As the first full school year of the COVID-19 era begins, many districts are still struggling to optimize remote learning and prevent further learning loss. One of the biggest challenges is helping teachers differentiate instruction in remote settings: among other things, the spring’s “crisis moment” taught us that differentiating on Zoom looks different from differentiating in traditional classrooms. We recently caught up with Dr. Rhonda Bondie of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Emily Paige, the principal of the Urban Assembly Unison School in Brooklyn, and middle school social studies teacher Rosie Orengo from the Urban Assembly Unison School, and discussed what successful differentiation looks like during this unprecedented time.
In the process, our panelists identified some effective time management and classroom strategies that can make differentiated instruction more scalable and practical as teachers and students settle into long-term remote or blended learning.
- Dan Cogan-Drew, Newsela
- Dr. Rhonda Bondie, Harvard Graduate School of Education
- Rosie Orengo, Urban Assembly Union School
- Emily Paige, Urban Assembly Union School
Differentiating to motivate
Anyone who has taught a class over Zoom knows that motivation is key during remote/blended learning sessions. When students are truly motivated to learn, they don’t need badgering to log in and dive into the material. They do it on their own because they are curious—that was true in traditional settings before the pandemic, and it remains true now.
Granting students autonomy in the classroom gives them a chance to take ownership of their education and pursue that curiosity. Independence can emerge in all parts of the learning process, including thinking, preparing for a task, and then conducting the task, and educators can prompt all these types of independence in any task they assign. One effective technique is to ask students about their goals and what they need from their teachers in each Zoom session. Then, teachers can create breakout rooms based on students’ needs, allowing them to help decide why they are in those rooms. With that comes a sense of belonging—and, when learners get the resources they need, the feelings of competency that spur them to keep going.
Quality criteria for every learner
Quality criteria have always been a powerful tool for differentiation, and they are especially crucial when scaling differentiated instruction for remote learning. One effective approach is creating a set of “must-have” and “amazing” or “stretch” criteria for each assignment.
When the criteria are tailored to the virtual space students are learning in, they have an opportunity to show off their skills, even if teachers are not able to do the physical walk-bys that so many rely on in the classroom.
Having multiple quality criteria in both categories is also an effective way to empower struggling learners. Even if their work is missing some of the must-have criteria, they might surprise you (and themselves!) with a few amazing features—and in doing so, lay the groundwork to build a growth mindset and appreciate their own abilities.
Making the most of time together (apart)
District leaders can play an important role in supporting teachers as they make the most of time spent in a synchronous setting with students. One helpful approach in the Zoom classroom is to use quality criteria to help students see how they’ve grown. For example, educators can pause the Zoom lesson to ask students to complete the tasks in the stretch criteria and highlight where they have put something unique into their work. Students might talk about a specific area where they’ve grown academically or worked especially hard. Although some students never achieve their class’s stretch criteria, every learner should still feel that they’ve been valued and stretched in every single lesson.
Another method is to divide students into breakout rooms where they can focus on quality criteria that challenge them where they are at. Make sure to reserve one breakout room for students who didn’t do the assignment, so you don’t have to spend precious instructional minutes reteaching material from asynchronous resources.
Finally, it can be helpful to think of Zoom rooms as a place to assess what students have learned asynchronously. Educators can check the classroom’s pulse to determine whether students got the content knowledge or skill practice they were supposed to in the asynchronous materials.
Just like students, educators sometimes learn the most from the biggest challenges, and adapting to remote and blended learning during a pandemic is undoubtedly one of the greatest of their careers. But looking back at this spring’s “crisis learning” moment, it is clear that the fall brings an opportunity to implement new best practices for differentiated instruction in remote and blended settings alike.
Differentiation made easy
Whether you're in the classroom, doing blended learning, or teaching fully remote, differentiation shouldn't be hard. Newsela's content and assessment products make it easy to meet students where they're at and put them on a path to improving or enhancing their reading level and literacy skills. Learn more about how Newsela's products make differentiation a breeze in every learning situation.