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Six Things You Need to Know About Differentiation

A friend in higher education and professor in an art teacher preparation program recently wrote to say, “I have some questions and want your feedback on the topic of differentiation in the art room.” She went on to explain that differentiation has come to the forefront as an issue, not just in preparing art teachers, but in all of the teacher preparation programs at her university. And well it should!

For years I have shared frustrations with, and made efforts to support art teachers in my school division as they have struggled with an annually growing number of students in their classrooms with special needs. I can’t tell you how many of them feel they have just not been sufficiently trained to support the variety of abilities (and disabilities) in their classes. Whenever we are able to offer professional development on the topic, the seats fill quickly, and it is an ongoing effort. As much as we (especially in the arts) would like to think teaching is about our content area, I have come to believe that understanding differentiation is what it means to be a teacher.

So, yes, I had some things to say in response to my friend’s email. Here are six things you need to know about differentiation in art.

1. Differentiation is for all students.

At the core of differentiation is (should be) a mindset that every child can succeed and it is our job, as teachers, to do whatever we need to, for each child to make that happen. The philosophy in my school division, and language often used by our superintendent is “every child, by name and by need.” This means we figure out what each individual child needs to succeed so that we can provide it. While this may not be very difficult to wrap your mind around when you consider an elementary classroom teacher with 24 students, it becomes more challenging for a secondary teacher who likely teaches 150 students each semester, a much more daunting task for an elementary specialist (art, music, or physical education teacher) who may have more than 500.

2. There is a difference between Accommodation and Modification

An important distinction to understand and recognize in the context of differentiation is the difference between accommodations and modifications. Accommodations can include any strategies, scaffolds, or individual differentiation that is provided to students that help them access the grade/course level curriculum. Each course has expected learning outcomes defined by standards or a program of studies. If a teacher takes extra steps to help a student try to achieve those outcomes, she is differentiating instruction by making accommodations. Accommodations include those described in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 plan (and therefore required by law) and those made for any other student. It should be noted that accommodations required by an IEP or 504 cannot count against a student’s grade. If they succeed when the teacher provides those accommodations, then they succeed. In the case of a student without requires supports, a teacher may consider how much support was required when assessing the student, but ideally the differentiation provided helped the student to grasp the content. That end result is what we are looking for and what we should communicate in a progress report.

Modification, on the other hand, is when you adjust the curriculum to meet the needs of the student. Rather than trying to achieve the goals outlined in the standards or program of studies, instruction focuses on achieving goals in the student’s individualized learning plan. These may include anything from fine and gross motor, to communication and executive functioning goals.

3. Teachers must be proactive through planning.

The best way to not be overwhelmed by the individual needs of students is to plan instruction to include a variety of supports and scaffolds for all learners. Providing visual representation of ideas and vocabulary doesn’t only support language learners. Designing artmaking challenges that allow students to find a personally relevant connection to complex ideas does not only support advance learners. And breaking down instruction and process steps into easy to follow chunks doesn’t only support students with processing deficits. All of us in supervision, administration, and higher ed need to help our teachers plan this way, AND understand that when they do, they are planning to support all learners.

In addition to developing this meta cognitive awareness, the most pressing need based on what I have seen in classrooms is understanding how to chunk instruction. There are way too many art teachers who give everything at the beginning of a class session and then let the students work all the way to completion of the project without additional content. This is not a good method for any level. Rather, they should plan to present new content and skills in digestible pieces that all students will be able to manage. This is just one example of how a teachers planning is designed to support all students.

4. There are resources to support differentiation.

Teachers often struggle to find enough time to pull together their lesson plans, but to facilitate the planning recommended above, it is well worth the time and effort to find resources that will support differentiation of instruction at the same time. There are a variety of resource available, from adapted student-facing resources to instructional strategies designed to meet the needs of students with differing abilities. In our division, the electronic curriculum and resource tool includes a wealth of possibilities in addition to those available through books and the web.

A couple of books that may help you get a better handle on these topics are Differentiated Instruction in Art from the Art Education in Practice Series, by Heather L. R. Fountain, and Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Marcia B. Imbeau. The second is not focused on art, but it addresses some important topics like Learning Environment, Classroom Routines, Common Sticking Points about Differentiation, and a Teacher’s Toolkit.

5. Differentiation should be built-in to teaching resources.

In our division, we have recently started developing “Teacher Notes” documents for art teachers as a part of planning and pacing guides for our art courses. These articulate one model of how instruction could be delivered to meet the expectations of our local art curriculum. The Teacher Notes are basically a new lesson plan format that includes a number of things our old format never did.  Among these are scaffolds and supports which address supports for four categories of students: All Learners, English Learners, Students with Disabilities, and Advanced Learners. Using these four categories, while still over simplified for the reality of teachers, addresses important variations on what differentiation can look like. It’s not always providing accommodations for a “student with disabilities.”

