Decoding Differentiation for the Art Room (Ep. 127)

AOE Instructor Shannon Lauffer talks to Tim to talk about all things differentiation, including her upcoming presentation at the Art Ed Now Conference. Join them as they discuss the difference between equal and equitable, differentiating for content, process and product, and the best strategies for adapting IEPs and 504 plans for the art room. Full episode transcript below.


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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz. All right, guys. Today, I’m really excited about the podcast, and we’re going to dive right in. We’re going to be talking about differentiation today. There’s a lot to talk about, and my guest today, Shannon Lauffer is notorious for talking a lot, so with that beautiful introduction, Shannon, how are you?

Shannon: I’m doing so well. How are you, Tim?

Tim: I’m doing really well. Like I said, I’m excited to talk to you. I think there’s a lot to cover, and that’s why I just want to dive right in to everything that we need to chat about today. A big reason I wanted to have you on is A, differentiation is something that’s really important, something we need to talk about quite a bit more than we do, and secondly, you’re going to be at the Art Ed Now Conference, presenting on differentiation in just a couple weeks.

Shannon: I am.

Tim: Can you give us just a quick preview of what your presentation is going to be about, and maybe tell people why they need to tune in to what you’re saying at Art Ed Now?

Shannon: Absolutely. I’m super excited to present at Art Ed Now this summer. My presentation this time is called ‘Differentiation Decoded’. What I found is when it comes to the art room, it can seem unattainable to differentiate for our students, and I want to try to make the whole process seem accessible and make a little bit more sense for art teachers. It’s super easy to say that like, “Art is naturally differentiated.”

My students work at their own level whenever they create art, but we can also be super intentional about it, so in my presentation, I’m going to give you guys some strategies that you can apply, and resources you can use immediately with your students.

Tim: Okay. That’s awesome, I mean, for everything that you said there because I think we do need to talk about it more. I think people need resources, and a lot of times, we do fall back to that, “Just art is naturally differentiated”, and we stop there because I feel like people have this kind of vague understanding of differentiation, just kind of this overarching idea of what they should be doing where, “I need to do some things differently for some of my kids”. Can you explain differentiation a little bit more in depth, and I guess more important than that, can you talk about why it’s so important for us to strive for that in our art room?

Shannon: For sure. Essentially, differentiation is not like a quick fix. There’s no like packaged curriculum. It’s really just a way of teaching. What we’re doing is providing different avenues for learning, and different entry points. What that means is for any given topic, some students have absolutely no exposure, some students might have a little bit of experience, and some may have already mastered that concept, so it’s based on assessment, which for art teachers, tends to be something that we’re not super crazy about, but it’s going to be-

Tim: Yeah, it’s scary.

Shannon: Absolutely. The great thing about differentiation is that it’s ongoing assessment, and it’s formative assessment. This doesn’t mean like every day, we have to give a test, every day, we have to give a quiz, but we’re checking in just to see how students are progressing through material. It’s kind of about like leveling the playing field, looking at education and art education as not necessarily equal, but more like equitable. Because each of our students are super different, we wouldn’t provide them the exact same learning experience because they’re all not the same human, so they’re each unique, and then through differentiation, we have an opportunity to celebrate their differences, and make learning accessible.

I guess for me, the most important part of differentiation, we start talking about this, and it’s like, “Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. It’s so much to do”, but to keep focused, you always circle back to your objective, so no matter how you’re differentiating, no matter what you’re doing, you always go back to your objective and say, “Okay. What’s the most important part of what I’m teaching, and then how can I allow students to access that?”

Tim: Okay. That’s a really good way of putting it, and I want to dive in a little bit deeper to what you said there because I think it can get overwhelming. Like a lot of art teachers aren’t super familiar with those assessments, the formative assessment, and that’s why I say it’s scary for a lot of teachers.

Shannon: They do.

Tim: You talk about how there is so much that we can do, but we just kind of simplify it, go back to that objective. When we’re doing that, I guess the question is, “How do you keep from getting overwhelming?” When you’re trying to differentiate all of these ideas for your kids, I know it can be super difficult, so can you talk more about how you simplify things and maybe help teachers see that it doesn’t have to be quite so overwhelming?

Shannon: We’ll start with like the flip side of the coin. You could easily say like, “Okay. I’m going to differentiate every single objective for every single lesson for every single class for the entire year”, and that’ll just never happen. We have to keep realistic and find the most important pieces of our instruction to differentiate. The number one thing to remember is that this doesn’t need to be happening every minute of every single day.

