The First Hurdle of Differentiation

I must preface this by saying I identify this as a “hurdle” because I am a planner.  I pride myself on being organized and always having an outline, especially when it comes to teaching.  I am sure you all do as well.  This is why I find this first step to effective differentiation to be so scary.  You must let go of the lesson plan a bit. Honestly, my lesson plan calendar used to be complete for the entire semester before the year even began.  I had a detailed plan for each day and always thought, “Hey, next year will be a cinch!  The planning is already done.”  Unfortunately, the plan never stayed the same for long.   My students’ interests and conversations inspire explorations of new topics.  Society, politics, and current events all influence the lessons I plan.  Professional development and conferences motivate me to try different methods.  So I ditched the detailed lesson plan.

Yes, I still have an end-game in mind.  I know where my students need to go.  I keep the Common Core standards for the grade levels in mind.  How my students practice and eventually master these skills, however, does not need to be the same each semester. Teaching should be fluid.  The first step in going with the flow is simply to get to know your students.  I had a math teacher I despised in high school.  I hated math, he knew it, and it bothered him.  I failed the class.  He was harsh and often exasperated at my ineptitude. The next semester I had a different teacher.  He knew I had a math phobia and he seized on that knowledge and made sure I succeeded anyway.  He joked with me about my math weakness.  He put things in simple terms and used real world examples.  He was patient.  And I passed.  Here is what I have learned… Teaching (and learning!) is MUCH MORE enjoyable if you ditch the long-term lesson plan and pay more attention to your students and the information and activities that spark their interests on a daily basis.

In the fall I visited Michelle Hughes and Dominic Marcucilli to see how they get to know their SpEd students. Learning about our students is the perfect starting point in our quest to differentiate.   These two teachers understand the importance of focusing on student abilities, not disabilities, in order to help them achieve.

IMG_4372Michelle had student work on the bulletin board for an assignment titled, “Expresso Yourself.” The information each student provided in the mock-lattes included a name, favorite food, book/movie, object, and more.  This display lets Michelle’s students know she cares about them as individuals and it allows for a glimpse into who her students are.  She can now plan lessons and activities with this information in mind.

Michelle also had students complete an activity known as, “Four Pictures One Summer.” This type of assignment can be done for homework during the first week of school.  Students add four pictures that represent their summer vacations.  Students may guess which pictures belong to which students as an ice breaker activity.  For the teacher, looking at something as simple as four pictures can provide telling information about students’ interests as well as their home and personal lives.  Awesome job, Michelle!

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Dominic uses folders for each student.  They decorate and personalize the covers. IMG_4055








Inside are various personal student inventories, student goals and monitoring of those goals, and student work.  He even uses questionnaires for students and for parents to find out what both view as areas of potential and areas for growth. All of these are effective ways to get to know your students–the first hurdle to differentiation!

0jakfa0uIn the English Department many of the teachers have adopted Carpe Librum (Seize the book!) and this practice is a prime example of differentiation in the classroom.  Students are given choice when it comes to their books and have ten minutes at the start of each period to pleasure read.  As teachers, we notice what they are reading, how often they finish books, and what books seem to interest them.  We offer recommendations and purchase books based on this information.  To start the semester, I give students a general interest inventory and a reading survey. When I see a student reads often and chooses challenging books, I know I don’t need to spend much time encouraging him.  When a student claims to have no books in the home and he hasn’t read a book for pleasure since elementary school, I know I need to spend some time helping him build up the reading stamina he needs to survive in high school and college.   I also know that he may struggle with some of the more difficult texts in the class and I keep that in mind while scaffolding the learning.  If a students has been reading the Divergent series, I may later offer 1984 or another classic dystopian novel to help challenge him.  Since we began this program, it is the one activity students thank us for over and over again.  Through thank-you letters we hear about how students doubled, tripled, and sometimes even quadrupled the number of books they read in a semester.  Because students are given choice and because we pay attention to their interests, their challenges, and their needs they are able to grow as readers and challenge themselves.  Differentiation made easy!

New books for my students…thanks to! (Click to see my page!)




In order to differentiate for our students, we must first get to know them.  I know the semester has already started, but it is never too late to spend some time learning a bit about your students’ interests and perceived weaknesses.  Watch for the aha-moments and note what activities sparked these.  And know that it is okay to ride the changing tides in the classroom.  Ditch the long-term lesson plan and opt for a short-term plan that addresses the needs and interests of the students you have in your room at this very moment.  The first hurdle has been cleared!  Enjoy the rest of the journey…


Happy Friday!