One of the easiest ways to incorporate differentiated instruction into the classroom is to build units around essential questions instead of a specific text. It isn’t difficult, has measurable advantages, and once the planning is done, the same unit can be used over and over. So it's worth the investment!
What is an Essential Question?
Essential Questions are BIG questions that require a student to explore a topic and reflect on the meaning of texts. Essential questions are not easily answered. They are never yes/no questions; in fact, essential questions often don’t have one right answer. Some examples of effective essential questions include:
• Why are some stories worth telling more than others? (Literature/ELA)
• Why do human beings create governments? (Social Studies)
• What do effective problem solvers do when they get stuck? (Mathematics)
• How does the natural world – an ecosystem, an organism, a chemical compound, a geophysical structure – struggle to maintain balance? (Science)
• How can the human body maintain momentum when dealing with obstacles? (PE)
For more information about essential questions and how to use them, read Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTigue.
SAMPLE UNIT FOR A 7th GRADE ELA CLASS
A 7th grade ELA teaching team had a unit based around the book, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Every year they taught the same book. As the teachers, curriculum director and I evaluated the effectiveness of the unit we determined that:
• the majority of students were able to read the text independently or with minimal support
• a few students struggled with the text, even with teacher support
• many students were totally uninterested in the book and didn’t really finish it
• classroom activities centered around “proving that you read the assigned pages”
• lessons focused on remembering and understanding (the lowest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy) and rarely approached analyzing, applying, evaluating, or creating.
The teaching team wanted to rework the unit to incorporate differentiated instruction and hopefully inspire all of the students to more actively engage with the text.
REVISED UNIT BUILT AROUND AN ESSENTIAL QUESTION
Essential question: What are the limits of friendship?
Students were encouraged to choose a “just-right” book from the following options:
This 1937 novella has been a classroom staple for decades. The plot revolves around two laborers in California's dusty vegetable fields. The odd friendship between “small and quick” George, and the powerful yet simple Lennie, reverberates throughout popular culture. The author’s writing style and word choice make it accessible to most 7th grade readers. The book is relatively short, but its 112 pages are packed with literary devices like allegory and symbolism. The well-crafted imagery lends itself to classroom activities/discussions about setting and character development.
This bestselling novel about a young girl's journey towards healing and the transforming power of love is written at a slightly higher level than Of Mice and Men. It includes a more extensive vocabulary and the sentences are often more complex in structure. We hoped that the female protagonist would be appealing to many students. At 336 pages, this book would be ideal for above- or on-level readers who were concentrating on building reading stamina.
Exploring the conflict between working class “greasers” and a vicious gang of “rich” kids, this 1967 book is still wildly popular with adolescent readers. Because it unflinchingly explored the darker aspects of teen alliances and enmity, this book is often credited with laying the groundwork for contemporary Young Adult fiction. The Outsiders is set in a not-too-distant past, and because the main characters are teens, we believed that students would find it easy to relate to their struggles.
A realistic look at the pressures to conform and an exploration of how a culture of violence informs a young man’s decisions, Scorpions is a popular book in classrooms throughout the country. Myers unflinchingly looks at the appeal of guns and the role of friendship in street gangs. Like all four book options, Scorpions has strong, clearly delineated characters and a well-described setting. In online reviews, some educators described this as “a book for kids who hate reading.” My teaching team hoped it would appeal to their most reluctant readers.
The class divided up into four “book clubs” for the duration of the unit. Students were assigned to a club based on their choice of book. Throughout the unit, the book clubs met with the teacher for echo reading, book discussions, and formative assessment. Whole class activities included explanation of deep reading activities (like character, setting, and plot analysis activities), vocabulary development, and grammar observations using text samples from the various books. The students were given plenty of opportunities to practice all the activities in small groups. The teachers scheduled large and small group discussions so that students could debate how "their" author attempted to answer the essential question.
The results from re-working this unit were astounding! Student engagement improved by leaps and bounds. The novelty of choosing their own book – even though it was just a choice between four pre-determined texts – gave students ownership of the process. The small group work (in what I call Literacy & Learning Centers) allowed students to engage in a wider range of more challenging activities. And most importantly, the students read their books!