Tag Archives: differentiation

Talking Turkey, Differentiation Style

There’s something about the November air that brings out the best in me when it comes to differentiating math. I love when inspiration strikes and my little gobblers all get to work on things that look the same but, upon close inspection, are very different.

It’s a rare bird of a day when I’m able to work with my entire class in math, reason being that 40 percent of them are 2nd graders and 60 percent are in 3rd. It’s even rarer when the lesson comes out of the oven perfectly cooked, but that’s what happened yesterday.

The basic premise was to have a bit of a review day. Sandy, election day, and a race to report cards’ due date have made this week confusing, discombobulating, and inconsistent to say the least. So, I really wanted to do something fun and educationally valuable to get kids back into some sort of flow. A colleague had placed a good idea on a silver platter for me: make some kind of turkey template and have the kids make turkeys.

Ah, but in our current situation, such frivolous activities are frowned upon. So I figured I’d make it into a math lesson. Kids would make the turkeys, oh yes. I decided each grade would use the turkeys to demonstrate their knowledge of what they’ve recently learned (or go ahead and get extra practice). The premise: write the concept on the bird, write examples on the feathers. FUN!

Second graders worked on showing numbers different ways. To differentiate, my most advanced second graders had to show more than two ways to write each number. They also had several examples with zeroes, which are often confusing.

This student, the most advanced, was required to write numbers in three different ways. I also love how some of his designs on his turkey involve math!

The more average performing second graders were able to choose one or two ways to represent numbers and they had fewer numbers with zeroes. They also found value in using base 10 blocks to continue to support their understanding.

This student wrote numbers only one way.

Over on the third grade side, students worked on regrouping. At the most basic level, one student added two-digit numbers. Even this presented her a challenge – she is expected to add three-digit numbers – but it also provided me the chance to reteach the concept to her. I’m proud to say after a few examples she was able to move on to three-digit addition and that’s why on the following turkey, you see two-digit and three-digit problems.

Note the two-digit plus two-digit problems on the right, and the more complex problems on other feathers.

This student’s enrichment required him to add numbers that totaled over 1,000, which is something I have not taught. I wish I had given him more examples like the one on the rightmost feather!

Gobble, gobble!

This was fun. It also gave me a great excuse to drag out all those amazing things kids never get to use anymore: buttons, feathers, sequins, and pipe cleaners! The kids couldn’t wait to get their birds up on the board. Here’s a fuzzy picture of the finished products…I’ll try to snap a better one and post it.

Being the Shuffle in Our Students’ iPods

How do we motivate our students? In the face of boring curriculum and test-driven lessons, there is no panacea for making kids want to do (Hey! Overturning the system as it is just isn’t an option!!) Every child has their own unique motivations to do or not do work. But first, a personal story.

Back when I was a junior in high school, I developed an urge to drop some pounds. My motivation was vanity. It is hard to believe thinking back, but there came a time when I hit a size 38 in the waist. The next size up was 40! And I was like, “HECK TO THE NO, THAT IS NOT HAPPENING.”

So I stopped eating ice cream (frozen yogurt in my parents’ house) and candy, and I began walking to and from school (three miles each way). I went for long walks on the weekends (like 14-miles-long long). I never hit the 40 waist and, in fact, by the end of high school, had dropped all the way down to a 33. Man, I was svelte.

I see a vision of myself walking with my blue Memorex CD player (the newest model that could play CD-Rs!) and a pocket full of slim cases so I could switch music on the go. How thoroughly modern of me. Lots of times, the music kept me going. I liked the changes in pace and adjusted my strides to match the beats. Plus, I found that ear buds shoved deep into the ear canals gave me a chance to hear more layers of the songs than I previously had, and also appreciate the lyrics more.

In college, I maintained a similar regimen, and with a beautiful gym on campus, I took advantage (but to be fair, weekly $1 Yeunglings and $.25 wings are a bit of a detriment to the fit lifestyle). Following a few months of a local gym membership after graduating, I let myself become a stagnation station. Walks were all too infrequent and, you know what? The 33 waist pants no longer fit!

Meh. I had no motivation. But, I wasn’t approaching that 38 special again, so I was cool.

Now, however, I see family members working to whip their rears into gear – prompted by health issues and eye-openers – and I say to myself, “That should be me, too.” This summer, I’ve been telling myself to move more. The problem I have is motivation. Yes, once I’m into the groove of a walk/jog/tennis match, I feel the endorphins and the sweat and feel good. But it is just such…a…drag…to…get…out…there…and…do…it.


