Chapter 18 – Differentiation

You have studied differentiation, have been told to differentiate, know that it is important, know why it is important, but still remain fuzzy on exactly how to create and manage a classroom where students are working on different work. I did, too. There are many ways to work it in, but if you want to have groups, the best advice came from my mother, Ms. Barbara, who passed on the explicit instruction she was given in her teaching classes sixty years ago when the emphasis was, “grouping, grouping, grouping.” She drew up this schedule for me.

Time “Grade level” group “Struggling” group “Advanced” group
8:45 – 9:00 Whole class lesson
9:00 – 9:20 Meet w/ Ms. DeWilde Written Work Read & Respond
9:20 – 9:40 Read & Respond Meet w/ Ms. DeWilde Written Work
9:40 – 10:00 Written Work Read & Respond Meet w/ Ms. DeWilde

The thinking behind this is first, to only have three groups so you have a meaningful amount of time to meet with each one, hear children read, have thoughtful book discussions, and answer questions. When I have I regular classroom volunteer, like Ms. Barbara, I will break up into four groups, giving the volunteer one group for the entire hour. I have also seen suggested schedules with four or five groups where you skip one of the groups, except the low one, every day. This hasn’t worked well for me. If there is a no adult to check in with them, even my advanced groups inevitably go off the rails, getting the assignments confused or not working their hardest.

Also notice that I don’t meet with my struggling readers first. That’s because they can’t usually sustain a full forty minutes without some serious redirection. They can, with practice, get themselves started. So meeting halfway through gets them refreshed without me having to grump too much. Finally, the advanced group starts with responding to the questions we wrote down in our meeting from the previous day.

The written work is whatever is appropriate to the group. It might be a written component of the whole class lesson, phonics work, poetry, background information, or mechanics study. It might be different work for different groups, especially if they are working on an action project. At the end of every book, we discuss what the book meant, and the students must devise a project to prove that they understood what they read. Each group works together and has done everything from writing their own books to reenacting trickster tales to doing their own science experiments to planting trees to surveying the school and creating an anti-bullying program. I meet with them to make sure the idea is meaningful and write a quick rubric with them. Once, when they couldn’t think of an action to take after reading, they told me to get rid of the book because as one girl said, “Some books we just read for fun.” She had a point. I let them take the book home.

There was one year when I had 36 students, and the above schedule would have made the groups ridiculously large. That year, I was forced to admit that I couldn’t meet with every group every day so I set up a pocket chart with a schedule that looked like this.

Groups 8:45 – 9:00 Whole class lesson
9:00 – 9:20 9:20 – 9:40 9:40 – 10:00
Red Rubies Read Respond e-Readers
Orange Knights Respond e-Readers TFK or WTW
Green Dragons e-Readers TFK or WTW Meet w/ Ms. DeWilde
Blue Moon TFK or WTW Meet w/ Ms. DeWilde Read
Purple Diamond Pandas Meet w/ Ms. DeWilde Read Respond

I rotated the group cards every day, not the schedule. TFK is Time for Kids. Students had to do the game on the back and answer one Think question of their choice. WTW is Words Their Way. If we didn’t have a Time for Kids that week, they worked on their Words Their Way packet. We also had just enough tablets so one group could use e-readers to read a book of their choice. I posted suggestions on the board, but once they finished it, they could choose another. There were also special schedule cards. If we had volunteers or practicum students, I covered the schedule cards with that person’s name. If the students were in the middle of an action project, I covered the schedule cards with the project cards and the due date. If there were days that our reading time got disrupted with assemblies or fire drills, I could adjust the time at the top and only hold two group meetings. The next day, I would only rotate the group cards two places instead of three. This pocket chart kept my class running smoothly during a very tough year.

It may take some practice to get groups running properly. If you have students who deliberately quit working the minute you look away, lengthen the whole class lesson and shorten the group lessons. Before switching into group work, quickly review your expectations for each group and make sure you see all materials out and everyone started before you settle in with your first group. Finally, make sure you always sit where you have a view of the whole class, even if you are working with one group. And don’t feel like a group has to sit together. If children persistently mess around, move them away from their peers and make them earn the right to return.