However, there are three ways, like three major ways that we can differentiate in our teaching, which is through content, process, and product. I’ll go a little bit more into that here in a second. Then, our students are going to engage with learning in three main ways, so readiness level, so how much they know, their interests, and then their learner profile. That’s like our multiple intelligences. Okay. Let’s talk about content.

When we differentiate through content, we’re really going to focus on this formative assessment, so we’re getting ready to start a unit, we pre-assess our students. Why? Okay, so let’s say we’re doing a unit on symmetry, and so you pre-assess your students, and you realize that like literally, every single student already knows what symmetry is, and you’re like, “Oh, no. If my objective was to teach symmetry, this doesn’t make any sense anymore.” Maybe I take that pre-assessment and push it further and say, “Okay. Three quarters of my class understands bilateral symmetry, but when it comes to radial symmetry, they’re totally lost.”

Then, you can break your kids into two groups. One group is going to learn about bilateral symmetry. The other group is ready to move on to radial symmetry, so we’re taking that concept and expanding upon it for our students that are ready for that next step. It’s kind of like a video game with different levels, like you have to like complete level one to unlock level two, and some of your students are going to stick in that level one until they master a concept, and it might take an entire year or an entire unit for them to master that concept. Then, you have some students that are ready to unlock level three, and that’s the moment that we’re really digging into value added differentiation.

Talking a little bit about differentiating the process, this is like how your students learn. This is like the way they prefer to learn, or the way they can learn. What I notice is as art teachers, we rely really heavily on whole group demonstrations, and that’s one area that maybe we can differentiate that a little bit easier, so maybe we offer three entry points for that process, like there’s a slideshow presentation where students can access that on a personal device and go through the process at their own pace. Maybe I flip my instruction, and there’s a video demo that they can watch, or then maybe for my students who really need those clarifying questions and who are really going to need an opportunity to engage with me over the content, then for that small group, I can offer a small group demo. Then, we consider the process of creating art work like our students working independently all the time.

Maybe for your students who are a little bit more social, maybe you allow them to work in groups of two, or groups of three, or they create a collaborative piece where they fit together. These are different ways that you can easily vary the process of learning.

Tim: Okay. I always struggle with the issue in my classroom where I want kids to collaborate, I want kids to do group work, but a lot of kids aren’t comfortable. I don’t know if they’re antisocial. Maybe they just don’t like working with other people. Maybe they just feel like their work’s better independently.

Do you push those kids into different ways of learning? Like do you think it’s important to get kids outside of their comfort zone for the sake of differentiation, or do you think it’s better to let them stay where they’re comfortable and kind of create what and how they want to be creating?

Shannon: This is a super good question. We talked earlier a little bit about circling back to your objective, so I think this is a great opportunity. If my objective for this project is that students are going to collaborate, then like, “Yeah”. I’m going to push my students out of their comfort zone, and we’re going to find a way to support them in that collaborative setting, but if the idea is not collaboration, but I have students who would do better or would excel in a collaborative environment, then that’s my differentiation piece. Again, it’s circling back to an objective and saying, “Okay. Is this a requirement of the product or the project, or is this just kind of an opportunity for students to explore something that’s going to make their learning more valuable?”

Tim: Okay. That makes sense, and I like that. I did want to ask you another thing just about the process. I’ve heard you talk about thinking about the complexity of the project too. Can you expand on that a little bit more?

Shannon: Yeah. I think this is another great way to differentiate, especially when we’re talking about process. For example, let’s think about … Okay, so we’re starting a drawing project or a sculpture project, and I’m going to tell my students, “You have to make six sketches”, and so some students are going to blow through that, and they’re going to create six sketches, and they buy in. For some students, and I know that this is an issue for us as art teachers, for some students, they’re like, “I can’t do it.”

“I want my first idea. My first idea is my best idea.” Okay. How do we support that? The objective is we want students to expand upon their ideas, and not just settle for their first idea. Let’s make this less complex than make six sketches.

What if we tell students, “Okay. Create two sketches. Now, choose the one that you like the best.” Then, we say, “Okay. For this sketch that you like the best, you need to add two things and change one thing to make it better.”

Now, we’re differentiating for this student who’s struggling with six sketches, but we’re still meeting the objective of their expanding upon the idea. This goes back to that idea of like equitable, not necessarily equal, because your students were creating those six sketches. Like, “Cool”. We’re going to let them rock, they’re going to make their six, and move on.

Tim: Like you said, just kind of circling back to what is the objective is, is a good mindset for people to stick with as they’re thinking about those things.

Shannon: Yeah.

Tim: Then, you talked about content and process, and then the last thing you said, you want to talk about whether it was a product of this. Is that just kind of how students are demonstrating their learning, like what we’re ending up with?

