Biology Series (3/3)

Brandon Koontz teaches SDAIE (Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English) Biology.  SDAIE teachers design lessons for reaching English Language Learners using the same grade/course-level material as the mainstream classes.  We can all learn something about differentiation from our SDAIE teachers since we have EL and LTEL students in our classes, as well as SpEd students and mainstream students with varying abilities. Differentiation should be happening in all of our classes despite the levels we teach.  It is not a teaching strategy, but is a way of thinking–a habit of mind teachers develop to meet the unique needs of all of their students. Differentiation happens in a SDAIE class such as Brandon’s that is comprised of level 1, 2, 3,  and 4 EL students (!) from many different countries.  It happens in my AP classes considering the students enter with varying skill levels. Of course, it also happens for all of the classes in between, from SpEd to mainstream and honors. Remember that differentiation does not mean creating different assignments for every single student in the class.  This is a common misconception (and one that would overwhelm any teacher.) Differentiation is meeting students where they are and allowing them to experience the SAME material in a variety of ways so that they may find success.   First, of course, we need to spend time getting to know our students and informally assessing them (using formative assessments that will not impact their grades in the class).  Once we begin to understand the needs of our students, we can use this knowledge to create lessons to help them succeed.


Brandon masterfully differentiated to a class with four different levels of EL students. His students ranged from 9th grade to super seniors.  Some have been in the United States for a year or less.  Others have been in the U.S. up to four or five years, or have returned to the U.S. after a long period of time in another country.  They come from varying countries and speak different languages.  In fact, as I walked into his room I noticed several students I currently teach in EL 4 and some I had the previous year in EL 2–students from Iran, Mexico, Guatemala, Ethiopia, and the Philippines.  So Brandon is tasked with taking the Biology content (the same content from the mainstream class) and making it accessible to the diverse EL population before him while also addressing the anchor standards.  Whoa.

Remember mitosis and meiosis from the last two posts?  Guess what Brandon was teaching?  Yup, the same content as Becky and Erica!  First, Brandon had his students engage in cell observation.  He showed a slide of a photograph and had students observe the slide and answer questions about their observations.

The students used their peers and the textbook as additional resources.  The questions did not require fill-in-the-blank or one word answers.  Instead the students had to respond to open-ended questions…the same types I observed students asking in the mainstream Biology classes.  The conversations I overheard filled me with pride.  EL students explaining complex concepts to their peers, asking higher level questions, and elaborating on information.  ALL of the students were engaged and focused.  Was the classroom quiet? No!  Learning, discovering, exploring–all of this requires discussion (See Common Core Classroom here).  It is clear that Brandon has spent some time assessing and studying the  needs of his students.  They had visual information, text, and opportunities for collaboration.

IMG_6533He kept them on track with a timer which kept the class moving forward.  And he believes in them.  The students told me later that he is constantly encouraging them and telling them they can achieve just as much and complete the same work as a mainstream Bio student.  The classroom culture he has created communicates high standards while honoring where students are when they walk through his door.

Once the students had worked their way through several slides, Brandon posed questions and had them answer these on individual white boards.  One student responded quickly and Brandon wrote his sentence frame on the board. That student beamed that his frame was chosen.


Although the sentence frame was available, one student writes only, “visible nucleolus” on his board. Rather than call this student out for not writing in a complete sentence, he asks the group if this is okay.  They consider the answer and nod.  This response is fine, he explains, because “I see a nucleolus” and “visible nucleolus” express the same idea.  (This, my friends, is simple differentiation–allowing the students to demonstrate their knowledge in different ways!). I cannot tell you how happy it made me to see this!  The level 1 students were learning from the model the level 4 student provided.  The more interaction the EL students have with language, the better! Brandon allows his students to respond in ways that validate their abilities and he gives them the tools and opportunities to grow.

IMG_6547Just take a look at the responses in this picture…Each is a bit different (one even includes a visual!), but all demonstrate knowledge.  Additionally, he asked students to (Listening and Speaking Standards in 3, 2, 1)  verbally elaborate on their responses (elaboration is a HUGE part of writing for both explanatory and argument…this oral practice prepares them for future writing!).

When the students arrived at the final question, the answer was obvious since it is the only phase they had not yet discussed-telophase.  As a result, Brandon tells the students they need to answer how they can identify telophase in a complete and correct sentence.  He points out another sentence stem he sees a student using and writes it up as an option for those who need it.  He encourages them to talk to one another, especially when he notices they are stumped.  He asks them to check their spelling.  Finally, the students share their responses and he reviews not only the content, but the grammar of their sentence.  This entire lesson is a prime example using the same grade-level content, but allowing for flexibility in the process and the product as a means of differentiation.

Thank you, Brandon, for all you do for our students, especially our EL population!  Visit the differentiation tab on this site for more info or click here or here.  Resources for and articles about differentiation in the Honors/AP classroom can be found here and here.


How are you differentiating?  Invite me in or comment below to share with the staff!  Stumped on how to differentiate?  Start slow with one lesson…I can help if you want someone to brainstorm with!