20 degrees below zero” to the integer -20. Mild students then worked on the computer to compare and order integers and to identify absolute value. Medium/Spicy students compared and ordered positive and negative fractions and compared absolute values.
Within this assignment, I also provided students with choices about the setting in which they wanted to work. Students who needed background noise could use their IPods, students who needed quiet space could work in the commons, and students who liked to work in groups could stay in the classroom. Throughout the assignment, students were scattered around the room and in the common area working on their math.
As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to incorporate differentiating directions into this assignment. The day of the assignment I briefly went over the expectations for the day and let the students get started. Surprisingly, no students asked to work in a small group. They all expressed that they had a good grasp of the directions. As they began to work, students began to ask questions. I felt this was a good time to work on their resourcefulness skills. I asked them to re-read directions. Most of the time, the directions answered their potential questions. If reading the directions didn’t help I asked them to talk with a neighbor. With only a few exceptions, students were all able to complete the assignment successfully.
At the end of class, we debriefed the concepts from the day and the new direction giving process. In the debrief, students demonstrated that they had a good understanding of the concepts from the lesson. They commented that they appreciated the choice to get right to work instead of having to listen to long, drawn out directions. One student said, “I just don’t enjoy listening to instructions because I can figure it out on my own.” Another commented, “We can finish our work faster and if people know what they’re doing they won’t have to sit and listen to what they already know. If they don’t know what they’re doing they can just go to the teacher and ask for help.” Another student who chose to work in a small group mentioned, “I understand the math better when I can work with the teacher.” Students also stated that they liked being able to work with friends.
After teaching this lesson, I came away with a few insights:
Students processed the directions as well, as if not better, with the new method. In the past, I was just wasting valuable learning time trying to convey directions whole class.
Students appreciate choice. Whether it’s in how they receive direction, being able to choose their learning space, or even choose what level of understanding they want to pursue, they put forth more effort if they have a voice.
In the future I would like to use this strategy with a variety of assignment types, including larger scale projects.
One addition I plan on making to the direction giving process is to change up how I use my five minutes of reviewing the instructions. I will start by having the students read the directions on their own, then give a brief overview, then ask them to share their understanding with a neighbor, finally ask for clarifying questions. I think this will provide students with an even more solid understanding of the assignment from the start. And as students work, I will circulate around the room to make it a safe space to ask for more one-on-one clarification.