Shannon: That’s it. It’s the product is the final product. As art teachers, I think this is the easiest one for us to wrap our heads around. The simplest way we can do this is differentiate the product through media. You don’t necessarily have to open up your entire art room, but you might allow students to experiment with a few media, and then determine which is the most successful for them. They can also, if you’re looking for a little bit more of a challenge, have students propose their own designs.

If you consider the artistic process like if you’re covering a unit on like human figure, you ask students to propose a plan, so you would develop some kind of a proposal sheet that walks your students through the steps, and maybe they want to explore a human figure through photography, or maybe they want to do sculpture, or painting, or drawing. Again, we’re allowing students to explore their interests, have different entry points, but still demonstrate an understanding of the objective. Another great way to differentiate the product is to offer learning menus or choice boards. This is a great way to present different options so you’re controlling a little bit more of it than these open-ended kind of proposal sheets.

Tim: Yeah. Those are some great suggestions, and I think again, just some awesome things, some awesome ideas for teachers to keep in mind.

Shannon: For sure.

Tim: We need to take a quick break here to talk about one of our awesome sponsors for the Art Ed Now Conference, which is OOLY.

Shannon: Oh, OOLY.

Tim: Shannon, question one.

Shannon: Yes?

Tim: I know. “Have you gotten your swag box for the conference?”

Shannon: I got my swag box.

Tim: Question two, “What is far and away the best product in the swag box this year?”

Shannon: The OOLY watercolors are so legit.

Tim: Did you say that because they’re awesome or because you know we’re doing an ad for OOLY right now?

Shannon: No. For real. I said that they’re super awesome, that it’s such a great product.

Tim: I love them. It’s like this pearlescent blend watercolors, and they’re like really vibrant, but like just a little bit metallic, like this subtle like metallic color, which I absolutely love, and my kids and I have been painting with them like crazy lately.

Shannon: Yeah. Yeah.

Tim: Yeah. It’s been a fun couple days since the swag box showed up.

Shannon: Totally.

Tim: OOLY has established itself as the home of color for creatives of all ages. It is their mission to provide fun and unique products like these awesome watercolors, that inspire creativity and self-expression for all, and the all is very important to OOLY, and they believe that everyone deserves the opportunity and the tools to express their creativity. One really cool thing that I love about OOLY is they partner with Adopt-A-Classrooms to support and empower teachers and students by providing supplies and materials needed to help students learn and succeed.

Shannon: I like that.

Tim: Everyone … I know. They’re awesome, and it’s a great program, and it’s really, really cool that they’re a part of that.

Shannon: Yeah.

Tim: Everybody, make sure you dig into your swag box for those watercolors. Make sure you check out OOLY.com, and a big thanks for OOLY being one of our platinum sponsors and helping us put on the Art Ed Now Conference on August second, so hopefully we will see you there. One other thing I want to talk about is the interest surveys are like the interest inventories that I know you love to use.

Shannon: Yeah.

Tim: Can you explain what those are, why you like using them, and I guess how teachers can use them in their classroom?

Shannon: Absolutely. Interest surveys are like my favorite way to kick off the year or kick off a semester, and here’s why. First, you’re communicating to your students like, “I want to know you.” When we have 400, 500, 600, 700 students, starting to build that relationship is so important, and also like impossible.

Tim: Yes.

Shannon: You hand out these surveys. Kids get the feeling of like, “Okay. Do you actually care?” Like, “Okay. You kind of care”, and then you have access to these information from like hundreds of kids.

It gives you a quick in to like who they are, what they like, what makes them tick. I also like to really ask the question of like, “Do you like art?”, or, “What’s your favorite part of art, and what makes you nervous?” A lot of kids, especially looking at like our upper elementary through middle school and high school, the idea of being in an art classroom is either A, their worst nightmare, or B, something that gives them so much anxiety, so if we allow them an opportunity to be like, “Yeah. I’m really not into art”, that then becomes like, “Okay”. That for me, it’s like, “That’s my kid.”

“I’m going to get them. I’m going to win them over by the end of the year. They’re going to do one thing that they love.” The other thing I love about interest inventories is you can use them for kids to keep in their sketchbooks. If you’re starting to transition into more student-directed choice as a result of your differentiation, you have these kids who like cannot generate an idea.

If you give them an interest inventory, they can fill it out, keep it in their sketchbook, and then swing back and remind themselves like, “Oh, yeah. That time that Ms. Lauffer asked me like if I could be an animal, and I said I’d be a kangaroo, maybe I can use that for this art project.” It’s going to give them a jumping off point for when they just can’t generate those ideas.

Tim: Yeah. You’re just full of good suggestions today.

Shannon: I am. What can I say?