Everyone finds motivation in different places. This week, I went to the park with my sister. She wanted me to run alongside her, but I had had enough. So she told me we were going to run to the top of the hill. I said, “Have fun with that.” I had no motivation. Making it to the top of a hill didn’t matter to me. Her saying we were going to do it didn’t matter. Her motivation was to get to the top of the hill and be able to say, “I ran up that.” Mine was to walk it.

I had a hunch I knew what could inspire the urge, though. So I went home and ordered my first new iPod in 10 years. With it, I became the third person in my immediate family to own a pedometer, and that in itself was exciting, too. I told myself when the iPod came that I would get out there for a walk, and maybe a jog.

To my excitement, it arrived less than 24 hours after purchase. I created a “Music to Move To” playlist and loaded it up. Then, as the sun was setting and I was getting stir crazy, I started the pedometer and the music and hit the pavement. All it took to get me moving was a new toy and a surprising shuffle that brilliantly segued from gems by Britney Spears into gems by Bon Jovi (no joke). I felt like my old (young) self again!

How does this apply in the classroom? Let’s say my sister is a teacher (okay, she really is). Like she told me we were going to run to the top of the hill, she says to the student, “We’re going to do this math problem. Come on!” The student has no desire – it’s a stupid math problem that means something only to the teacher. So, if the student does it at all, he does it half-heartedly. No motivation to do it and so no real investment in personal betterment.

But if the student figures out a way to trick himself – or the teacher finds a way to trick him – into getting the work done, like making it into a game or a nice real world application, motivation might strike. There’s a big difference between being told, “We’re going to do this!” and thinking, “I’m going to do this!”

This is where a teacher needs to be flexible and embrace differences in students’ personalities, values, personal expectations strengths, and learning styles. Every child comes with their own motivations (or lack thereof). Our goal must be to motivate all of them thoroughly, but it’s very often the case that more than one try is needed. They need different beats, different sounds, different singers. They need a shuffle in their iPod!

If we can be the shuffle in our students’ iPods, we will surely watch them walk for miles!

Takeaways From This School Year

Nearly 10 months ago, I embarked on my fourth year of teaching. For the first time, I entered September feeling I had something to prove. To that end, I found myself working longer, harder, and smarter than I have at any point in my career. I reaped the benefits in many areas. I learned a lot this year. Some of my most valuable takeaways heading into the summer are:

1) One Size Can’t/Won’t/Needn’t Ever Fit All – There was a decided shift in my philosophy this year that I’m not sure I anticipated. On some level, I had previously believed, “If it works for one, it should work for all.” This evolved to, “If it works for one, what about everyone else?” I made a much more concerted effort to differentiate process, product, and most importantly, expectations. Because of this, students were, much more frequently than in my previous classes, able to work at their paces, on their levels, without fear of embarrassment and with the satisfaction of being able to do well.

2) Everyone Shines at Something – Some of my least social kids were the best dancers and singers. Some of my most struggling readers were the most patient teachers. Some of my least organized students had steel traps for memories. With all this, an important point came clearly into contrast: We should value the child for their strengths instead of demeaning them for their weaknesses.

3) I Can Help You With That – Another profound shift saw me lessening my assumptions that the universe would correct itself and that which I take for granted as known will become known without my intervention. No, kids won’t just get it. We need to recognize what they need and teach them those skills and concepts. On an easy day, everyone needs to learn the same thing. There are no easy days, though!

4) Bring it Back Old School – Creativity is not the most valued trait in schools nowadays, which plum stinks for the kids, who are forced into boxes when all they yearn to do is be themselves. I was thrilled to get the green-light for some project-based learning at the end of this year and plan to forge ahead with it next year. But, oh the challenge of designing opportunities for creative expression in a barren morass of unfortunate mandates. We’ll make it happen.

5) What Are High Expectations, Anyway? – I am very much on the record in my belief that expectations can be both high and realistic (isn’t that novel?), as opposed to the party line that argues that everyone can and should grow up to be a doctor or scientist (but never a teacher, of course.) It was never reasonable to expect a B reader in September to be a P reader in June. The fact that such a student (who did not know all of her letters in September) is going to end the year on a G is no insignificant accomplishment, though. That another student went from D to L should be celebrated. That one of my most troubled students improved five levels is not a super shame, but a super story. I always knew the kids could improve, and them knowing that I knew it helped them strive and thrive.

