“Eat the cookie!” I exclaimed excitedly as we were celebrating a student’s birthday one afternoon in the classroom. As soon as the singing of the birthday song ended, I heard myself almost simultaneously say: “Eat the cookie!” to the diabetic who had already given himself a shot of insulin, then “Eat the other cookie!” to the peanut-allergy student and the gluten-free student who had alternative snacks to eat, and then to the rest of the class with a swirl of my hand, “Eat all the cookies!”

In the same space, sometimes simultaneous requirements exist for nutritional needs, but this multifaceted need also exists for the myriad of ways in which students learn. Hence the need for differentiation in learning and instruction. Same classroom, different needs. Concurrently. How does this work? What does it look like? In each classroom it may look different based on the needs of the students and the types of subjects being taught.

Children are all wired a bit differently by a beautiful Creator. Finding out what makes a student tick or what sparks their interest helps inform the learning process. Education is not just a one-size-fits-all endeavor. As it says in Psalm 139, we are dealing with human souls made in the image of God. Our students are individuals with different thoughts, dreams, ideas, and ways they think and learn. Some are designed with an artistic bent, others with a hands-on kinesthetic one. Still others are visual, while others are more auditory.

While standards and requirements exist for knowledge and understanding, students can achieve these goals in a variety of ways. Learning experiences can take on a variety of forms to reach these specified goals. For example, instead of requiring students to complete a worksheet to ensure that they have acquired understanding, they could have an array of options from which to choose. They could opt to display their knowledge on a worksheet, or a graphic organizer, or on a freestyle labeled mind map.

In all three instances, the same requirements exist for the demonstration of knowledge, but the display of it takes on a variety of shapes and sizes, a kaleidoscope of options. The student now has a choice. The buy-in is strong. I recently offered this three-pronged approach with a history assignment. The breakdown response of the three options was almost equal and everyone turned in the assignment without much delay. They were all required to demonstrate specific knowledge, but in a mode that appealed to them. The work commenced immediately.

The next day I tried this multi-choice approach with science notes. The choices offered included a formal outline, numbered facts, or a creatively-displayed arrangement of the material. Mandatory requirements existed of the bold-faced terms to be defined, as well as other pertinent information. This was no mere cute “free draw” picture. It had to have chops. Once again, students chose from a variety of options and everyone turned it in on time. They had the power to choose and the tools to execute. They did it well.

Additionally, enrichment opportunities have been offered this year as a way to extend learning beyond the classroom, an avenue of response to what students have encountered in class. Students have participated in several of these, from writing and performing a song to drawing and labeling the parts of a ship to creating a travel map. Without prompting, a student in Mrs. Landrum’s class wrote a historical play for the classes to enact. Another student constructed a Revolutionary War battle scene of his own volition — what a literal visual of the love of learning!

Assignment variations include a rubric-guided card map over a traditional test and a play or poem as a response to reading a book instead of the traditional listing of pages on a reading log. Interaction with the material in a deeper, more meaningful way encouraged endurance of the knowledge and understanding of it.

Finally, it has been fun watching students blossom when given the time and space to do so. A smorgasbord of learning experiences exist. Students have been writing plays, creating dioramas, making maps, designing sets, writing lyrics, performing songs. And seeming to enjoy it.

In the words of our Academic Dean, Andrew Elizalde: “As we further establish the knowledge, skills, and understandings that are core to our curriculum, as well as the essential questions that we hope for students to wrestle with, we are all the more able to creatively employ every tool available to lead and draw students into a learning experience that takes into account their strengths and weaknesses. Our teaching is then both grounded in an uncompromised core curriculum, but is also dynamic and relational because it is constantly adapting to the unique group of students that God has blessed us with and called us to serve each year.”

So, eat the cookie! No matter what kind of cookie you eat or whether you eat the whole thing at once, the icing in the middle first, or nibble it until the end, eat the cookie and enjoy it.

Just as in learning, there is more than one way to benefit from or engage in a learning activity. There is also more than one way to eat the cookie!

by CCS 5th Grade Teacher Stephanie Boss