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Differentiation: Not Another Buzz Word

October 3, 2013 Leave a comment

Oh the buzz words in education!  I love that we dissect great instruction into definable strategies, but I hate how quickly these ideas become buzz words.  When teachers hear these key phrases repeated and diluted, they lose their power, and there is power in this one.  One of our targets this year as a district is to focus on differentiation in the classroom.  As a teacher, it is easy to focus on the students in the middle.  We often fail to provide support for the struggling students.  It is easy to overlook the higher achieving students.  On the other end of the spectrum, it is tempting to pour all of our efforts into the struggling students and fail to push the higher achieving students to reach their potential.

As a teacher, I was guilty of reactionary differentiation.  I would have a few students who would finish a test early and think, “Oh no, I have to find something for them to work on now.”  If a student struggled in my class, I would encourage them to come to after school tutoring or try to modify the assignment with fewer problems.  My “go to” method in differentiation was having a strong student sit and help a struggling student.  All of my strategies were reactionary.  I never planned my differentiation in my lessons.  To be honest, my strategies and methods were not solid differentiation practices.
I then found intentional differentiation.  I did not create this wheel.  I can not claim responsibility for this brilliance.  I only did a lot of research to arrive at my conclusions.  Here is what I have learned about this buzz word:
1.  Differentiation needs to be planned as a part of my lessons.  It must be intentional.
I need to consider all of my students when planning my lessons.  I need to make sure I have an entry point for all students.  I need to create opportunities to extend the learning for some students.
2.  Differentiation is not more or less work.
By giving more work to students who are ahead, I am communicating that more work is the same as rigor.  This is not true.  Modifying assignments by giving struggling students less work only tells them that I do not believe they are capable of doing the same work as the rest of the class.
3.  Differentiation is not creating multiple assignments or assessments.
All students must take the same PARCC or Smarter Balanced assessment in 2014-2015 and the number of accommodations will be limited.  All students must take the same ACT or SAT to enroll in college.  If we are creating separate assessments for students, we are creating a false sense of success for them.
4.  Differentiation can be embedded into my lessons easily.
My favorite way to differentiate in my math class is with these graphics:
Picture2Picture1
I created posters of these for my classroom.  When a student (advanced or struggling) is working on a task in my classroom, they normally select one path to a solution. It was easy for me to say, “That is great, now can you take that equation and draw a graph, make a table, or put the equation into a context?”  For elementary school, teachers can use the diagram in blue.  If a student is struggling with a math concept, the teacher can ask them to approach it from another area in the chart.  For example, if a student can not write an equation for a given problem, the teacher could ask them to use a manipulative (Uni-fix Cubes) or draw a picture.
5.  Differentiation is necessary for all students.
I tried to limit my whole group instruction in my classroom.  There was seldom a time in my class where all students needed the exact same thing from me.  All 35 of my students were at different places in their learning.  It is my job to meet them where they are at and help them grow.  Differentiation provides a way to do that.
A great resource to learn more about differentiation is Differentiation Central.
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Categories: Common Core, General