Alana Robinson understands the power of choice. When teaching her special needs students at P.S. M811 Mickey Mantle School in Manhattan, the computer science and technology teacher employs differentiation to make sure each student is engaged. Alana builds multiple types of instruction and directions for students to explore when learning how to build loops in Scratch. Alana’s goal is to empower her students to have a growth mindset, and help them build the confidence they need to explore, learn, and master challenging concepts in CS.
WHEN TO USE
Differentiation is particularly effective in situations where students are at different functional or grade levels, or when special needs within a classroom vary. Alana notes the highly adaptable method allows her to meet an individual student’s needs (educational, social, emotional, behavioral, or otherwise) at that particular moment, while giving them the chance to be creative.
HOW TO IMPLEMENT
> BEFORE CLASS
- Determine the tools and resources you will offer your students for the lesson. Video tutorials at different levels and peer programming are two examples.
- Consider printing task cards that match each choice so students have a clear understanding of the steps they need to take to complete their activity.
> IN CLASS
- Begin by explaining the concept students will be exploring in the lesson. Focus on reinforcing the concept in various ways.
- During the assessment period, speak to each student about their choice of activity, urging them not to simply choose the “easy” prompt.
- Set students up with their activity, and walk around the classroom as they’re working.
- Offer students a choice of exit tickets. Joyce has given her students the chance to reflect via writing, verbal response, and drawing.
HOW TO ADAPT
Alana’s approach to differentiation falls into a framework called Universal Design for Learning. Check out these resources for bringing UDL into your classroom.
- Encourage students to “Ask 3 Before Me,” and build a culture of classroom collaboration and peer support. Hang a poster in the classroom to help reinforce the concept.
- To help students gain confidence in building their own products, consider unplugged activities.
- To help students build the confidence and focus they need to take ownership of a project idea and to put their own creative spin on a CS practice, try incorporating “mindfulness breaks” into class time. You can view our differentiated instruction and students reaching full potential resources.
- Incorporate design journals or group discussion into your lesson plan to allow students to form and share opinions about the implications of their work.
- Set clear behavioral expectations to help with classroom management. Alana has each student wait to receive a drop of hand sanitizer before turning to their computers.
- When you offer students choices, you also have to push them to try harder options. “I reinforce my students’ learning through choice of activity based on their interest and functioning level,” says Alana. “Sometimes, when I know they can do a higher level task, I gently encourage them to take that risk. I would say to them that I know they are able to do this activity because they have advanced to this level and I think they are ready to try a challenge.” Alana also suggests telling students it’s okay if they struggle with the task. “I tell them that it is part of the process of learning computer science. I also say and model for them that I, too, am learning with them and we are all learners together.”
- Google CS First offers free activities and resources, including video tutorials, within various themes.
- MIT’s Scratch site offers free, printable task cards for learning Scratch.
- Flocabulary offers songs and videos (such as the “loop” video Alana showed her students) to help students engage.
- Go Noodle is a free resource for brain breaks and in-class movement and stretch activities. “I use the Go Noodle Mindfulness Video Channels to build focus, boost confidence, build compassion, manage stress, and practice self-control,” says Alana. She plays the Disco Brain video for age groups K-2 and 3-5 before she introduces a new CS topic. “I say that we’re going to give our brains a tough workout today and ask if they’re ready,” she shares. “They love it!”
- Differentiation: Tailoring instruction to meet individual student needs.
- Kinesthetic Learning: Learning that takes place by carrying out physical activities, rather than listening to a lecture or watching demonstrations.