Differentiation and discovery with Abe Cohen

Abe Cohen teaches high school science and computer science at Bronx Area, in Bronx NY. At Bronx Arena, teachers work to empower over-age, under-credited students to achieve academic success and earn their high school diplomas. In his role, Abe specializes in working with students who have moderate to severe emotional and behavioral disorders and/or learning disabilities. Because Bronx Arena operates with a blended-learning model, Abe also gets to work as a generalist, guiding and facilitating student learning through its online curriculum. Last year, all of Abe’s students with disabilities passed their respective Regents science exams.

Thriving Schools: To start, could you briefly explain the Bronx Arena school model for us?

Abe: Sure thing! Our school operates under a fully-blended, asynchronous model. That means I get to work with the same 25 students for most of the day. During this time, students work at their own pace through our online curriculum. They spend about half the day in this manner. During the remainder of the day, they typically receive direct instruction from our other teachers in various subjects. I should also note that I teach a more traditional, synchronous AP Computer Science class during our school’s 2nd period.

Thriving Schools: So today we’re going to be talking about some of the ways in which you differentiate for your students and make standards-aligned content come alive. What problems do you think teachers face in trying to accomplish this?

Abe: I think one dichotomy that gets set-up frequently is that of the “fun, interesting learning” versus the more “regimented, Regents-style (exam) learning.” Excitement is juxtaposed against testing. But I think we have to realize that teaching a series of multiple-choice questions to prepare for tests isn’t the best way to learn content and isn’t supported by sound pedagogy. Lucky for me, I teach science most of the day! And we’re constantly reminded that there’s a lot more that we don’t know then what we do know. So I believe orienting a class around questions about the unknown brings a lot more interest and discovery into the classroom than questions about a test.

Thriving Schools: Can you give us an example of how this process of discovery might look in your class?

Abe: Sure. In one of the projects that we assign, students work with interstellar data to determine whether life would exist on other planets. In the process, they ask questions about and discover things like the size of stars, how long they’ve been around, habitable zones, rotational patterns, and more. It’s a fun project and students really enjoy it. But by the way, it also incorporates all of the content that shows up on their Regents science exams. In other words, while students are figuring out whether aliens exist on a different planet, they’re also “secretly” getting ready for their tests.

Thriving Schools: Shifting gears, you like to individualize your curriculum to better meet your students’ interests. How do you do this?

Abe: When students enter Bronx Arena, we have them complete an interests-based diagnostic and we build a course of study for them based on the results. This diagnostic includes both academic background knowledge and student interests. This ensure students get what they need and what they enjoy. So for instance, in Earth Sciences, our curriculum has 9 different units. Like we discussed previously, one of them is on astronomy. Another one’s on maps and measurements, and centers around an island that’s going to be hit by a series of weather events. And there’s another one that focuses on the earth’s interior and tries to determine why earthquakes are happening in the middle of the United States. Each student completes 3 of these units in a semester.

Thriving Schools: Doesn’t this mean that a typical student will only complete 6 of your 9 units in a year? How do you ensure students are getting what they need and that they’ll feel prepared for the Regents?

Abe: There’s 2 parts to that answer. The first part is we’re a transfer school and we have students with very different levels of achieved credits. Thus, we try to appreciate the fact that students will often bring some level of background knowledge with them. We’re also betting that going deep in 6 areas of study (which by the way, are also areas the student is more interested in) will better prepare them for their futures (and any tests they may take). And then, if we need to, we sometimes collaborate with an ELA or math teacher to cover any remaining units a student may still need work in. So if a student hasn’t taken the astronomy unit, for example, we may have their ELA teacher emphasize non-fiction texts in that area.

Thriving Schools: With your students working on very different pieces of content at the same time, what tools do you use to ensure they’re the ones driving their learning? What tips do you have for lighting that fire?

Abe: This is a problem that we all struggle with, but there are a few things that we do around that. Because of our focus on depth, we get more time to focus on student metacognition. So I can afford to conference with students and say, “Let’s take a big step back and talk about your learning process – how did you go about discovering this? Or what was your process of revision in solving this problem?” Having these conversations also allows you to further individualize assignments. So when a student tells me what is really exciting or motivating to them in a particular unit, I can change project requirements or questions to better meet their needs.

Thriving Schools: This idea of metacognitive conferencing is fascinating. What types of questions do you like to ask during these?

Abe: That’s a really interesting question because it’s really different for each student. Some students will sit down and immediately begin to tell you what’s interesting to them and what they’re curious about. Other students may prefer a more philosophical approach or have a stronger focus on understanding how things work. So these metacognitive conferences really allow me to tailor each student’s course of study to what they’re excited about. I think we as teachers frequently assume what’s interesting to students, when really the best thing is to just ask them.

Thriving Schools: How might you apply this level of differentiation or incorporate this idea of metacognition in a more traditional classroom setting?

Abe: I’d begin by thinking pedagogically about how you can increase student responsibility in class. One of tools I use is called the 5E’s, which is supposed to improve upon the classic framework of “do now, mini-lesson, guided practice, independent practice, and exit slip.” So, we might start the class off with an open-ended problem and let students wrestle with that problem collaboratively. During this time, I provide as little guidance or direction as possible. For example, I might tell a small group of students – your job for the first 15-20 minutes of class is to figure out where we should put a fire lookout station on this map. Along the way, they’ll come up with a bunch more questions. Does the gradient of this area matter? What are the prevailing winds? How high up does the tower need to be in order to see out over these other objects? And as long as the question is interesting and there are numerous ambiguous inputs, students will work to find a solution with little help on my part.

Thriving Schools: Could you give us an example of a lesson in which you provide more guidance and structure for your students through this process of discovery?

Abe: Sure. One of the big-picture ideas that occurs in my computer science class is that of a MOD (a function that finds the remainder of a division problem, the importance of which arises from binary nature of a lot of programming). So I’ll start the class by asking, “What is the ‘MOD’ of a given number?” And, of course, students will respond, “Well, what does ‘MOD’ even mean?” And instead of defining it upfront for my students, we do something else. I pretend to be the “MOD” calculator and have my students self-discover its meaning. So a student’s initial thought might be, “Well 8 ‘MOD’ 8 is 0, therefore ‘MOD’ must simply mean subtraction.” My response, of course, is “How can you test that?” Now it might take my students most of a class period to discover what the “MOD” operation is, but that’s such a small aspect of what I’m doing. The larger goal was giving my students the experience of forming hypotheses, testing their ideas, and reformulating based on the results. Because once students are able to do that, you’ve created a much more fault-tolerant and dynamic classroom where students are willing to take risk.

Thriving Schools: Final question. I would imagine that these tools – differentiation and discovery – help to build student engagement. However, what do you say to students that still question the usefulness of what they’re working on?

Abe: I had a long conversation about this yesterday with one of my students. They said, “When am I ever going to use this math? The number of times I’m going to sit down in life and think about the slope of a line is zero.” And my response was that we’re learning more than just isolated sets of skills – we’re developing a frameworks of problem-solving, we’re learning how to think mathematically. In computer science, we learn to think algorithmically. In ELA, we learn to think symbolically or figuratively. In science, we learn to think experimentally. Because I think giving students multiple frameworks in which they can think about something is going to be one of our best indicators of their future success. So when you see a student attack a problem through a variety of different perspectives, that’s how I know I’ve done a good job.

Thriving Schools: Are there any other resources that you would like to provide our audience with?

Abe: Here's my list:

NTSA Primer on 5 E's

A great article on the 5 E's 

Example of 5 E’s from the Science Teacher