This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: Real teachers talk about differentiated teaching strategies that worked — and didn’t work — in their classrooms.
Last season of the podcast, I introduced you to a new episode format I’m calling the Productivity Roundtable. I’ve always thought it would be really cool to get a group of master teachers together to hash out some of their toughest challenges and also to share what’s working.
So joining me are five members of the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club’s graduate program, these are teachers who have completed the full year of the club and are now in year three or four of taking those results to the next level and continuing to streamline. They have done a tremendous amount of work in experimenting with various productivity strategies in their classrooms and creating systems and routines that work well for them and their students. They teach at different grade levels and subject areas, in different types of school settings and communities, in a diverse set of locations throughout the United States. So you’re going to hear what works with a variety of teaching contexts and teaching styles.
This time around, we’re talking about how to manage differentiation. During the roundtable, we’ll move past “differentiation” as a buzzword and talk about what’s happening in real classrooms. Each roundtable member will share how they differentiate instruction, and then move into how we can make differentiation more scalable. In other words, we all know how differentiated instruction COULD be done, but what are some strategies that work when you’re trying to differentiate for 30 kids at once?
We’ll start by talking about their differentiation fails and mistakes, and some traps or pitfalls they think teachers should avoid as they look for ways to differentiate.
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I feel like “differentiation” is a buzzword that has very different meanings to different people. Just about every teacher is expected to differentiate, but it’s rare to hear exactly what sustainable differentiation on a daily basis is supposed to look like. There’s a lot of misconceptions out there. I know some teachers who are creating 4-5 different versions of every lesson plan, assignment, and test, and it’s causing them to work insanely long hours.
So I’d love for you to start by sharing your overall approach to differentiation. For example, do you differentiate content (ie different levels of reading passages) or presentation (ie provide a word bank on one version and not another, or eliminate one of the multiple choice answers on each question), or both?
- (Nicole) I’m Nicole Guzman, and I teach 5th grade in Provo, Utah. No teacher really has time to make five different versions of every lesson. I think the key to differentiation is to consider student needs when planning your lessons and build differentiation into your structures and routines. Is there enough visual support? Are there multiple entry points to your lesson? Have you planned your questions in a way that all students can participate and be challenged at some point? Are there options for how students can practice or demonstrate their learning? All of these are ways that you can differentiate for your students in a short amount of time and with little-to-no prep.
- (Osa) I’m Osa Oyegun, and I’m a 1st grade teacher in New York City. Differentiation should be meaningful and purposeful. I differentiate my reading and math groups simply because students tend to grow at different rates in these two subjects. While I may have whole class mini-lessons, once the lesson is over, students get to practice their new skills at levels that best suit their capabilities. In reading, this could be learning a decoding skill, then going off to read a leveled book with your group or on your own. In math, it could be learning a new strategy, then going off to practice with a partner who may or may not be on your level. There’s a flexibility to differentiation, and I try to listen to what my students say that they need and what they like to do in order to keep them engaged.
- (Des) I’m Desirae Nunez, and I teach 4th grade in Modesto, CA. The majority of my classes have been below to far below grade level. To help scaffold the content from the beginning, I rely on EDI and GLAD strategies, especially in ELA. In math, I generally teach the same lesson twice to two small groups and use Zearn. I also pull small groups a couple of times a week. When I think of differentiating, I often think about the couple of students who are at or above grade level. I have utilized HyperDocs, giving them more freedom or choice with an assignment, cutting out the scaffolding pieces, or offering an extension piece that is fun or related to their interests. I get especially excited when a student can come to me with a request for how they can show their learning.
- (Erin) I’m Erin Palazzo, and I teach high school English in Shrewsbury, MA. I mainly teach AP English Language, but for the past 11 years, I’ve also taught sophomores (a combination of the three different levels of English we offer to them). Because almost all of our students go on to some form of higher or continuing education, I teach mostly the same content, but I alter the pacing and the amount of scaffolding for each level. My goal is to help bridge the transition gap between where they are and what they’ll need to be able to do in a two or four-year college. Within a particular class, I will add additional support where needed, such as audiobooks, more specific guiding questions for journal assignments, or graphic organizers for writing. My goal is to always appropriately challenge my students — I don’t sell the struggling students short in their potential, but I don’t want their growth to seem unachievable.
- (Kevin) I’m Kevin O’Shaughnessy and I teach in Wells, Maine. I currently teach a required sophomore history course and a senior elective, “AP Psychology.” I think the only differentiation that anyone should be interested in is “sustainable (or survivable) differentiation.” At its most basic level, it starts with knowing your kids. I have them complete surveys that provide information about their lives, interests, and aspirations. After this, I try to meet and directly refer to some information from their answers to let them know I’ve taken the time to read and think about their responses. It can be as simple as saying, “I know you’re interested in art and drawing, why not do an art exhibit as part of your social studies project presentation?” Project presentations are a major assessment in each of our social studies units, so we offer choices on topics, formats (Google Slides, art exhibits, videos, journal entries, etc.), and then we might modify the length or depth of the project based on the individual student’s needs. But the day to day stuff, like having five versions of every lesson plan? It’s a one-way ticket to burnout. You can’t survive doing elaborate flips and twists to accommodate all learners every day. What you can do is build in a series of flexible routines that allow for tiered assignments, tiered assessments, and student choice on topic and product for major projects and presentations.
