Differentiation in an English lesson: a case study.

26 May 2022

One area of English teaching I have always found difficult to articulate clearly about is differentiation. I have been blogging about the process of designing a new English PGDE curriculum, and wrestling this week with how to approach differentiation as a topic.

The new teachers I work with will, quite rightly, have to evidence how they are providing effective support for learners in the classroom when they enter schools.

What I am at pains not to do, however, is encourage them to fall into some the traps that characterised my own early attempts at differentiation. Thousands of work sheets, individual student roles, groups that had alliterative names and changed every two minutes. I also had a rather unusually fixation/fetish with putting things in envelopes, as if all my behaviour management issues would instantly be solved if there was an envelope on the tables.

Instead of all this nonsense, the ability to cut through the jargon: to try to pass on practical advice that will not have new teachers up until the small hours of the morning planning, feels to me to be very much a moral imperative.

So, for me, I want to use lesson case studies as often as possible in the initial stages with the new teachers. I want to walk through lessons, in part to help give them a toolbox of strategies they can use as soon as they go into placements, but also so the complex teacher actions that are in the umbrella term of differentiation are made explicit to them.

Reflecting on my own teaching practice, I’d like to walk through a lesson I have taught with both an S1 class in Scotland, and a year 7 class in England, on William Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’.

Aim and output

My aim for this lesson was very simple:

To understand the message of the poem ‘I wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ by William Wordsworth.

How will that aim be measured and how will I ensure there is some sort of tangible outcome? The students will all be expected to write a summary paragraph at the end of the lesson, answering the question: What is the message of the poem ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’.

Conceptual hook:

For me, ensuring that the students can engage with the poem is a significant element of the differentiation in this lesson. I want to get them interested in the ideas and get them hooked into what makes the poem powerful.

So, they entered the lesson to a photograph of a field of daffodils. I then offered an elaborate narrative about how I had been out for a run, but in a bit of a grump (always justified by stories of my non-sleeping children)  and came across this field of daffodils. Clearly, I was utterly captivated,, mood instantly changed, and the impulse to take a picture and show it to my ‘wonderful class’ overwhelmed me.

We then record together a collection of words about the image and have them placed on the board. These words are a visual summary of the beauty of daffodils that I can then draw their attention to throughout the lesson – a clear form of both support and challenge (words range in complexity, and I will check that a wide range of students have an understanding of them).

Pre-reading task.

This is a cracking wee video of the background to the poem. They watch it and bullet point what they feel are the key things we need to know about the poem as a class:

This supports them by giving them the context to the poem, and a visual illustration of some of the key ideas. It also illustrates great horror, as the class generally like to accuse William Wordsworth of stealing the poem from his sister.

Title

How to differentiate when teaching a poem is all about scaffolding it and breaking it down into manageable chunks. Throw a poem at a class and ask them to make sense of it will generally lead to very little useful development of understanding. I am a big poetry fan, but the first time I read a poem I generally have very little grasp of it.

So, we start with the title: ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’. It will be paired then whole class discussion: what does the title signify, can anyone identify the techniques and why Wordsworth might have used it? Luckily, the video that the kids have watched will really help them in this task, as will our previous conversation about my mood being changed by coming across a field of daffodils.

Reading

At this point the students will all be given a copy of the poem. How to approach reading the poem for the first time with the class? For me I might read it twice: the first time I will read it to them – modelling reading with passion and excitement. Then I will read it again asking students to read a couple of lines each, offering lots of praise for interesting and lively reading.

After that initial reading I will ask them in pairs or individually to write how the poem makes them feel, or what it is about. Again the previous work will support them with this, as will the words on the board – and this will be our starting point to deepen their level of understanding about the poem.

Stanza one

We then look at stanza one together as a class. For this I might use a visualizer or the PowerPoint and show them how to annotate words and ideas in the poem. They will copy exactly what I write down on their own poems, and I will check to make sure they are doing this.

Another significant element of differentiation for me is making success explicit for them: constantly narrating how well they are doing in their progress through the poem, and what a difficult skill it is to unpick a poem.

Word choice exploration

Keeping timings very tight and everything very structured, their next task would be to go through the poem in pairs and to circle all the positive words and to underline all the negative words. Again, I will take feedback, what do the words signify? How is the speaker feeling?