6. Differentiation is not just for students who are struggling.

You’ll note, among the categories above, are supports for Advanced Learners. This represents another shift in mindset for many. Differentiation is not just for students who are struggling. We also need to differentiate for the students who are ready to move forward. Nevertheless, we need to make sure our thinking about differentiating for advanced learners isn’t keeping others from experiencing the best we have to offer.

Strategies historically reserved for “gifted” learners are strategies that are good for all learners!

In order to be successful, all students should be exposed to rigorous curriculum, be given opportunities to solve difficult challenges, and grapple with complex ideas and concepts! Those latter two phrases (opportunities to solve difficult challenges, and grapple with complex ideas and concepts) are how I would define “rigor.” We need to avoid perpetuating an idea that rigor, or advanced academics means MORE work. It shouldn’t be MORE, it should be RICHER! And RICH curriculum is for all students. How can we expect students not placed into advanced academic programs to succeed if we are not providing them with rich learning experiences?


Who should make the art?

So, here’s a little quiz: Who should do the art making in the art classroom? The student! Of course! Did anyone at all have a different answer? I doubt it… But do we really mean it? Let’s give this question some thought.

Let me apologize to those who have seen parts of this story already. You see, it started on social media so some of my comments below have seen the light of day already. But this deserves elaboration!

Like many of you, I have made some attempts at connecting with other art educators online. I have followed some blogs and liked some art teacher pages, only occasionally finding some like-minded individuals. More often, I encounter what I would call (at great risk of offending) the unfortunate state of art education in our country. You can recognize posts in this category because they include phrases like…

…so excited to have my kiddos try this new product…

…love these [artist name] paintings by my students…

…found this idea on Pinterest…

…this is what my students will make…

A recent post that suggested something like this last sentiment went past me recently with four variations of the same painting made by the teacher. The text went something like this:

“I’m starting this lesson soon and made several samples to think it through. Which is your favorite?”

The paintings really were nice looking, each a variation of a swimmer’s face under water with a diver’s mask and snorkel. Cute idea, really! (I would show you the images, but it just doesn’t seem fair to use the teacher’s pictures in this post.)

Teacher samples are good, and “thinking it through” is good too, but if this is all that is said about the lesson you will start soon, what are we to believe except that you intend to guide your students to make their own variation of the self-same painting? I just couldn’t ignore it. I had to comment. I wrote:

You’ve worked really hard to design something. You tried some different variations and even gathered input from an authentic audience. All important skills for an artist. Teach the children to be artists. Don’t be the artist for them!

So, let’s go back to my original question. When you answered, were you thinking only about who is pushing the pencil or moving the paint brush? Manipulating media is only a tiny part — albeit the most visible part — of what an artist does.

Fellow art teachers… (No… Let’s make it bigger…) Fellow teachers, if we are to teach our children to thrive in the 21st Century, we cannot go around solving problems for them!

Any artist-educator worth her salt knows deep down that the visual arts are the perfect place for students to learn those skills that, by now, nearly all of our schools and districts have written into their mission statements. If we are to teach our students to be resilient problem solvers and creative and critical thinkers, we must give them problems to solve.

Art education is not what they do at those paint and wine nights! Sorry if I have crushed your dreams, but while I’m at it let’s try to clear up a MAJOR misconception.

(Image borrowed from www.paintandwine.com)

Art education is not about teaching children to create artworks!

(Did I blow your mind?) Honestly, it never has been. Even before all this “21st Century Skills” stuff, art was about teaching things like working with your hands, experimentation, play, communication, self expression, and understanding visual culture. Art students develop their art skills at the same time, and that is also a valued outcome. But, (and I am going to take another risk at offending) any teacher who thought artmaking was the sole or primary purpose was sorely misguided.

Let me step off my soap box and get back to this teacher that I called out.

I get the teachers inclination. Providing a sequence of steps that results in reliably attractive artworks can have its benefits. Administrators love pretty artwork in the halls. Many of your colleagues and parents who don’t know better will be impressed by you. And some of your students will even feel a sense of pride for making something that still doesn’t look quite as good as the one the teacher made. But how can we reframe the idea to create a foundation for a lesson that allows the children to solve the problem?

As I described above, the painting samples represented a snorkeler. So if the assignment should not be, “make a painting of a snorkeler,” then what should it be? It should, instead, be a challenge that could have many possible solutions. It should be a challenge that allows the students to find a personal connection, and it should expect them to practice specific art skills related to media and/or subject matter. There are several different ways to go with this, but let me suggest just one:

Create a portrait of you doing an activity you hope to do someday.

Do you think this fits the bill?

I invite you to share your thoughts and comments.

