Posts Categorized: Differentiated Instruction

Practical differentiation: Think pot luck, not dinner party

What if you and your friends only saw one another when someone had the time, energy and resources to throw the perfect Martha-Stewart dinner party?

Obviously, you wouldn’t see one another that often. So you’ve come up with a compromise: the potluck dinner. The benefits are many. Not only do you get to enjoy your friends’ company without the stress, but your guests get to try out that new recipe and sample a variety of dishes from other cooks.

To make differentiated learning feasible in the classroom, a similar mental shift may be needed. Differentiation is overwhelming when teachers feel they have to do everything themselves, but it becomes more manageable when students are included in the process.

Mike Anderson, author of Choosing to Learn, Learning to Choose, proposes that educators shift some of the responsibility for differentiation to the student by routinely providing learning choices.

In a recent webinar, Give Students the Power to ‘Self-differentiate’ with Learning Choices, Mike says that when students make their own learning choices, they are essentially self-differentiating. Many teachers already give students the choice to read the kind of book that interests them. Students need more learning choices, both to engage and impassion them and also to differentiate learning so it is appropriately challenging for them, Mike says.

When teachers take all the responsibility for differentiated learning, they can only guess at the “sweet spot” of learning, the zone of proximal development where learning is challenging without being too frustrating. When students make their own learning choices, they naturally seek out that zone.

Sharing control and responsibility with students has an added perk for teachers besides making differentiation more manageable: It makes teaching more fun, Mike says.

As you develop your strategy to differentiate instruction, consider the role that student choice might play in pulling it all together for both you and your learners.


Give Students the Power to ‘Self-differentiate’ with Learning Choices




The other divide

We’ve come to expect magic from technology. Tap a screen and you conjure a map of the night sky, the time and distance of your run, your favorite music, all the restaurants near the train station where you’ve just arrived, the latest video to go viral.

But two educational researchers and former urban high school teachers caution that there’s only so much magic we should expect from technology in education. It may be possible to close the digital divide by giving every kid a smart phone or tablet, but that isn’t going to close the more important divide: the achievement gap and literacy gap between poor and privileged students.

Shiny new toys are, well, just shiny new toys. It’s what else happens in the classroom that counts more.

Thomas Philip and Antero Garcia write in the Harvard Educational Review that at one school, soon after students got their new phones, many tucked them away in their lockers after they discovered that restrictions were placed on texting, calling and Web access. Sometimes attempts to transplant youth interest in technology to formal learning environments can even backfire because young people resent having their cultural forms appropriated by schools.

“The persistent allure of technology as an easy remedy for educational issues of equity and achievement is intricately tied to naïve assumptions about student interest and the possibility and desirability of ‘teacher-proof’ classrooms,” the researchers write.

Rather than narrowing the gap in educational opportunity, the researchers argue that pushing technology into urban schools without the right pedagogy can widen the gap. The iGen discourse has tended to overlook teachers and pedagogy.

“Educators routinely and appropriately attempt to build on students’ ever-increasing amount and varying modes of informal digital communication, such as texting. But attempts to presumably win youth over with textspeak can also sacrifice the limited opportunities that students have to grow as participants in academic discourse,” the researchers write.

Asking students to use cell phones to text 160-character summaries of Shakespeare passages might be very engaging, but the danger is these byte-size fragments bring a diminishing return in literacy, especially for poor urban youth.

It is helpful to think of the 3Ts—text, tools and talk—to get beyond the trappings of technology and assess how it will enrich the pedagogy, the authors write.

Below are questions educators should ask themselves about incoming technology to be sure it makes an authentic contribution to education:

Text—New technologies provide instant access to a vast variety of texts with the touch of a fingertip. What new texts will be introduced by the technology? How are traditional texts altered by the new technology? Why are these texts important for what students will learn? If educators can’t answer these questions, they should step back and reevaluate the assumptions they are making about the textual opportunities that are gained.

Tools—How does the tool offer ways of collecting, representing, visualizing, analyzing and communicating information to improve learning? What is the context of learning that makes this tool imperative to students’ lives. Software that allows students to create word clouds has to be accompanied by good pedagogy or else students might spend their time changing the background color on the word cloud.

Talk—New technologies can redefine communication within a classroom. Classroom discourse and interaction is one of the most overlooked aspects of incorporating technology in learning. Questions to ask: How do we support classroom talk that leverages text and tools introduced by the technology to support student learning? Can discourse be made more robust as a result of this tool?