This builds on the modelling I will have done on the first stanza, where we have focused mainly on the impact of words. I will then encourage them to use these words when it comes to writing about the poem at the end of the lesson.

Progress point

This will build into a progress point, where a general sense of understanding of the poem is tested in the room. Mini-white boards are brilliant for this sort of task. Students are given two minutes to write about what the poem is exploring. I’ll then take a selection of answers, all reinforcing the key ideas about the poem.

If this was a single lesson on the poem, I would now spend fifteen minutes or so discussing the other three stanzas and going through the annotation process again on the visualizer or PowerPoint. This would include lots of questioning and checking.

I think I pinched this from Doug Lemov, but all the way through this lesson there will be show me moments. Very simply, students hold up their annotations of the poem. This can be a really good way to check understanding, but also to support motivation and engagement in the room.

They become show off, rather than show me, moments: students to hold up their annotations like they are the flag of their country; students to hold up their annotations like they are the badge of their favourite sport team etc. I get to exclaim with extraordinary enthusiasm – “what beautiful annotations, Billy”, encouraging all the class to gasp and gaze at Billy’s magnificent annotations – and thereby increasing the motivation to match Billy’s annotation quality in the room.

Written paragraph

 First, I will write the paragraph with the students, using the board or the PowerPoint. They will lead on what to include, so it becomes a collaborative modelling process. It will model key targets: using some of our brilliant class vocabulary, using a quotation, explaining the quotation etc.

Then, like magic, it will vanish and they will have to write their own in the ‘sacred silence’ conditions.. “Amazing responses include…” will be something I will type up on the PowerPoint while they get started, with suggestions like quotations, words they might include etc.

End of the lesson

Two volunteers read out their paragraphs and we talk about what they have done effectively.

They stand up behind their chairs and have to tell me a line from the poem before they can possibly even consider ‘escaping’. I make them promise they will bring me in a daffodil next lesson to brighten up my classroom. Done.

What else is going on that is perhaps less explicit?

There are lots of implicit teacher behaviours going on in this kind of lesson. The most obvious is circulation and conversations with students. That is constant questioning about words, lines, ideas in the poem – and using that to check the class as a wholes’ engagement with the poem.

A rapidly under-examined aspect of differentiation is also the teacher’s capacity to observe and read the room. Students’ facial expressions and body language can be so revealing. The capacity to metaphorically hoover these up, in order to know when to move on is such an important teacher skill.

There is flexibility with timings: I will have a general idea in my head about how much time things might take, but those timings might result in only superficial engagement with tasks and the poem. If they need longer, we will take longer. I have taught this lesson and only done the first stanza – which was fine. They wrote a paragraph about how Wordsworth feels in the first stanza, then we celebrated the fact we had developed a really good understanding of one stanza.

What was my preparation for this lesson? I made sure I had a really good knowledge of the poem, found the video, found an image of some daffodils and stuck it on a PowerPoint.

An Earlier Life 

I taught ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ in a school in Newcastle in my trainee year. In preparation for the lesson, I did the following:

  1. Purchased daffodils
  2. Purchased daffodil badges for ‘group leaders’ to wear (daffodil badges are much harder to find than you might think).
  3. Cut the poem up, mixed up the lines and placed them in an envelope, so the students could decide on the order of the poem (this takes so much longer than you might think)
  4. Split the poem into four stanzas with six prompt questions per stanza. Put them onto A3 sheets of paper so they could be annotated.
  5. Split the class into groups and assigned each member of the group an alliterative role, all related to different flowers (The daffodil detective is a bit average in retrospect, but the language loving Lillie definitely has stood the test of time.)
  6. Spent an inordinate amount of time setting up the lesson.

Was the lesson a success, with students working beautifully in a collaborative dream – each lovingly handing back their daffodil at the end of the lesson and telling me they are off to buy Wordsworth’s collected works? Or did the lesson descend into a daffodil vision of hell, with students throwing daffodils at each other, and developing no conceptual understanding of the poem whatsoever?

I’d imagine you can probably guess the correct answer.  Put it this way, it took me sometime before I was doing any dancing with daffodils again, or for their ‘flash’ into my mind to be anything but traumatic.

Thank you for reading.

 

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Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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