Differentiation: It’s one of those words that all teachers seem to use, but I wonder how many of us really feel confident doing well. When I went through my teacher prep program in undergrad, I thought I had it. Then, when I got asked in interviews about differentiation (and, let’s be honest, we’ve all answered those questions in interviews) I thought I nailed it. I talked about offering opportunities for multiple types of learners. I’d mix visual representations with auditory. And, what I thought was most impressive, I’d give the kids some chances to move around with some especially creative lessons that I peppered in. I thought I had this differentiation thing figured out and was ready for anything.
I know, I know. You can practically hear the sound of music screeching to a halt like in scenes from 90s movies where the parents get home and bust up the house party. I wasn’t ready, and I didn’t have it. The reality of a real-world classroom with a diverse range of learners set in. Some of my students were carrying around Jane Austen while others didn’t want to move beyond Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Some wrote beautifully crafted prose while others struggled to remember where end punctuation goes.
How could I be fair and reach all my learners? And why on Earth weren’t my carefully prepared, creative lessons helping? It seemed like all the hard work and time I put into developing these lessons was wasted because I never felt like they were reaching all of my kids.
And that’s where, I’ve learned, my mistake was: I was thinking in terms of all of my kids, when I should have been trying to teach each of my kids. The main difference between these two mindsets is grammar; “all” is plural whereas “each” refers to students singularly. Instead of trying to plan perfect lessons that reach all of my students at once, I’ve realized that I need to plan lessons with enough flexibility to adapt for each learner.
Over the past few years, I’ve been working with a variety of methods to better differentiate my instruction to reach each learner in my classroom. I’m still a long way out from feeling like I’ve got it all down, but I know I’ve learned a lot since my undergrad and interview days. Since I’m lucky enough to be writing in this space with this incredible team of bloggers, it seems to make the most sense to explore how writing with mentor texts has helped me in this endeavor.
Shared Mentor Texts
Each unit, I like to have a few mentor texts that we share as a class and return to repeatedly throughout our mini-lessons. Even though I’m using the same text with the whole class, shared mentor texts can still work with differentiation because a descriptive, inquiry-based approach invites students to observe strategies and craft where they are in their learning. Take for example the following lesson:
- My target for the day is that we are learning to support our claims in analytic writing.
- I bring students back to a shared piece of analysis (literary, sports, political, etc. Notice that for this particular target, what type of analysis we’re reading may not even be that important.). We’ve already read it through at least once together in a previous lesson, so this time I just direct their attention to a few of the body paragraphs, and I ask them to first annotate then discuss in groups or partnerships what they notice. Then, as students annotate and discuss, I circulate to question and guide them – sometimes individually and sometimes in groups. Students may make a range of observations depending on their own writing skills:
- Students who struggle with the basics of structuring an analysis might notice that the author supports each claim with a piece of evidence.
- Others who are further along on the continuum might notice where to break ideas into paragraphs. ( Hm – as it turns out, claims in real-world analytic writing don’t always fit neatly into one paragraph. Who woulda thought?)
- Some students might look at transitions that writers use to introduce evidence or sources.
- Some may drill down into the punctuation we use when quoting sources.
- A few who are ready for an extra challenge may look at how word choice can affect the tone in a claim.
- Finally, I have students return to their own drafts. Where can they integrate something they learned from the expert writer? If they’re ready to start making revisions or plugging along with the draft, great. If not, they may sketch out a rough plan for their next steps. Either way, they’re tying together what they just observed in a professional mentor with their own writing.
Choice Mentor Texts
Inevitably, students will come up with questions that our shared mentor texts just don’t answer. That’s when it’s time for me to be brave enough to hand over some reins and let them search out some mentors for themselves. How much latitude you give them ultimately depends on your comfort level and your access to resources, but I’d highly encourage you to stretch yourself on both fronts.
I’ve seen some teachers who have files of mentor texts categorized by skills that students frequently need to access. Need help with your conclusion? Go check out the “endings” file. Having these kinds of files (digital or hard copy) and adding to them continuously can also help you as a teacher to have something in mind when a student asks you a question that your shared mentor texts can’t answer. Be ready to direct a student to a mentor text to individualize instruction when you’re conferring.
It can also be powerful to let the students lead the way on finding some mentors. Need to work on your tone and voice? Who’s a writer that you really respect? Go find a few of your favorite of his columns and see if you can nail down what’s making you gravitate toward his style. Offering this kind of extension is the kind of thing that can really send those who are ready soaring while you have time to really drill down and work with those who need your extra attention.
It’s funny. When I first started teaching, I used to think that the most successful lessons were the ones where everyone was following directions and in sync with exactly what I had planned. Now I realize that some of my most powerful days are the ones where I barely talk to the whole class at all. When I let the mentor texts do the talking, I can take my energy out of planning Pinterest-worthy activities, and I can invest instead in conferring with students and reaching each student in the room.
How have you used mentor texts to help you reach each of your writers? What do you do to differentiate writing instruction? I’d love to hear from you. Comment below or find me on Twitter @megankortlandt.