Week Two Reflection

It was lovely seeing, both in blog posts and on Twitter, all the things that we as teachers are already doing to differentiate instruction in our classrooms. There aren’t extra bonuses for every lesson we modify or additional resource we provide for our students. It is likely even pretty rare that there is any sort of recognition at all, whether it be a pat on the back or a “good job” at the end of the day. What there is, instead, is a rich educational environment where successful learning is possible for a variety of students. There is a chance at success for a student who would have fallen through the cracks. There is more joy and less strife. There is achievement and genuine learning. Yes, there will always be something more that we could be doing, but in that quest, let us not forget to take the time to recognize what we already are accomplishing.


Week Two: Making Decisions and Setting Criteria

Essential question: How do you make decisions about your own actions for students in a differentiated classroom? What is your criteria for intervention, and/or for letting learning happen?

Differentiated Instruction Concept Map

The first question is a challenging one for me. I am not currently teaching, but have experience in a variety of classroom settings. Providing differentiation for high school students is a far different task than it is for primary students and differentiated instruction looks very different in a regular classroom setting than it does in an intervention classroom.

I would like to focus on the primary classroom this week, because after having success with providing differentiated instruction to high school freshmen, I was once again back at the starting gate when faced with fifteen five- to nine-year-olds. My lesson plans for the first week were brilliant. So brilliant in fact, that we breezed through them in the first three hours. Of the first day. I had lulled myself into thinking that these wee students would possess time management skills, be somewhat self-directed, and that any project we worked on would take longer than three minutes to complete. Was I ever wrong.

I think a large part of making differentiated instruction successful is teaching the underlying skills necessary for students to work independently, to recognize when they need further assistance, and to see when they can continue to push forward and make progress on their own. I couldn’t ask my students to watch a video from the internet when they didn’t even know how to turn on the computer independently. I couldn’t ask them to read about a subject when they couldn’t yet read. How could they reflect on their work when they didn’t even know what that word meant? Without providing them with these skills, I was tasking myself with being the keeper of all the knowledge.

Using strategies from Guided Reading (Fountas and Pinnell, 1996), I taught reading, writing, and math in small groups while my remaining students moved through a series of independent activities at different stations. My groups were flexible over time, but only by my criteria as I moved students up or down to meet their instructional needs. The process of teaching my students how to effectively use their time at their independent stations (create a painting of a character in a book, use your vocab words to make a sentence and illustrate it, story listening center, etc.) took months. There were so many extrinsic rewards at the beginning I thought I might die of sticker fatigue. Eventually, I phased these extrinsic motivators out and talked about intrinsic motivation. When students were off task, I used one-liners from Love and Logic (Fay and Cline, 1997) to quickly refocus them.

Although we had been working on science and social studies concepts throughout the year, we had been doing everything together as a single entity. After about five months of intensive groundwork, I felt as though my students were ready tackle some challenges that would allow them be more in charge. They were hesitant at first, but with encouragement and focus on their strengths, I was able to get most of them engaged in a life science unit about food webs. I started the differentiation by letting the students choose how they wanted to demonstrate how food webs worked. Some students wanted to draw them, some wanted to create them on the computer, and some wanted me to hold their hand or do their work for them. I tried to pair more confident students with those that were hesitant, but in hindsight I think it would have worked better to let the more confident and eager students work together while I continued to work with the more hesitant group, helping them think through ideas and providing examples, while building their confidence in their abilities.

In John McCarthy’s article 3 Ways to Plan for Diverse Learners: What Teachers Do (2014), he states that the form of differentiation that most teachers are comfortable with is differentiated product. I feel like this is my go-to as well, especially when I am just starting to differentiate in a classroom. I feel that it is the most manageable and the easiest to demonstrate to students.

As for the second question regarding intervention, I tend to be more inclined to provide an intervention, whether formal or informal, early so a student doesn’t fall behind the rest of the group. I worked as a reading intervention teacher for a year on the Kenai Peninsula. I had great success getting students caught up and reading at the same level as their peers if I was able to work with them in the primary grades. If the intervention had been delayed for a year or two for various reasons, getting a student’s skills back to grade level was much more challenging, both academically and emotionally. The National Association of Elementary School Principals recommends early interventions. Furthermore, the NAESP article Response to Intervention in Primary Grade Reading (2011) supports these interventions as well as whole class instruction through differentiated instruction:

Tier one reading instruction is high-quality, evidence-based instruction provided to the whole class. Differentiated instruction at Tier one is vital, and teachers should use reading measures data to identify the skills students need to target for improvement. Differentiation can occur by varying the time, content, and degree of teacher support and scaffolding and might be carried out during independent work time or small group instruction.

Differentiated instruction is essential for all students, not only those receiving Tier two and Tier three interventions. Teachers can vary instruction by changing content focus, amount of instructional time, and degree of scaffolding. In Tier one, differentiation can be provided during independent work or small groups. In Tiers two and three, teachers should use progress monitoring and analyze data to assess reading proficiency growth, differentiate instruction, and to determine if students need additional help.


Fay, J. & Cline, F.W. (1997). Discipline with love and logic. Golden, CO: Love and Logic Press.

Fountas, I. C., & Pinnell, G. S. (1996). Guided reading: Good first teaching for all children. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

McCarthy, J. (2014). 3 ways to plan for diverse learners: What teachers do. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/differentiated-instruction-ways-to-plan-john-mccarthy

Methods of differentiation in the classroom. (2010). Retrieved from http://www.bbcactive.com/BBCActiveIdeasandResources/MethodsofDifferentiationintheClassroom.aspx

NAESP. (2011). Response to intervention in primary grade reading. Retreived from http://www.naesp.org/sites/default/files/Primary_Reading_0.pdf

Tomlinson, C. A. (2001). How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms. Alexandria, VA, USA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development (ASCD). Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com


Week One Reflection: What is Differentiated Instruction?

