Oct 31 2006

Technology Supports Differentiated Learning

St. Thomas Episcopal Parish School in Coral Gables, Fla., uses differentiated instruction supported by technology as the cornerstone of its educational process. Its laptop program is a prime example of this approach.

Three years ago, the faculty and administration of St. Thomas Episcopal Parish School in Coral Gables, Fla., made a commitment to create classrooms that used differentiated instruction as the cornerstone of our educational process. We recognized that our students come to school with varying degrees of readiness, interest and learning strengths. Given the mandate of differentiated learning supported by technology, we designed some segments of our instruction around large end-of-term projects called culminating projects.

Fourth grade is the year our students officially join the St. Thomas laptop community. The first Wednesday in September is designated Laptop Day: the day teachers set up the students’ new laptops. During the year, the 10-year-old students will learn keyboarding skills; develop proficiency in word processing, research and spreadsheets; and display all of their abilities in a final social studies project.

This fourth grade end-of-year project, which focuses on the state of Florida, is an example of our commitment to differentiated learning supported by technology. The class spends the year studying state history, geography, economy and demographics.

Each child plans a trip to one or more destinations. The budget for the trip is $1,000, which includes travel costs and time, lodging, food and attractions. Students use the Internet (accessing Yahoo maps and selected sites), classroom materials, library resources and teacher-made supplies. This activity can be adapted to the study of any state and can be done in a one-computer classroom or a computer lab.

The content of the project is the same for all of the students, but the degree of difficulty is adjusted to accommodate the diversity of learners in the classroom. Teachers use whole-class instruction in introducing the culminating project, then students work in evolving groups to share information on destinations.

The use of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets demonstrates how the readiness level is an important component of this assignment. Some students use Excel to automatically subtract each expense as it is logged in, while others use AutoSum to add each expense and keep a running total against the final amount allowed. Still others use a calculator to keep track of expenses. By taking different approaches to technology use, we help each child be successful and feel challenged.

At the end of the project, all the research is completed, with documents, tables, and spreadsheets printed and collated. Attractions and hotels are chosen, and final expenses are tallied. Some students add their own challenges to the mix—taking a train instead of a car, or renting a motor home and forgoing expensive hotels.

On presentation day, each student displays the completed trip on a trifold poster board. One student may draw a background of streets and roads; another may frame each document with several colored sheets. By differentiating this part of the project by interest level, students with strong visual and spatial skills get to shine. In addition, all students must provide a short oral explanation of the trip.

Critical thinking and creativity are important in all the projects we design around the mandate of differentiated learning supported by technology. Technology has allowed us to expand our instructional methods so that all children can be challenged and reach their highest potential.

Our laptop program has grown and evolved each year, bringing new ways to teach critical-thinking skills and new ways for our students to become more creative. Our fourth-graders may “ooh” and “aah” on Laptop Day, but we are the ones who are amazed at the end of the year when we look at their projects and see how well this technology has served our curriculum.

Lesson Plan on Technology

Elizabeth Cohen has been involved in instructional technology since the first Apple IIs made their way into the classroom. Currently director of technology at St. Thomas Episcopal Parish School, Cohen has been guiding laptop programs for the last five years.