This article is written by Truth for Teachers writer Dr. Laura Fitzpatrick.
I’ll never forget walking into a fellow teacher’s classroom where every student was doing something different. Each of the thirty children had their own lesson with differentiated processes and products. While others were drooling over the differentiation taking place in the classroom, all I could think was, “When does this teacher sleep?!” Yes, it all seemed quite impressive, but is keeping that pace all year practical, let alone possible?
This year, more than ever, we know that burnout is real. Add in expectations for personalization and differentiation (the “d-word”) and the three branches of burnout start to appear: overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism, and a sense of ineffectiveness. When trying to do everything all at once to meet the ever-changing needs of our diverse learners, burnout will happen. Because of that, simplicity is your friend.
It is critical when differentiating to zero in on what your students actually need so that you can simplify your workload and avoid burnout. Below are a few high-impact strategies that will help you meet the needs of your neurodivergent students and still come out sane on the other side.
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1. Cloning is possible.
In an ideal world, your classroom would have one of you for every single one of your students. Screencasting, whether through a site like Loom or Screencast-o-matic, is the closest you will get to that dream of cloning yourself. More importantly, screencasting allows you to tailor your instruction without exhaustion. To give you an idea of what this could look like, here is an example for an English class:
Students are writing an essay and have three components to their rubric. When giving feedback on their writing, make a note on which of those three areas needs the most work, perhaps by highlighting that component on the rubric. Next, make three separate videos—one for each of the components of the rubric—going over common pitfalls. The video could include things you would share one-on-one with a student if given the chance to sit down next to them while they wrote. Students are then able to have instruction tailored to their needs as a writer (while also not needing to make 30 different videos!).
On the flip side, you could mark which element of the rubric a student excelled in, then make videos helping them to extend their learning and hone their craft as an author.
Whether utilizing screencasting for strengths-based instruction or needs-based instruction, making a few videos in advance allows students to receive the instruction they actually need. This requires a little front-loading of work on your part, but is a high-impact use of your time, as each student will receive instruction that is pertinent to their writing.
The goal is to eliminate you standing up front giving generic revising and editing feedback (equality) and instead to meet students where they are and help them grow as writers (equity).
2. Stations are for everyone.
Stations are often seen as a strategy for elementary students, but stations can truly be a high-impact, low-burnout strategy for differentiation for any grade level.
Imagine a math classroom with five stations—one in each corner and one in the center of the room. Each station has its own set of instructions. Perhaps there is a video to watch on a specific concept or a set of intricate problems to attempt or even an escape room-style setup. Each day your students spend the day at one station, then rotate to the next until they have visited all five stations by the end of the week. Creating these five stations will take work up-front, but your week will be rich with meaningful engagement with your students. Because you are not up front teaching, you are free to float from station to station, to trouble-shoot and problem-solve, and to be a mathematician alongside your students. Rather than being aloof at the front of the room, you get to walk through the joy and frustration with them. Barriers come down as students who might otherwise stay silent are emboldened in a small group to have a voice. Plus, thoughtfully grouping your students for stations is a great way to differentiate and allow you to know how best to serve each group.
3. Delegation is powerful.
When telling a fellow teacher that I would be utilizing several of my middle school students as instructors for a lesson, he was sure it would end in disaster. Despite his skepticism, delegating station instruction to students can be powerful, if done right. This strategy takes some preparation up-front (are you noticing a pattern yet?!), but can be invaluable to all of your students.
The first question I get from students is, “Who are the peer teachers and how can I be one?” From the beginning of the year, I establish that this job of “peer teacher” is constantly up for grabs. This title is bestowed upon students who demonstrated proficiency in that skill in a previous assignment. For example, students wrote a fan fiction piece where they had to include properly formatted, compelling dialogue. Later in the unit, they wrote a personal narrative where dialogue was one of the requirements.
Students worked through self-guided and teacher-led editing stations for specific focus corrections areas in their writing. The station on dialogue, however, was led by students who had previously shown mastery of this skill.
Once I determine who the peer teachers will be, they are invited to have lunch in my room. We spend the lunch period going over directions (how they can teach the skill, predict what questions they might be asked, etc.) and working with their “co-teacher” to make a plan. Ultimately they are given autonomy over how they would like to guide their peers. Some bring in whiteboards, handouts, and props from home. Others take a “winging it” approach. No matter their style, they take it very seriously. They know this title of “peer teacher” is not fixed, and that there is a huge amount of responsibility attached to it. Classmates are also prepped before the day of stations on how to respect their peer teacher—as a teacher.
