Okay, so it may be a long. It make be considered awkward and downright cumbersome for any fellow logophiles reading this. I’d even go so far as to say, that if it were a dish listed on the menu of a cafe named ‘Vocabulary’, I’d probably not even pause to scan the list of ingredients because it sounds so incredibly dull.
Here it comes…
There, I said it.
Now…who on earth wants to write a whole blog post dedicated to something so tedious and so enforced in what should be such an innovative and liberating profession, especially as their opening effort on a brand spanking new blog?
Me. That’s who.
Why? Read on…
Forgive me for having to take a guess at the range of perspectives and levels of expertise coming at this post as you read, but I’d hazard a guess that, for many, this word – which is so often mentioned in staff meetings and probably recorded on hundreds of aide memoirs, pinned up on school noticeboards up and down the country – is quite possibly the aspect of lessons that is not really explored all that much. I get it. The last thing any busy teacher wants to face after countless hours of planning and copious amounts of marking, possibly having developed mild symptoms of RSI in the hand department from the grip of that ruddy red (or green…) pen, is having to come up with some alternative option for those students that seem like they just can’t be bothered to put as much effort in. The very thought that, as a teacher who – hopefully – is in tune with the needs of their class and therefore able to pitch the work appropriately, should then be required to differentiate the work for a handful of students who appear disengaged anyway is just not something we want to be giving any of our precious time to. Right?
A brief bit of necessary context:
Following my undergraduate degree and teacher training I began work as a Primary School teacher. I started teaching Year 4 at first and then was quickly moved to Year 6 where, while I had a degree of flexibility on what to teach, due to the impending SATs each year I was limited with regard to the level of creativity I could bring to my role. For this reason, and also the gradual realisation that for me personally, I preferred working with older students, this first teaching job – in what had been an incredibly supportive and positive environment – still left me feeling very claustrophobic a lot of the time, leading me to explore alternative options within the world of education.
Thankfully, an incredible and perfectly-timed opportunity arose at a nearby secondary school, where there was a vacancy for a Specialist Literacy Teacher based in the SEN department. The school were welcoming applications from primary-trained teachers for this particular role – due to the obvious nature of the job and the range of students it would involve working with. Tentatively, I applied. Unreservedly, I accepted.
As Literacy Leader three years on I can honestly say I’ve not once regretted the move. Not even as we reach the end of Nativity season either…
Why is this even relevant? Stick with me.
I’ve learned an absolutely mammoth amount to get me to this point – in all the challenges I’ve accepted, the small successes I may have had, the minor (and the major!) mistakes I’ve made – and all this, in what for some, is only a short career so far. By far, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned on both an educational level, but even just on a human nature level too, is that people are just so different. Across the vast range of whole classes and small groups I’ve taught, never yet have I ever found a pair of students the same when it comes to how their brain approaches learning. It’s fascinating to watch in a small group setting over the course of a year, just how different students can be as they approach the same task, all possessing very similar needs. And that’s why I’m so passionate about such a potentially passion-punishing piece of vocabulary.
One thing primary teaching instilled in me from very early on was the necessity to differentiate effectively. Even within a streamed ability set for Literacy or Numeracy, I’d be differentiating three ways on a daily basis. Even now, for some of my groups where I only have 6 students, I will present learning activities in a range of ways for the different needs in there. As an example, I may have a regular text to read for one, a simpler version for another (and this doesn’t just mean less, it means less complicated vocab sometimes, or presented differently – a storyboard perhaps, rather than endless words on a page etc.), I may have attempted to translate the work for students with EAL, pictures on the board, just finding ways to make the learning come alive.
It’s not the same as teaching mainstream, I know. The pressures are very different. Preparation – huge. Differentiation and tailoring for individual students needs – huge. Pastoral support – huge. Pressure (and genuine desire!) to help them close the gap between them and their peers – huge. Marking – less. Behaviour management issues – less. It’s not the same, I know.
However, I have one intended point to make and my message is simple. Please allow me to just return to the original analogy I used of a menu in a cafe named ‘Vocabulary’.
Differentiation should not be listed as a dessert – an optional extra…
“Oh dear. You’re struggling. Just copy this into your book instead.”
It certainly should not be listed among your teas and coffees and your after dinner mints – as an afterthought…
“Oops, I forgot. You should have told me. Next time put your hand up and I’ll help.”
Differentiation should be your main meal, your nutritious protein, your indulgent feast. Differentiation should be listed somewhere between your energy-giving starter and your sustaining plenary… if you’re working to a conventional lesson model, that is.
“I know you’re here and I know the needs of my students. I recognise you have the potential for success, but I also know you struggle with ‘x’ sometimes, so I’ve varied the task for you. This way, you can strive to meet the same learning objectives and achieve the same outcomes as everyone else in here.”
Maybe I’m preaching to the converted. Maybe I’m not. Who knows?
Whatever your thoughts on this, at the very least it surely can’t be a bad thing to just take a moment to be reminded that this is an essential aspect of lesson planning in our profession. As qualified facilitators of learning, we’re called to engage, inspire, empower and, essentially, educate – something that’s quite impossible to do without the ability to meet the needs of ALL our students.