“The Importance of Still Teaching the iGeneration: New Technologies and the Centrality of Pedagogy,” Harvard Educational Review, Summer 2013, Volume 83, No. 2, pp. 300-316.

9/11’s place in the classroom

One of the scariest things a teacher can do is to discuss controversial topics with relatively uninformed students, says Matt Rickey, a high school teacher in Kendallville, Indiana.

“Nothing could possibly go wrong,” says Rickey, with more than a hint of sarcasm.  In a special 9/11 issue of journal, The Social Studies,  Rickey says he is willing to tread the minefield of teaching 9/11 because of his 10-year commitment to teaching students about what happened on that day and its far-reaching repercussions.

“So, why would an otherwise sane teacher take the risk of hurting students, angering parents, or putting administrators in a position of having to defend the teacher in question? The short answer is that this kind of discussion must take place,” he says.

Rickey began teaching a mini-unit on 9/11 in his sociology class shortly after the attack when emotions were still running high. He was unclear what approach to take with his students. But then he discovered a documentary by 2 French filmmakers simply called “9/11” which now culminates his 2-week unit. Students are spellbound by the story of Ladder 1 in New York City, he says.

By then, the students have worked on a timeline of terrorist attacks beginning with the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, they have studied maps of the Middle East and learned the names of the attackers and of U.S. officials. The unit ends with a focus on how Americans overcome adversity (military, volunteerism, fundraisers, concerts, memorials, etc.)

Ten years after the surreal attack on the World Trade Center, social studies researchers say 9/11 is remarkably absent from school curricula. Some of the major reasons teachers steer clear of the topic are fear of controversy, concerns about the complexity of the subject, worries about not having enough time to devote to the subject and still cover all the other required subjects in the curriculum, and lack of confidence in one’s own knowledge to do justice to the subject.

But Rickey and other teachers who are dedicated to teaching 9/11 say schools not only have a responsibility to keep alive the memory of 9/11, but also to take advantage of a rich opportunity to engage students in a meaningful dialogue about global events and to help them become more informed citizens.

The 10th anniversary of 9/11 is an opportunity for educators to consider if and how they should bring this difficult topic back into their classrooms. 

Related article with teaching resources:

Why 9/11 should be taught more in school

Grading the Teachers

The sign of a first-rate intelligence, said F. Scott Fitzgerald, is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

Holding two opposing ideas while continuing to function is what we are being asked to do with the highly charged issue of teacher effectiveness.

One opposing idea is that students’ test scores can reveal, just like the tea leaves at the bottom of your cup, which teachers are effective and which are not. The Los Angeles Times took that idea to its ultimate conclusion this summer with its “Grading the Teachers”‘ project. The newspaper commissioned a value-added analysis on the test scores of students. Then it gave an effectiveness grade to 6,000 elementary school teachers and published the results, school by school.

Value-added analysis already controls for socioeconomic status and extenuating circumstances like divorce, mobility etc. by looking only at a student’s growth and projected growth in test scores. So if a student is at the 60% percentile and remains at the 60% percentile, the teacher doesn’t lose any points.

The other opposing idea is that we don’t really know what teacher effectiveness is or how it works. The current frenetic activity around teacher accountability and value-added analysis is matched only by the frenetic activity around defining what teacher effectiveness is. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is now at work on an ambitious 2-year, $45 million Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project that it hopes will provide insights into the characteristics of effective teaching that can be monitored by those doing teacher evaluations.

In Los Angeles, one of the teachers outed as ineffective by The Los Angeles Times is a 3rd-grade teacher who is far from a slacker. She is a well-regarded, hard-working and well-liked teacher who leads a professional development circle at her school on–you guessed it–being an effective teacher. Ironically, she was ranked in the lowest category of the LA Times’ project because her students performed significantly below what they would be expected to score on state tests.

While there’s more to teaching than state test scores, there clearly is an issue with this 3rd-grade teacher no matter how well-meaning and diligent she may be. Her students are losing ground. But, will the principal of the school know how to work with her to be more effective? Will the principal be able to guide her efforts to improve?

The inner workings of outstanding teaching may still not be fully understood. But, the telltale signs of that force at work are hard to ignore.