6) Is There Anyone Out There? I Assume So – I moved away from my old mentality about parents this year. No longer did I assume parents were disinterested because they didn’t seek me out. Instead, I assumed they wanted to be involved but needed me to meet them in the middle. I no longer allowed myself to justify a note sent in English simply because, “Well, I sent a note, didn’t I?” Virtually every note this year – both for the whole class and for individuals – went home in English and Spanish. I sent home a newsletter seven out of 10 months. I sent nice notes. I sent certificates. I sent reminders. I sent thank yous. I sent anecdotes. My hope is that parents appreciated the effort and felt more a part of the goings-on in school.

Funnily enough, like my students, I started one place in September, with certain goals that I just knew I’d meet. As it turned out, some of them couldn’t be addressed simply because the winds of change had different designs for me. That’s okay. I like where the wind took me.

Lessons from the Golf Course

“I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“I’ve never done this before.”

“There’s a lot to remember.”

The words of a frustrated third grader struggling to grasp the finer points of geometry? Or the words of an ambitious retiree playing golf for the first time?

If you guessed “golfer,” you’re right!

Last week, my dad and I invited my mother – who never graduated past miniature golf – to join us for a round of pitch-and-putt. It was a challenge to her: honor your longstanding interest in learning how to play golf. She accepted, and the ensuing round was loaded with many instances of instruction being broken down and a student giving her all for personal improvement.

I started with the most basic points about the swing: keep your head down and keep your feet planted. Stand with your feet shoulder length apart and stand at a comfortable distance from the ball. I watched the first swing of my mother’s life and tried not to cringe as the club head slammed violently into the grass, kicking up a patch of dirt and propelling it a foot forward. And I said, “That’s all right. Do it again.”

On the first tee, she struck the ball and it dribbled oh, maybe 10 feet to the side. A great shot? Certainly not. A great start for a novice? Surely. My dad and I were sufficiently impressed and offered praise (no doubt motivating our newcomer to see a positive in what the casual observer would consider failure.)

As certain flaws in the swing became apparent – lifting of the head, stepping off to to the side with the lead foot, lining up of the club in the proper direction, swinging a putter on the green with far too much force – we differentiated our instruction. Focusing on each area of need while continuing to encourage meant that by the final holes, shots were getting some air and going straight into the fairway. There was a marked improvement from the first tee to the last, and no doubt the data (aka the scorecard) would agree!

It just shows you that when a student says, “I can’t” and shows needs, we need to assess and instruct to help them improve. We need to help them maintain a positive attitude and a belief in their abilities. We need to convince them that what starts off as a difficult concept will become easier with dedication and assistance.

Even a trip to the sand trap couldn't dampen my mother's enthusiasm to improve her golf game. Fore!

A Guiding Question for Differentiation

“Do all lessons have to be differentiated?”

That’s the question that was posed to me recently. My answer was quick and unequivocal: “Of course!”

No doubt, differentiating each lesson requires an investment of effort and time that one-size-fits-all lesson planning does not. If we keep in mind what the goal of differentiation is – to meet the needs of all students – it should be considerably easier to keep in perspective the time required relative to the payoff.

I plan my lessons with a guiding question in mind: “How can I make this lesson appropriately accessible to all of my students?”

Today, I will read a story to the class. We are going to work on several concepts in one sitting (characters, setting, problem, solution, sequence, main idea, and details), so there are going to be multiple graphic organizers for support. The content will differ because for some students the focus will be on more complicated concepts. The process will differ in the use of graphic organizers and the level of independence expected. The product will differ because everyone’s personal writing abilities will be reflected and the most reluctant, struggling writers will demonstrate understanding verbally.

Again, the goal should be that every student is able to access the material in the lesson comfortably.

Read This If Your Students “Can’t”

It’s always enlightening to be around first-year teachers. They often have important insights for those of us who have been around a while, and they help to remind us of some of the ideals we can’t afford to forget.

In some cases, they can remind us of other things, though, such as how to be the teacher we should never want to be.

At a recent professional development, I sat in earshot of a first-year teacher. She didn’t bubble over with enthusiasm and joy for the job and her charges. Instead, she seemed to have resigned herself to that old, disgraceful, and indefensible argument: “My kids can’t.”

I loathe hearing people say things like, “My kids can’t.”

Once you believe this lie, you cease being a teacher for anyone but yourself. What kid needs a teacher who believes only that he can’t and not that he can? Why do teachers choose to take the negative attitude over the positive? How many kids are falling behind and failing in their own belief about themselves because their teachers are sending them messages that they are worthless?

