One of my favorite – and, I think, one of the easiest – ways to differentiate is to give students options for how the demonstrate their learning.
Teachers do this all the time. For example, instead of writing a book report, a student may make a diorama or write a skit based on a scene from the story.
The key is for the teacher to have clear requirements. Rubrics often work well for this. So if the purpose of the project is for the student to learn about a historical figure or event, for example, then there might be requirements to include a certain number of facts or specific details, or to reference a certain number of sources.
If you’re clear about what students need to include to show what they’ve learned, then how they actually demonstrate that knowledge doesn’t matter as much. They can write a journal, make a poster, give a PowerPoint presentation… The students can make something they enjoy working on, that allows them to practice, extend and show off their strengths, all while also getting to the purpose of the project – what they have learned.
Here are some of my favorites:
1) Dioramas… Made of Cake
One year I gave my reading students a bunch of choices for how to show a scene from the books they were reading. One student decorated a cake to represent part of a story set in the Civil War. He had a road of Graham cracker crumbs, a wagon made of crackers with candy wheels, and an impressive assortment of other details straight from the story. After he explained all the parts of the cake to the class and how it connected to the book, we sliced it up and all got a piece of cake before recess. After that, every single project, I had at least one cake turn up, sometimes more than one in a day. The creativity was much appreciated. The sugar got to be a bit much…
2) Songs and Raps
I’ve had students come up with some fantastic songs and raps, some they were willing to share in front of the class, and some they just wrote down (or asked their friends to perform for them). It seemed like the tendency to write songs about what we were learning always went up after we watched highlights from “School House Rock.” Classic.
3) Comic Strips
I love this option because I always have kids who love to draw, and this gives them an excuse to draw of bunch of detailed pictures and have it count for school work. In reality, putting together an effective, detailed, accurate comic strip takes a lot of work, far more than they expected. But there have been several times when the end result is something I’ve wanted to frame.
4) Board Games
Another of my favorites because it sounds like fun to a lot of the students, but it actually takes a lot of attention to detail and thought to be done well. I especially like that the end result is something that all of the students can play and learn from.
Does this seem like an unusual option? One year my students were making projects about people from the Revolutionary War. One student brought in a quilt that she and her mom had made. Each square on the quilt had a different fact about her Revolutionary War person. They had printed statements and pictures onto iron-on paper and put them on the quilt that way. The result was beautiful. After carrying it all around the building to make sure the principal and other teachers had seen it, we hung it in the back of the room for the rest of the quarter.
12 years has passed, and that student is now in her mid-20s. I often wonder if she still has that quilt. I like to think that her memory of that project is as positive and warm and happy as mine.