Summer reading for educators

A recent traveler to New Zealand was complaining that the house where he stayed while he was there was unbearably cold in the winter. The reason it was so uncomfortable, he said, was that the Scottish settlers who built their houses there neglected to change their perspective.

They built their houses to capitalize on the warmth of southern exposure only they were in the southern hemisphere where everything is reversed. They should have been building for a northern exposure instead.

Summertime, especially for educators, is a slip into a different hemisphere. The pace slows just enough to allow a newly angled perspective, surprising ideas or, at the very least, a longer range view of your life and work. If you have been looking south, it may be the time to look north.

One way to capitalize on this mental shift (after you have had your fill of  blissful beach reading, of course) is to pick up a book on a professional topic.  A book that is not too dense and technical, but one that is thought-provoking and can help you take a fresh look at what you do and how you do it.

Below are some reading recommendations from our webinar speakers. These are books they have singled out as well worth your (summer)time.

Do you have your own reading recommendations for fellow educators? Please expand the list by adding some suggested reading material in the comment box.

The Tough Kid Tool Box, Jensen, Rhode and Reavis, Sopris West.

Struggles: Managing Resistance, Building Rapport, Maag, Sopris West.

School, family and community partnerships: Your handbook for action, 2nd edition, by J. Epstein, Corwin Press

Academic Language Notebooks: The Language of Math, (grades 3,4 and 5) Course Crafters Publications and Perfection Learning

Managing School Districts for High Performance, Childress, Elmore, Grossman and Johnson

The 4 Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive, Patrick Leoncioni

The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Leoncioni

The Strategic School by Miles and Frank

Updraft/Downdraft, Crawford and Dougherty

Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey

Do you have any recommendations for summer reading?  Please add them here with a note about why you liked the book(s) or other reading material.

To post a comment, click here.
Daniel Pink’s, Drive, is a book I would suggest to educators. Pink questions assumptions that many make regarding what truly motivates people. Specifically, we often hear that students are motivated by grades not the learning, instead of recognizing that it is our school cultures that have created that emphasis on grades. Pink provides concrete examples of intrinsic motivation and why we need to focus on it if we wish to support students becoming deep thinkers.
Norah Marsh

The Principal Story

“I became a principal because I want to change the world, really,” says Kerry Purcell in the documentary, The Principal Story, which aired on public TV in September. (If you missed it, there’s a link below where you can watch it until December 14).

The documentary, which job-shadows 2 Illinois elementary school principals for a year, was funded by the Wallace Foundation as part of its campaign to raise awareness of the need to develop educational leadership.

In the public mind, principals are the go-to person when a child is getting bullied or the school budget is being squeezed or if a teacher is not being fair.  But one of the messages the documentary seeks to convey to the public is that a principal needs to be more than a go-to person.

A principal needs to be a healer and a leader, an educational leader.

Teachers and principals are not working with classrooms full of well-fed and well-cared-for children whose minds are free and clear and receptive to learning.

Teaching would be a lot easier job if that were true. They are working with a lot of wounded and distressed children. In fact, schools find themselves at the front line of the war on poverty, and educators more often than not wearing the hat of a social worker.

This state of affairs calls for even more heroic efforts at instructional leadership.  One problem is time. Typically principals spend 70% of their time on “buses, budgets and behavior,” according to the film, and only 30% of their time on instruction.  Columnist Nicholas Kristof calls quality teaching “the best antidote to poverty.”

The film looks at several innovative programs, including one in Kentucky which aims to free up principals so that they can focus more on being instructional leaders.  The Kentucky Department of Education has developed the role of SAMs (for School Administrative Managers) to allow principals to spend more of their time on learning-centered leadership.

SAMs take on many of the bus schedule and behavior issues, while the principal spends more time in the classroom supporting and cultivating good teachers. But SAMs can also be a sounding board for the principal, helping the principal keep his or her eye on the instructional priorities.

Many schools find someone who is already on their staff to step into the role of SAM. The division of labor is clearer than it is between a principal and vice-principal, says one teacher who works at a school with a SAM.

He says you don’t feel like you need to go to the principal first either because you’re not sure whose job responsibility it is or because you want to go to the authority figure first.  The teacher says he likes having his principal more engaged in the conversation of teaching.

To view the documentary go to the link below. The link will be active until Dec. 14:

A research story that may interest you:

Principal effectiveness tools are short on instructional leadership