I’m wondering how we can make differentiation more scalable. I feel like there are lots of ways it COULD be done, but many of those strategies become really unmanageable for the teacher when you’ve got 25 or 35 kids in a class. Can you give an example of a tool or quick strategy that’s made it easier for you to differentiate?
- (Kevin) I mentioned Jupiter grades and Juno in the last podcast, and I’ve found them to be really valuable tools for differentiation. It’s very easy to create your standard assignment or assessment, and then copy that into a new pod and edit it to create a tiered option with fewer multiple choice options or fewer sentences for written responses. These can be shared with colleagues who can revise them or use them as a template for future assignments and shared back to you. My other strategy is to incorporate student choice on topic and product as much as possible for major assessments.
- (Osa) When it comes to having larger class sizes with young children, I’ve found that having a good management strategy is key to successfully maintaining a high quality of instruction. The Daily 5 and CAFE programs are a great help because they teach students steps to learning independence, and as a teacher, once you’ve practiced these steps with your students at the beginning of the year, you can work with a small number of students knowing that the others are doing meaningful, independent work. Any program that encourages students to be aware of their learning goals and teaches them how to be successful independent learners (with occasional check-ins with the teacher) can only help to maintain the quality of instruction.
- (Nicole) As I mentioned before, I believe building classroom routines to naturally allow for differentiation makes it much more manageable. Osa mentioned Daily 5, which is a great framework for setting up literacy instruction. I’ve adapted it in the upper grades to be Daily 3. I use a similar framework during math time. I do not create literacy or math centers for every week or even every unit. You have to break out of the center mentality if you want it to be manageable. Instead, I have a few basic hands-on activities that easily adapt to multiple topics. Also, take advantage of the many computer programs that adjust to students based on their needs. Use this structure to meet students’ varying levels, while freeing you up to work with students who need extra attention. For those in the 40HTW Club, Angela created a form that you can find in November Week 3, and it allows me to quickly sort my students into groups for reteaching, based on the results of a quick assessment.
- (Erin) As the others have mentioned, technology helps a lot in simplifying this. I use Schoology and in the past have used Google Classroom, both of which allow me to assign work to specific students or groups of students. I create a spreadsheet at the start of every year to keep track of which students are on IEPs. It’s an easy reference for when and where they are in their academic skills class with their special education liaison, and it also serves as a quick reference guide to their accommodations. And then wherever possible, I make those accommodations universal (such as giving graphic organizers to all my 10B students before an essay). A lot of the work just becomes being a good analyst of the data: Seeing where students excelled and struggled in our last essay helps me group them up to do targeted skill practice before the next essay.
- (Des) In math, I rely on the reports I receive from Zearn and how students are performing on quick check-ins/quizzes to create groups. My lowest group tends to be the same students and we work on foundational skills, but the others flex a lot. When I work with the groups, I will bring in more manipulatives and either use the whiteboards or all the extra copies of practice problems we are provided with. I try to utilize what I already have to save time. Our ELA curriculum is Benchmark Advance, so to make this more accessible to my students, I use GLAD strategies, multiple reads of the text (I read, partners, audio, etc.), EDI lesson designs, and creating learning progressions. As the others have mentioned, there are a ton of different technology resources that help make differentiating quick. I also utilize Google Classroom, Zearn, MobyMax, and HyperDocs.
I think a lot of this is learned through trial and error, and experimenting to see what works with your teaching style and for the specific group of kids you have each year. Let’s try to help the teachers who are listening learn from your experience. Maybe you can think of something you tried that was an epic fail, or a strategy you used previously but stopped when you found a better way, or an important mindset shift that you needed to make. Are there any traps or pitfalls you think teachers should avoid as they look for ways to differentiate?
- (Osa) I remember attempting to give differentiated homework one year because a parent had demanded that their child be challenged at home because the homework was too easy. That turned out to be a mistake because rather than alleviating the parent’s concern, the students were now feeling pressured to perform at home with their parents. That should never be the case with young students. I learned to gently remind parents that in the younger grades, being able to easily complete homework was a sign of independence and helped to boost their children’s confidence in their abilities. In my opinion, homework has no value if my students do not enjoy or like to do it, and if it does not help to consolidate learning. Since then, by following my instincts and students’ recommendations, I always have a happy class where students continue to be engaged and build confidence in their abilities. I say trust in your instincts and when in doubt, ask your students. Their opinion is what really matters.
- (Nicole) One of my best mistakes in my career was thinking that in order to differentiate, I needed to teach math entirely in small groups, at completely different rates. You can imagine the disaster that was! First of all, it definitely wasn’t sustainable. Second, I imagine it actually did more harm than good during the short time I tried it … not all of my students were receiving tier 1 instruction! I have found the workshop style to be very conducive to differentiating. I teach a whole group lesson (with differentiation strategies woven in), and then spend the remainder of the time conferring with students, and working with small, flexible, strategy and skill-focused groups. Differentiation does NOT mean six completely different lessons!