When prepped properly, what happens next is just…beautiful. Students more advanced in a skill are teaching and guiding stations. They themselves are stretched by needing to deeply know and understand the concept, and by learning interpersonal and leadership skills. Learners are hearing the same instruction I would be giving, but through a different lens, and often one that they connect with.
This act of releasing control takes some serious trust. However, empowering your students as lead learners and giving your students the opportunity to learn from varying perspectives is worth it every time.
4. Choice is magic.
When planning for neurodivergent learners, teachers often think they must embed choice (the great motivational magic!) for every learner into everything. What ensues is teachers who are thoroughly overwhelmed. Instead, consider these three simple strategies for incorporating choice:
First, you could create the equivalent of a Bingo card. In history, students could select from a variety of options for how they want to learn about an event in history—from several videos, podcast episodes, and articles. Students get to select how they learn best, while you are not burning yourself out personalizing everything for everyone. Want a crazy simple way to make this more appealing? Stamps. Yes, even for big kids. When they finish a bingo square, have various stamps around the room so they can stamp their square when they completed the task. Who knew a few simple stamps from a craft store could be so motivating?!
Another version of this is a points sheet. For a math assessment, for example, you could set up a grid of various problems—some easy, moderate, and challenging. The harder the question, the more points it is worth. Students “build their own quiz,” making sure they have answered enough questions to equal 20 points, or whatever value you set. This once again allows students to have autonomy over their learning and honors the strengths of different learners in a way that is simpler for you.
Lastly, students could have certain tasks to complete and then they get to pick their own path. When writing, for example, students may need to follow the writing process, from graphic organizer to typed and edited piece. When they finish, however, they are able to decide the final component to demonstrate mastery. Some may create a WeVideo, some may create a music playlist, others may create a one-page graphic novel to demonstrate their understanding of the theme.
When I first started having students “pick their own path” I was overwhelmed by keeping track of where everyone was in the process. To help streamline and simplify the process, I printed a large table on 11 x 17 paper for each class period. Along the left side, I put each student’s name and across the top are all the required steps of the writing process, as well as all the optional “paths.” When finished with a step, students simply highlight that cell in the table next to their name. I am then able to quickly glance at the table throughout the project and see where students are in the process, which “path” they have chosen, and know which students I need to check in with. An added bonus is that students are hugely motivated by getting to highlight on the chart and visually track their progress!
5. Feedback is the answer.
What is the best strategy that will be unique to each student, meeting them right where they are? What technology does it involve? What program do I need to buy?
Here’s the catch: it does not require any technology or any program, because it’s YOU! Spending time one-on-one with each student, conferencing and giving feedback is the best form of differentiation you could ever have. And instead of draining you, leaving you feeling frantic and frazzled, it restores your joy. Sitting next to a student, hearing their thought process, dialoguing over academic content and hearing about the big game last night—that’s the good stuff. Relationships are at the heart of differentiation. How can I meet your needs if I don’t know you? How can I celebrate you and grow you as a learner if we’ve never truly talked?
A professor I had in college once told us she “wanted to know the color of our eyes.” Each class, she had the goal of truly seeing us. Not only did she want to look us in the eyes each day, but also take time to notice who we are and how we were each day. This is exactly the opportunity that conferencing provides. There is no substitute for one-on-one time with your students.
Conferencing is the ultimate goal of all these other strategies. Blended learning and stations lend themselves to students meeting with you in small groups. Screencasting, peer teachers, and student choice all free you up to meet with students one-on-one. Even in the midst of standards and curriculum maps, feedback through conferencing is the answer. It enables you to have a responsive teaching practice. It restores joy to your teaching. It allows you to know the color of their eyes.
6. Mindset is key.
Rather than burning yourself out trying to do everything, please pause and remember that you are one person (and that’s ok!).
Take time to zero in on what your students actually need. Then pick a few, high-impact strategies to reach the diverse learners in your classroom. Maybe just pick one. All the differentiation in the world will fall flat if you are home sick because of over-working yourself or are not mentally present because of stress. Take a breath. Celebrate the learners you’ve been given to shepherd for these few months and remember to take care of yourself.
Dr. Laura Fitzpatrick has been a sixth grade English Language Arts teacher for the past eight years. She earned an M.A. in Special Education and Ed.D. in Inquiry-Based Learning, where her research primarily centered on teacher burnout. Dr. Fitzpatrick lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and three children (two of whom have fur).