I did say something to this first-year teacher, as calmly as I could, in defense of her students (who I, of course, have never met.) Miraculously, though, I just knew that hers were not the kind of kids who couldn’t, and that they just had to be the kind who could.

Incidentally, anecdotal evidence proves that every child CAN when they are given opportunities to show they can.

What I wanted to say to this particular teacher wasn’t too kind…

“With that attitude, the only one who can’t is you. Please find a new profession.”

A Well-Oiled Workshop

I had to smile yesterday during our writers workshop.

In one corner, two students sat with a para and finished writing their planning pages (using a graphic organizer that eventually will serve them by helping them conceptualize paragraphs better when it’s time to publish).

A group of three (one on the computer) sat with me working through the first editing checklist of their academic careers. Two of the girls in my group typically struggle in writing, but they had a purpose with that checklist! Mechanically, their writing in this unit is better than it’s been in the two years I’ve known them.

A table full of typists, using graphic organizers to support paragraphing and visual cues to encourage proper formatting.

To the left, occupying an entire table, six students sat with laptops. They worked at typing their persuasive reviews, supported by the aforementioned graphic organizers and my visual reminders to hit return at the end of a paragraph (see the blue) and tab at the beginning (see the pink). A seventh student used my iPad to type his review. He was confused by the locations of the return and tab buttons, so I showed him that, just like how I had written it on his paper, return was on the right and tab was on the left. No issues from then on.

This all sounds pretty mundane, but considering the different phases of the unit that students are at, it’s not mundane at all. Realize, some students are already finished typing and others are just wrapping up their handwritten work. Had you walked into the room during writers, though, you would have seen a well-oiled workshop. No one was left without something to do (even my first finisher chose to read when done). Everyone was involved without the pressure of worrying about where in the process their peers were. It is wonderful to see independence coming out…and great work, as well.

What Makes for Optimal Learning?

The inspiration for today’s post comes in the form of a comment from Maureen Devlin (Twitter; Blog) on yesterday’s post. Maureen wrote,

You mention that your work is “targeted” and “purposeful,” and I know the climate is positive–all attributes that lead to optimal learning. You’ve also written about one engaging lesson after another and the fact that you notice and respond to students lives and interests too. What other aspects of your classroom and teaching do you think makes your students so successful? What do you consider optimal learning design? Thanks for contemplating this with me.

And thank you, Maureen, for giving me reason to ponder this further. I am finding that good teaching is a synchronization of many important realms, all of which require a devotion to their follow-through. I have three areas I am always seeking to improve upon: pedagogy, student achievement, and classroom community.

I still have many miles to go in achieving the ideal in those three goals. There are five realms I see as important to getting there.

Realm 1: Research and Planning – This is the “purposeful planning and targeted teaching” of which I wrote yesterday. This is the first year in my career I am actively collecting data (through observations, conversations, assessments, etc.) for the benefit of my students (instead of just saying, “I have the data, what more do you want from me?!”) This week, after completing an exit slip, one student asked what I’m going to do with it. I said I’ll take it home and see if we need to work anymore  on measuring to the nearest inch. One of my staunchest defenders piped up, “That’s what he does, and tomorrow he will teach it again to the kids who need it.” Purposeful planning and targeted teaching are two reasons I am seeing more investment and movement this year in my students than I have in the past.

Realm 2: Belief and Confidence – I like to think of my classroom as the last bastion of belief and confidence for my students – that is to say I believe in the urgency of building them up, because if not me, who? I try not to focus on what they can’t do and instead focus on what they can do. This allows me to pour it on really thick when the kids are down on themselves. “You can do it,” “Show me what you can do,” and “You’re going to get it,” are phrases I often utter (and should utter more). More importantly, in my subtle and unsubtle ways I try to make my paras, push-ins, cluster teachers, and administrators believe the same.

Realm 3: Respect and Compassion –  I want each student to feel valued as an individual. In my ideal world, I have time every day to spend five minutes involved in meaningful conversation with every student in my room about anything that’s on their minds. Unfortunately, these conversations only seem to happen with the kids who are most verbal, outgoing, or closest to my desk when they’re unpacking and I’m doing my housekeeping. I have been guilty of not being as patient with sensitive issues lately as I normally would be, but my ideal self takes kids into the hall when they’re down and has a friendly question or comment for each student as they walk into the room in the morning.

Realm 4: Parental Involvement – This is easily the realm in which I am weakest. I have made positive steps this year with a monthly newsletter (in English and Spanish). The one I sent home this week had reminders about web sites for reading, a little blurb about our Christmas festivities, and pictures of each child involved in our fun activities the week before we went on vacation. I have also sent “Nice Notes” home more than in the past, but still not as often as I should. I have also tried to shed my self-consciousness about speaking Spanish, realizing that I have to meet parents halfway, and only with some can I do that in English.