It’s amazing what you can do with the help of an art teacher.

“It’s amazing what you can do with the help of an art teacher” is an overly-long title in my opinion, but I was considering, “It’s amazing what you can do with the help of an art teacher, and other quotes from our superintendent.”

Tonight we held our Regional Scholastic Art Awards ceremony, and we were honored to have Dr. Scott Brabrand, Superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools, join us to offer some opening remarks and his congratulations to our student award winners. And yes, he actually said, “It’s amazing what you can do with the help of an art teacher.”

He was sharing a personal experience and experiment. He wanted to see if he could learn to draw at the age of 49, and just one hour with an art teacher allowed him to make significant strides.

Dr. Brabrand went out of his way to recognize the art teachers at tonight’s event. He also acknowledged how important the arts are in our schools and recognized that the arts are supporting the very skills the school system is striving to instill in all graduates including communication skills, creativity, and critical thinking.

I couldn’t be more proud to have a superintendent and leadership team who are so supportive of the arts. Thank you, Dr. Brabrand, not just for saying it, but for showing it by making time to join us for this special night!

Day 22: Thankful for Art Teachers

Day 22: Thankful for Art Teachers

“Day 22…” is not the usual way I would start a blog post, but this month I have been trying to share daily gratitude through social media. Today, I wanted to go a little further in an attempt to express just a fraction of my gratitude toward the art educators I work with day in and day out.

FCPS Art Teachers at the National Portrait Gallery

I have said, many times, that in my job I have “the great pleasure of working with 380 amazing art teachers.” It’s not just talk. I mean it. I am  frequently over-credited as “being in charge of” or “running the entire” K-12 art program in our school district, but in fact it is these folks who make it all happen. While I do my best to develop and provide helpful resources and facilitate some fidelity in the programs, the amount of work we are able to do in the fine arts office is dwarfed next to the work this army of art teachers do every day.

I don’t just mean this in a numbers sense. Sure, 380 art teachers can put in way more hours than a couple of us in the instructional services office, but these teachers are committed! Every day I see or hear about another way they are going well above and beyond to make a difference in their students lives. They are supporting students through difficult situations, life coaching, staying late to support clubs and activities, taking student to museums, traveling with them to New York City, meeting them for evening artmaking events… The list goes on, and many of them are practicing artists to boot!

I want to share one specific story that I hope will be illustrative.

Recently a new central office project manager was named for the STEAM program (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics). The team has existed for a few years now, and turns regularly — as they should — to specialists in the Science, Math, Fine Arts, Career and Technical Education, and Instructional Technology offices to support and inform their work. I admit, though, that from its inception, I have struggled with how I can support from my role.

Naturally, the new project manager, getting acquainted with her new role, wanted to meet with me to discuss how we might work together and I am certain that I sounded a bit lost as to how I can support in a meaningful way. I didn’t want to give the impression that the Arts didn’t have a place in this work — and I definitely didn’t want the ‘A’ in STEAM to be what some have called the POS approach (paint on stuff), but I couldn’t yet grasp how I might help.

Not long after, the STEAM team asked for input to identify schools where they could see STEAM instruction in practice in our schools. Now that I can help with! And this starts to get at my point… Even as I am unsure of my role in supporting STEAM as an initiative, I know that there are many art teachers who are deeply engaged in the work in their schools.

I was able to recommend several teachers and schools where this is happening through the arts, and as the STEAM team has started making school visits, they have been duly impressed by the work of the art teachers.

And that is what I mean. The magic is happening on the ground, in the schools, and the magicians are the art teachers.

I am so grateful for each of you!





VAEA – Northern Region

Having the annual VAEA conference in Northern Virginia this year really shows in the large turn out for the Northern Region Meeting. 

I am so excited to have so many of my local colleagues here, and especially excited that they were all here to recognize Susan Silva who received the secondary educator of the year award for the Northern Region. 

Thank you, Andrew, for putting her name forward. She is so deserving!

Congratulations Susan!

A Simple Reward System

Here’s another quick strategy I saw used with great effect recently… Do you know what that glowing purple object is on the table?

It’s a Bluetooth speaker!

The teacher has a playlist on her own phone and places the speaker, at a low volume, on tables that are showing that everyone is on task. The students really enjoyed having the reward of listening to music while they worked, even if the speaker had to move to another table after a few minutes. 

Thanks again to Bethany for sharing this idea!

It’s Only Fair

Learning can be challenging — frustrating even. With a little experience, an art teacher can predict pretty accurately what the frustration level will be with the new content and skills. So why not warn your students? It’s only fair!

Thanks to art teacher Bethany Mallino who plans to include this and many other gold nuggets in a future publication called SmART StART in ART. (I’ll let you know when it’s available.)