Tim: I know. I know. I’m so glad that you’re on the podcast.

Shannon: Thanks.

Tim: One other idea that always seems to cause teachers some stress and some anxiety is how to adopt an IEP or a 504 Plan specifically for the art room. I wanted to do kind of a speed round here, and I was hoping like maybe, can I list some of the more common accommodations that we see, and you can give me some ideas on how to adopt those for the art room?

Shannon: Yes please. I think this is so important for art teachers because we have hundreds of students, and dozens of IEPs, and then we dig into these documents, and it’s like, “Oh, none of this applies to me”, but like so not true. So much applies. We just have to be a little bit creative about how these apply to our students.

Tim: Okay. As art teachers, we need to be good at being creative, so let’s see how we can do.

Shannon: Yes.

Tim: Okay. Number one, additional time on assignments. I see that all the time for kids.

Shannon: Absolutely. The obvious answer is like, “Oh, I’ll just extend the assignment deadline”, but like, “Okay. How can we be more creative? Like what if we decreased the size?”, or if fine motor is an issue, maybe we can’t decrease the size, so we circle back to the objective. “What is the objective?”

“Is our objective that every single art work has to be completed?” Probably not, and if that is your objective, we need to rethink it.

Tim: Yeah.

Shannon: Right? We want to ensure the student meets the objectives, not necessarily completes the project, and that’s what we’re going to assess.

Tim: Okay. Cool. Number two, extra time with transitions.

Shannon: Yup. For our kids with special needs, transitions are like the worst. They’re unexpected, they throw off our routine, so my favorite thing is to use timers. Like we are going to take time, which is like one of the most abstract concepts for students, and we’re going to make it concrete. We’re going to provide a visual, and they’re going to be able to access this timer throughout the course, so we’re preparing them for the transition, and then we are actually going to provide extra time.

If you think it’s going to take one minute, give them three. If you think it’s going to take five minutes, give them seven, because the first couple minutes of that transition might be them mentally preparing to transition.

Tim: What about providing space or movement for breaks?

Shannon: My favorite. At some point in our teaching, teachers decided that students have to sit all the time, which to me is crazy because I can’t stay seated for a whole day, but let alone like 40 minutes. The best way to meet this is let students stand while they’re working. Now again, thinking about abstract things, the idea of space is super abstract. It’s like, “Oh, stay in your personal space.”

Like, “What does that mean?”, so we’re going to create visual boundaries for students. You can use masking tape or duct tape on the floor to give them a space to move around. You can do that on their actual workspace like on the table, create that visual boundary, or for your kids who need a little bit more energy output, create a visual boundary in the back of the classroom that they can go and like get their energy out. If you’re presenting and doing this long demonstration or a lecture about your art history, this student can move around back there, and they’re going to be able to attend to you better.

Tim: Next one, and this is, I don’t know, the one that always bothered me because it’s always so vague, preferential seating.

Shannon: Preferential seating. Like who’s to say? What’s the difference?

Tim: Yeah.

Shannon: The first thing we have to determine is like, “Preferential to what?” I don’t know about you, Tim, but when I’m teaching, like I don’t have a front of the classroom. Like the whole world is my voice.

Tim: Yeah. I’m everywhere.

Shannon: Absolutely. What I need to figure out is like, “Okay. Does that mean that I need to move around less and stand next to this child when I teach, or does this mean that their preferential seating is like further away from art supplies, because those are a visual distraction for them? Does it mean they need to be closer to the exit in case they get stressed and they need to walk out? Does this mean that they need to be further from noises?”

If that’s kind of a sensory issue for them, we want to put them … Their preferential seating is away from the sink. It’s away from the blowers. These are all things that we can take into account when we’re determining like, “What the heck is preferential seating?”

Tim: What about frequent rest breaks?

Shannon: I need a frequent rest break. In fact, I think I need one right now.

Tim: Yeah.

Shannon: I’m just kidding. Breaks are so underused. I think in the classroom again, we somewhere along the way decided that like when you’re in the classroom, you have to work, but breaks are so good, especially if your students who are working on stamina, a break is going to be your best strategy. It’s all about self-regulation, and then teaching your students, “If you do something for me, I do something for you.” Some students might only be able to attend to a task for like five minutes, or maybe like two minutes, so we want them to be successful.

We don’t make them work until they melt down. We say, “Okay. First, you work for five minutes, and then you get a break. Then, we can move up to six minutes. First, you work for six minutes. Then, you get a break.”

If we wait for our students to melt down, we’re teaching them that the art room is like a sad, terrible, frustrating, awful place, and that’s obviously not what we want.

