A crash course in adapting lessons and activities

August 6, 2020

August 6, 2020

By: Harriet Small

This year, I worked as a Saga Fellow at DeWitt Clinton, a high school located in the Bronx. Due to our small class sizes, I had the opportunity to work mainly one-on-one with the vast majority of my students. This singular circumstance gave me the chance to zoom in and focus on my students as individual learners, learning what sort of classroom style and activities each benefited most from. What I got was essentially a crash course on how variable students’ learning styles can be. Here are a few of the lessons I walked away with:

One Game Doesn’t Fit All

Using games and activities to bring joy into the classroom is a central tenet of Saga’s educational philosophy. However, not all games work for all students. For example, I found that large-scale activities that pull multiple student-tutor groups together for cooperation or competition are incredibly motivating for some students, especially those who are more outspoken, but they can silence the voices of students who tend to be quieter, or stress out students who find the competition aspect daunting. Students in the latter category benefit far more from activities that can be completed solo or with a single partner or tutor; the smaller forum motivates them to share their thinking and insight in a way the larger group would not.

…Sometimes, Set Games Aside

I’ve also found that for some students, the extra layer of game rules on top of the math material can sometimes make the material less engaging, rather than more. A game or activity, while fun, adds complexity that can get in the way of clarity, especially for new or unfamiliar topics. I’ve learned that in some cases it is beneficial to set aside games and focus on alternate methods of inserting joy into my lessons: having students create their own problems to challenge me with, using dice or cards to randomly generate practice problems, using visual or tactile examples, and so on.

Rely on Students for Pacing Cues

One of my biggest challenges as a Fellow was learning how to correctly pace lessons to challenge students without overwhelming them. Not only did different students benefit from different pacing, but a single student might also have different pacing needs topic to topic or even day-to-day. Essentially, I came into the classroom every day with a plan for how far I wanted to get in each period, but this plan was constantly changing. One of the strategies I found most effective for gauging how fast I should be going for a particular student was by letting them set the pace. One way I tried to do this was by offering choices of practice problems. After a student finished a problem, I would sometimes ask whether they wanted to try another at a similar level, or whether they felt ready for a challenge; their answer would help inform the difficulty of the remainder of the lesson.

Discussion vs. Independent Practice

One last important difference I found in how different students absorbed material was their preference for learning through discussion vs. learning independently. Some of my students did their deepest thinking aloud, and talking through a problem with a fellow student or with me would help that problem “click” for them. Other students seemed to prefer the exact opposite; it was when I stepped back and let them work independently that they made the most progress. As I got to know which of these two camps each of my students was in, I would adjust the ratio of talking vs. independent practice in our lessons accordingly. For some students who seemed to strongly prefer verbal learning, I would sometimes provide notetaking scaffolds (for example, a definition that could be filled in from a word back), or we would take collaborative notes (where I would transcribe their own words describing a topic or the solution to a problem), so that they would have a written reference of the discussion-based learning to revisit in future lessons.

In my time as a Saga Fellow, I’ve had the opportunity to see how my diverse group of students approach their learning from different angles, and to start thinking about how I, as an instructor, can best adapt my lessons so each of them is able to learn and be challenged. Over the course of the year, I’ve learned that differentiation is a key aspect of education, and that flexibility and adaptability are among the most important assets I have as a teacher. This is an ongoing learning process for me, and it is a process I hope to continue throughout my career.