- (Kevin) For several years, we tried to give bonus points to kids whose projects were at higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. We loved David Sousa’s book “How the Brain Learns,” and so we literally taught the kids the Taxonomy and had them choose the Bloom’s level they were going for with their presentation. The kids chose their topic, the presentation format, and the Blooms level! It sounded so great in theory. But we couldn’t make it work … the grading just felt too subjective and arbitrary. What was better? A failed attempt at evaluating whether the Black Panthers were Revolutionaries or Terrorists or a fairly straightforward presentation on the causes and effects of 9/11 attacks on the United States? I didn’t know so how could I ask kids to know? I am still passionate about using neuroscience in the classroom. I have five or six brain models strategically placed around my room, and whenever a student asks me why they are there, I tell them it’s to remind me what body part I’m actually trying to teach and reach.
- (Erin) For a long time, I had “differentiation” and “learning styles” meshed together in my head. As I read the research debunking the concept, I stopped trying to obsess over offering practices or projects that would cater to all the learning styles every time. Around the same time I was making the big shift that I think many English teachers are or have been making — moving away from being more of a content-driven teacher (You need to remember all of the details from To Kill a Mockingbird five years from now and be able to list the nine comma rules by heart) and moving toward being a skills/application-driven teacher (What life conversations can we have after reading TKAM? How is this writing passage crafted? What makes it effective? How can we mimic the punctuation, word choice, and sentence structure in our own writing to improve it?). Those two shifts have naturally created less pressure to differentiate a rigid curriculum and paradoxically helped me find a manageable way through conferring and doing more writing together in the classroom to meet each student where they’re at without the need for 25 different lessons or sets of materials.
- (Des) I love learning about new strategies and trying them in the classroom. I also get bored easily, so I have a tendency to change things up regularly. While I think these traits help me to grow as an educator, I would warn against trying out too many new things at once. If you come away from this podcast with a list of new ways to differentiate, pick one! If it works for you, great, and if not, that’s okay, too. A mindset shift change I had to work on, and still do, is that I have a limited amount of time and energy. This means I am unable to meet every student’s varied needs every day in every lesson. Give yourself a little grace and try to choose strategies that impact the most students most of the time or a strategy that supports a group of students that you are working to better reach.
About the Productivity Roundtable participants
Nicole Guzman is a 5th-grade teacher, wife, and mom of five in Provo, Utah. She has taught kindergarten through 5th grades, and her favorite part of teaching is the fun, laughing, and learning with her students. She loves flexible seating, workshop-style instruction, project-based learning, and technology integration. After a year in the 40HTW Club, she has freed up enough time to start sharing her ideas at elevatingelementary.com.
Osa Oyegun is an elementary school teacher who has worked in independent schools for 11 years. After teaching in Turkey, Germany, and the United Arab Emirates for seven years, she returned to the U.S., teaching in Washington, D.C. for two years. She now teaches 1st grade in Manhattan, New York. When not teaching, she likes to read, sing, travel, and host dinner parties for her friends. Osa blogs at www.thegoodeapple.com.
Desirae Nüñez lives near Modesto, California, and is in her fourth year of teaching 4th grade. She enjoys spending time with her husband and kids, playing soccer, traveling, being with friends, and experiencing new things.
Kevin O’Shaughnessy lives in York, Maine and is originally from Buffalo, New York. He began his teaching career at age 39. Kevin has two sons (ages 23 and 21) and has been married to a pediatrician for 26 years. He has spent his entire 16-year career at Wells High School, and currently teaches a required sophomore history course, “The World After 1945” and a senior elective “AP Psychology.” Kevin enjoys yoga, golf, swimming, biking, bowling, and is a big fan of the movie “The Big Lebowski” as you can tell by his photo.
Erin Palazzo is a self-proclaimed bookworm who set her heart on teaching in the 1st grade. For the past 13 years, she has been sharing her love of language in her English classrooms, working with a wide range of student ages and abilities. She completed her Master’s of Education in Curriculum & Instruction and Teacher Leadership through Penn State’s online World Campus. Currently, she teaches Advanced Placement English Language and Composition as well as sophomore English at Shrewsbury High School in Massachusetts. She loves working with her students to help them find their passions, develop their skills in communication, and to provide balance and perspective into their often overbooked and over-stressed lives. When she’s not teaching or reading, Erin loves spending time with her husband, two kids, and family and friends. A lifelong New Englander, she feels lucky to call this beautiful landscape, rich in history and culture, her home.
This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new short episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!
This episode was sponsored by Really Good Stuff. What are the top 10 challenges that teachers face in the classroom? Really Good Stuff released the findings of their National Poll with over 700 participants. Visit reallygoodstuff.com/solutions to find the results, plus solutions to these challenges, teacher tips, resources, and innovative products designed to save you time. Use promo code RGSTRUTH10 for 10% off of your Really Good Stuff order (expires 12/31/18).