Tim: Yeah. Absolutely, and if I can just throw one thing in, like breaks are good for all of your kids, not just kids on a 504 or kids with an IEP.

Shannon: Yes.

Tim: Like it’s worth it to just let your kids get up, walk around, see what everybody’s doing, and get back to their seats. That’s like you said, it’s very, very underutilized.

Shannon: Absolutely.

Tim: Then, the last one I wanted to ask you about is alternate evaluations. Again, something that is very vague and very frustrating for teachers. Like what should this look like?

Shannon: Yeah. Again, thinking about assessment, this doesn’t mean that like, “Oh, for every test I give, I have to make an alternate test”, because as an art teacher, unless your district is requiring you, you’re probably not using a lot of tests, so this is all about our formative assessment. The key for this one is going to be to think about like Bloom’s taxonomy, which is also another great tool for differentiation. Some of your students might not be at the level where they can synthesize information or construct a unique answer to a problem, but they might be able to identify something out of a field of three. Let’s say, think about …

Okay. My objective is maybe I’m teaching whatever, perspective, so I pre-assess for perspective. My student has no idea what it is, so we work. We work through this project, we’re learning, and I realized that my student cannot draw in perspective successfully. They might have spatial awareness kind of issues going on, whatever it is, but when I show them a field of four images, they can identify the image that shows perspective like three times out of four. That’s it.

That’s your alternative assessment. The student can identify even if they’re not able to synthesize the information. Alternate evaluation.

Tim: Okay. That makes a lot of sense. That’s an awesome explanation, so thank you. We’ve talked way too long already, but I feel like I need to ask just one last thing that-

Shannon: My fatal flaw.

Tim: Hey, it’s all been good. It’s fantastic information, so I think we’re in good shape.

Shannon: Sweet.

Tim: I want to talk a little bit more specifically about how we can tie all of these ideas together in the art room. We’ve talked about content, and process, and product, and evaluation, but let’s say we’re going to do a portrait lesson for example. Maybe I want to differentiate that by using different media, or maybe teaching some kids additional portrait concepts, or maybe how I assess it. If we’re looking at a new, we’re looking at something that we’re going to teach, like you personally, how do you think about where to start with differentiating?

Shannon: Yeah. Again, like broken record, we’re always going to start with a pre-assessment. That helps me to understand what my students already know about the topic. All right, so we’re talking about portraiture. Okay.

Some of my students understand facial proportions, like they divide our face up with lines, they draw their kind of hemispheres, and then some have absolutely no idea, like the eyes are on the forehead. Maybe I noticed that some of my students have a more stylized way of drawing, so I’m going to tap into that student interest. I’m going to pull some different artists to reference as I work with them. We can absolutely vary the media, I mean, but let’s get a little crazy, like if the concept is demonstrating the proportions of the face, that’s my objective. Like, “Could my students still master that objective if they sculpt a bust, or if they create a relief? Does it have to be 2D?”

If your objective is 2D, then sure. Just stay drawing, painting, whatever the media is there, but always look for that way to push yourself creatively. Essentially, differentiation is all about empowering your students. We’re empowering them to be successful. We’re empowering them to think like artists. Show me that you understand portraiture, and whatever the objective is behind that expression, identity, proportion, whatever, and then, explore it in a way that makes sense to you.

Tim: That’s really good. That’s a good way to finish it right there. No. That makes sense in a very succinct way, just empowering kids to think like artists and allowing them to explore those concepts in a way that makes sense to them, right? I think that sums it up perfectly.

Shannon, we’ll end it there. Thank you so much. It has been spectacular talking to you.

Shannon: Hey, likewise.

Tim: Have a good rest of your day, and hopefully we’ll talk to you again soon.

Shannon: Sounds good, Tim. Thanks so much.

Tim: Thank you to Shannon for coming on the show and sharing so many incredible ideas on just how we can make differentiation work for us, and work for our kids in the art room, because let’s face it, differentiation is hard. It’s really difficult, because we teach hundreds of students, and they can be really difficult to know how to provide individualized supports for all of them. The good thing about listening to Shannon, talking to Shannon here is that she has so many creative and just art-specific examples of modifications, accommodations, interventions, and everything that we need. Hopefully this episode can help you find some success with tips for managing all of the differentiation strategies that you’re going to want and that you’re going to need to implement in the art room. Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education with audio engineering from Michael Crocker.

We are just over a week away from the Art Ed Now Conference, so go sign up at ArtEdNow.com. Use the Yousave20now discount code. That’s Y-O-U-S-A-V-E 20 N-O-W, Yousave20now to take $20 off the conference registration. We will see you on August second for that. As always, thank you for listening, and we will talk to you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.