Realm 5: Consideration and Implementation of Recommendations – I have gotten much better at accepting criticism from administrators. If the criticism comes with a suggestion, I take the time to consider implementing that suggestion. I feel I owe it to myself (as I want to improve my pedagogy) and to my students (as I want them to succeed). Sometimes, recommendations have impacts I didn’t anticipate. This only makes me more willing to consider future ideas. I am also working with a couple of more experienced special ed colleagues who readily share ideas and resources. Their experience is positively impacting my classroom.

Striving to improve in all five realms as a means of improving my pedagogy, student achievement, and classroom community is a daily journey. I have learned that Friday is not a throwaway day and neither is the week before a break. There are many challenges along the way, and it can be exhausting, but acknowledging that every day and every lesson is important forces me to push through.

Maureen, I hope this answers your questions!

Putting the Pieces Together

Now that I’m in my second year teaching special ed, I have a much better sense of how things need to be done for results to be achieved. As such, I am seeing growth in my students that didn’t occur last year (much to everyone’s delight). I am particularly pleased with some of my students from last year breaking through to bigger and better things this year.

My favorite case is a student who, last year, drove me batty with his defiance and inconsistent work habits. This year, he is a changed man. He is more accepting of his limitations and appreciative of learning new things (no longer of the opinion that he knows everything). Because he has let his walls down, he is growing as a student and a person. His writing is markedly improved. His reading gains, though, are a thing of beauty. Last year, he came to my class reading on level F. I dropped him down to D in September and he didn’t get back to F until June. This year, he started the year on E, then quickly got to F, moved on to G, and this week, arrived on H. This is not insignificant. He is putting the pieces together.

Another student who I had last year also ended the year on F, dropped to E in September, and has since moved to H. One of my girls who hit a dead end on D last year is already reading on F this year.

Sure, there are kids who are still struggling to break through troublesome levels. But my purposeful planning and targeted teaching is going to pay off. I’m putting the pieces together, too.

What’s Cooking? Differentiation, That’s What!

At a differentiated dinner party, the host plans a menu that has something for everyone to eat. (Click the image for a better view!)

I recently had a differentiated dinner party for family and friends.

In attendance were a diabetic (no white flour, potatoes, or sugar), a low-salt dieter (nothing canned or with added salt), a pregnant woman who can’t eat acidic foods (no citrus or tomatoes) , a dialysis patient on a restricted diet (no nuts), and a nursing mother (regular soda, only). Then there was the 9 months pregnant expectant mommy who has been allergic to kiwi as long as I’ve known her.

Everyone else was “normal,” although maybe only in the loosest sense of the word. After all, this is my family I’m talking about.

You might look at my roster of attendees and all their …uniqueness… and assume that I just like to give myself a challenge. Not quite. These people are my family, and when they eat, they bring their needs to the table. I couldn’t turn them away, so I had to adapt my menu for them. Otherwise, a bunch of people I care about would have walked away from dinner feeling hungry and frustrated. Chances are, too, that when I invited them back, they’d find some reason not to eat. I can’t think of a greater insult to me!

For this differentiated dinner party, I knew I would be cooking, and I knew I wanted everyone to enjoy themselves. It was obvious, though, that one dish would not fit all.

Using what I knew about my guests, I planned a menu that had something for everyone.

I made some foods without salt. I made some without sugar. Some folks picked around certain ingredients. Some went out on a limb for me and ate a small amount of something they normally wouldn’t. Some people had nothing to worry about, as I simply refrained from making anything that would affect them.

In the end, the objectives were met: everyone ate and everyone had a wonderful time.

Can you see where I’m going with this?

Think of your students as guests at a differentiated dinner party. You wouldn’t encourage your guests to eat something that would make them sick or negatively affect them, and if you’re a good host, you would be sure to have something for everyone.

Shouldn’t we do the same for our students?

The dish you serve your students, expecting them all to eat it, may be something some students can’t eat. Is it fair for those students to expect to be fed and then leave your class hungry? Would those students want to come back to you the next time they were hungry for knowledge, knowing that you haven’t previously taken the time to plan a menu that accounts for their needs?

Would you be able to blame them?

We know who learns in what ways in our classrooms, and who needs to learn what. We need to cook up lessons that everyone can eat!

Buon appetit!