I spent the past two weeks volunteering in the portable planetarium, Starlab. One time each week, each of the twenty-one classes crawled through the entry tunnel, folded their eager legs, and gazed up at a clear night sky. More than 400 students learned how to find the Big Dipper and Polaris, Orion, Gemini, Canis Major, Cassiopeia, and Ursa Minor. Some learned about the phases of the moon. Some learned how to tell the month with a Dipper Calendar. There was so much authentic learning, so much palpable excitement, and I was left with one nagging question: Is this differentiated instruction?

Reading blog posts and comments, looking at infographics, and participating in the Twitter session were wonderful opportunities for me to reflect on what happens in classrooms and what we are doing right as educators. We care about the education of our students. We want to do what will make them the most successful. We dedicate hours of our own time to make that happen. And then we doubt that we are doing enough.

I see differentiation as a way to make learning more accessible to our students. At the beginning of the year that I taught with no textbook, I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to be able to provide my students with the type of education they needed. I saw successful education as books and tests, high scores and neat handwriting. The part I was missing was the genuine love of learning the material. Differentiation gave that to my students. Many students found success in showing their understanding in non-traditional ways. Those students who would have been goofing around because they were bored out of their minds (the material was too easy, too hard, too boring, etc.) had to own their learning experience. I was there as a facilitator, and that role allowed me more time to work with groups that struggled, to find adequate and appropriate materials, to guide students in the right direction, to teach them how to be successful.

Did Starlab provide an opportunity for differentiated instruction? In a sense, no, because everyone was doing the same thing. But on the other hand, the students were out of their element, doing something new and exciting, and they were engaged. There is still more to learn!


What is Differentiated Instruction?

Differentiated Instruction Infographic

In 1946, Aldous Huxley wrote satirically of a Utopian world where humans are created by cloning, fostering longevity of life, universal happiness, and utmost, equality. The children of Huxley’s Brave New World would be poor candidates for differentiated instruction, unlike the children of the real-world classrooms of today. As teachers, we are tasked with educating students with a broad range of academic abilities, each with varying levels of engagement, and from a wide variety of backgrounds. As good teachers, we try to maximize the learning experience of each student in our room. Differentiated instruction is a way to make that happen.

I had heard about differentiated instruction in college, about its merits for student learning and growth. In the happy and comfortable confines of the world of academia it sounded rather ideal and I was sure that I would be tackling my first teaching job with such innovation and creativity that my students wouldn’t have a chance to do anything but succeed. When riding such a high horse, it it often nice to have a grand reality check. I have never experienced the sense of failure, before or since, that I did in myself during my first year of teaching. I struggled. I scraped by. I barely survived. There was no creativity. Student collaboration was a pipe-dream. Each day, just before falling into bed in a state of exhaustion, I drew a thick, black line through another square on the calendar, hoping to make it to the end of May.

I returned to school in Montana, leaving rural Alaska for a time. I knew that teaching was still what I wanted to do, but I needed to make it work better. By pure chance, a half-time middle and high school teaching position opened up right before the start of my return to college. I had no time to prepare, so I arrived the first day of school with the students. My 9th grade biology class eagerly waited while I passed out ancient textbooks and then we opened them to the first chapter. Within the first paragraph was a sentence that stated: Mushrooms are also part of the plant kingdom. It was the sentence that forced me to rethink how my students were going to learn that year.

After collecting the textbooks, I informed the class that we would not be using a book that year, but rather the students would work in groups or individually to learn about biology. I would present the topic, the students would have class time to research and work on presentations, and then there would be time for culminating activities. I had a wide range of learners in my room, including many special education students. I was able to work with the special education staff to find materials at the appropriate reading levels and made those available. Students could pick their own groups and their own method of demonstrating mastery of the material. Examples of work that was turned in included written reports, diagrams, children’s books, PowerPoint presentations, physically acting out cycles (Krebs, life, cell), creating raps, and poetry. With each topic, the quality of presentations became more refined.

It wasn’t an easy year of teaching. I don’t think any year of teaching is ever easy. What it was was an incredible journey, a transformation in my overall thinking about what could and should happen in the classroom. I saw students who had never had success in a traditional environment flourish. I saw students who were overly comfortable with the “read a chapter, answer the questions” style of learning struggle, but through that struggle find that learning could have more depth, more value. Those ninth graders smiled and laughed and learned the entire year.

In the year 2000, the world of technology as we know it was still in its infancy. Still, with four IBM classroom computers running Windows 95 and access to the internet, the world of learning was opened to my students. As the years go by and technology becomes more readily available and certainly more capable of helping students create amazing things, I wonder what that biology classroom would look like today. My teaching journey continued with the completion of another degree and my return to rural Alaskan classrooms. Thanks to that 1968 biology textbook and the misinformation it contained, I returned with a broader sense of what I wanted the learning within my classroom to look like and how I could accomplish that.


Huxley, A. (1946). Brave new world. New York, NY: Harper & Bros.

Smith, G. E., & Throne, S. (2009). Differentiating Instruction with Technology in Middle School Classrooms. Eugene, OR, USA: ISTE. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com

Tomlinson, C. A. (2001). How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms. Alexandria, VA, USA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development (ASCD). Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com

WCPSS AG Program. (2009). Toolbox for planning rigorous instruction: Essential elements of differentiated instruction. Retrieved from http://tpri.wikispaces.com/file/view/03-02%20Essential%20Elements.pdf/163388445/03-02%20Essential%20Elements.pdf