In middle school, I felt like weeping over how little time I had to teach all of the language arts. I had the same number of minutes as the cooking, band, or typing teachers. Given those limitations, I never had enough time for reading groups, but I did use groups for word study. Needing to find a way to differentiate for reading, I developed three levels of literature circle packets – basic, standard, and challenge. Based on their reading and writing abilities, they may have had the same jobs, but their assignments ranged from preparing a few discussion questions to creating complete puzzles for the rest of their group to do. When I passed out the packets, the prideful glee I expected, but I was amazed by how many sighs of relief I heard. I also offered to trade up packets for whoever wanted something harder, but only a couple of students took me up on it. Since the groups were created based on which novel they were interested in, there were several combinations of packet difficulties. As the literature circle meetings went on, the students had no trouble with the differences. In fact, they seemed to relish the variety.

Another way to differentiate is by giving students choice of output. Differentiation is not just for the benefit of the children. A teacher can only read so many reports about the Greek god Zeus. Instead, try offering a variety of outputs where the visuals must increase as the amount of writing decreases. I would make a list of the gods and ask the students to sign up, but only one could sign up per item, for a research report, a brochure, a poster with captions, a sculpture with explanation, or a storytelling. The rubrics were similar for each except the number of visuals and words changed. As it happened, the boy who sculpted Zeus’ head died two years later. His father still hangs his hat on that sculpture.

Once you differentiate, you will have to deal with the issue of fairness. One way to handle that is to vary the difficulty along two lines. For example, create basic, standard, and challenge measurement review packets, but make the basic pack thick and the challenge pack thin. Or let students choose what page size their mini-dictionary will be, but require them to fill all of the space with words and drawings.

Students hunting for challenging spelling words in the real world can use rhyming dictionaries, while students studying phonetically regular patterns must stick to regular books. Ideas like these encourage children to take on the most difficult work that they can handle. I always let them choose, and I often let them change their mind if something turns out to be harder or easier than they expected.

But even if with carefully crafted choices, prepare to hear, “That’s not fair!” several times a week for the rest of your career. With younger children, I usually ignore them, because when a young child throws, “That’s not fair!” she usually means, “I didn’t get what I wanted!” It is not worth stopping to explain because the issue isn’t fairness, it’s a tantrum. No matter how much you explain, she still isn’t going to get what she wanted.

With older children, it can be worth exploring the idea of fairness. When you hand out different spelling words or a modified test, someone will say it’s not fair, and then you have a great entrée into a real discussion. Which is fairer – that everyone have the same work even though it is difficult for some students and easy for others or that everyone have different work that is equally difficult? In middle school, this may be the first time students have considered the idea that working equally hard is fairer than all doing the same work.

Fairness comes up with seating choices as well. For some reason, most teachers feel like their rooms must have symmetry, that all desks must be singles, duos, or quads. Why? Children have different needs and different maturity levels, yet we require them to conform. After the beginning of the year, when all desks face front while classroom procedures are established (The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher), think about your students. Who is ready to work in a group? Who needs to practice? Who needs to be alone? Reset your desks into singles, duos, and quads. Place students where they need to be.

You can also apply the concept of fairness to yourself.  The one sure way you will know that your teaching skills are valued is by the increasing number of challenging children on your class list. This will not seem fair. Other teachers that don’t try as hard, hurt as much, have as much confidence, grade as many papers, or stay as late will not only get the same pay raises as you, they will also get easier kids. But think about this. What is fair for those difficult children? They need you.

I have always known in my heart that I was called to this profession to save a child, but I will never know which one. It has been eleven years, and I have taught hundreds. Maybe that child has already passed through my doors, maybe not. Maybe it was a two-week student or maybe it was a two-year student. Maybe it was my own child. I will never know. I gave up a six-figure salary to do this. Was it fair? Does it matter? A child needed me.


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