Every Monday, for about the last five years, I have run an after school club at my children’s school. The club is called ‘Magazine Club’ and (as you might have guessed) we create a school magazine, which we publish once a term. I wanted my club to be open to all the children, and so I often find myself working with a group that includes children ranging from five or six years old, right up to age eleven. Or, in other words, some children who are only just learning to write, and others who are old hands at it. Because of the age range, my magazine team is about as diverse in skills and knowledge as it is possible to be. And this means that I have had to become a practitioner of something I like to call “extreme differentiation”. I want everyone to get the chance to contribute and learn, and so I need to adapt my strategies to make that happen. My extreme differentiation techniques are pretty similar to what I would use if I was teaching a single year group. Just more, well, extreme.
- Capitalise on their interests and expertise. Each magazine has a ‘theme’ – the children put forward their ideas, and then we take a vote to decide which one to use. Because the work we are doing is based on the children’s existing interests, they have lots of knowledge that they can bring to the table. This term’s theme is ‘fantasy’, and we have used the children’s love of Harry Potter and other fantasy books as the starting point for a number of features. In the world of Harry Potter, I am very much the novice, and the kids are very definitely the experts.
- Hand over responsibility. For the older children, the chance to be ‘Guest Editor’ offers a great opportunity to stretch and challenge themselves. Children love the idea of ‘being in charge’ of something, and will typically rise to meet the challenges you set. When the children need something (water, the toilet), I let them sort this out for themselves. If they come to me with a half finished piece that I know they could do better, I ask them to go away and finish it. Trust seems to breed responsibility if you are brave enough to give it.
- Find tasks that can be accessed at different levels. Sometimes we want to create a feature about a craft, or about making a model, or about an exciting way of creating art. The children can come at these kinds of tasks at their own level, so we end up doing what teachers tend to call ‘differentiation by outcome’. When I do this, I find it interesting that it is not necessarily the oldest children who produce the ‘best’ pieces.
- Think ahead about resourcing. This is a tricky one, because different children operate in different ways when you hand them a resource. My main strategy is to think about the worst that could possibly happen, and figure out how I would deal with that. After I’ve thought this through, anything that does go wrong feels much less daunting. I’ve done some clay modelling with my magazine team, for instance, and it was really important to consider how to do this without making a mess of the teacher’s classroom.
- Figure out who is going to need support and how you can provide this. When we are writing pieces for the magazine, the youngest children often need help with vocabulary, spellings or structures. Sometimes I pair them up with an older child; other times I give them a scaffold to work within. Sometimes I tell them not to worry about the spelling when they’re writing, and then I read the piece through with them once they’re done. Support can come in all different disguises.
- Find ways to build confidence. One of our favourite activities is the interviews that we do with various members of staff. This is a great confidence building activity. First we work together to devise the questions, and share them out equally. Then we get our interviewee in to be interviewed. At this point, I hand things over to the children. Putting them in a position where they are the ones who get to ask the adults stuff is a great way to boost their self confidence.
- Give everyone a chance to feel successful. Obviously the writing I get from the younger children is not as polished as that which I get from the older ones. I make a point of featuring everyone’s voices equally in the magazine, though, because the whole point of our club is to celebrate the level the children are at, not to create a competition to see who is ‘best’.
- Give everyone a chance to contribute. For quite a while, I tended to ask the older children to draw or paint an image for the front cover of the magazine. They would often create their pictures at home for me. But then I had a brainwave as to how I could let everyone participate in making the cover. I give the children tiny pieces of paper on which to draw, and then I join these together to make the design. (You can see the image that was on the cover of our Summer issue this year, at the top of this blog post.)
- Offer choices. It’s quite hard to get a full issue of a magazine completed in the space of a term, so sometimes I need my team to get several features done in one club. In these instances, I offer them a choice of what they want to do first. As well as choosing the theme for each issue, the children decide who they would like to interview, and what kind of articles they would like to see in their magazine.
- Work as a team. When a team is working well, the strongest members of the group support the weakest ones. Not everyone can be strongest at everything, and sometimes it can surprise you who turns out to be best at each thing. Everyone gets to bring their own talents to the enterprise. All the time I am with the children, I talk about us working as ‘a team’. All the language I use reinforces the idea that we are a group. This creates a climate where the children support each other, and do a lot of the extreme differentiating on my behalf.
When I listen to talk of differentiation, I sometimes wonder if people are speaking about an entirely different skill set to me. In its simplest terms, differentiation is about making sure that all children can access what you are learning, and aiming for everyone to move forwards from where they are at the moment. Sometimes you have to think sideways, to think creatively, to achieve it. And sometimes you just have to be extreme.