Preparing Parents for Differentiation in the Classroom

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Essential question: How do we prepare parents for differentiation in the classroom?

While student learning is the main focus of our profession, there are many pieces to the complex puzzle that help maximize that goal. One of the most important pieces is parent support. Changing the structure of a learning environment from the expected to something which can be perceived as unconventional or even unfair without losing that parental support takes careful planning and execution.

Deanna Soukup, a middle school science teacher, starts the year off right with this letter home to the parents of her students. She does an excellent job of explaining the basics of differentiated instruction, the benefits to all students in her room, and how this instruction might look on any given day. She uses educational vernacular, but clearly defines everything that might be unclear to the non-educator. Ms. Soukup also cites references in her letter which back up the principles and merits of differentiated instruction in the classroom. Most importantly, she encourages feedback and provides contact information for parents who might have questions or concerns, making her letter seem more like a two-way street rather than a directive.

After setting the groundwork with a letter home, encouraging parents to come and experience differentiated instruction along with the class is another way to show how learning is taking place for all students, in ways that maximize their individual learning potential. Caltha Crowe’s article (2004) about her classroom’s Wonderful Wednesdays gives a glimpse at how parents are included in her classroom. Parents are welcome to come and join the class, but they are welcomed as participants, not as helpers. This allows the parents to work alongside the students and experience differentiation firsthand. With some modifications, this idea of having parents be a part of the class could work in many other classroom settings.

In the article A Parent’s Guide to 21st-Century Learning (2012), the “4C’s”, competencies that go beyond basic academic proficiencies, are addressed. They are considered the skills that students will need to possess in order to be successful in the rapidly changing world we live in.

C o l l a b o r a t i o n : Students are able to work effectively with diverse groups and
exercise flexibility in making compromises to achieve common goals.
C r e a t i v i t y : Students are able to generate and improve on original ideas and also
work creatively with others.
C o m m u n i c a t i o n : Students are able to communicate effectively across multiple
media and for various purposes.
C r i t i c a l  t h i n k i n g : Students are able to analyze, evaluate, and understand
complex systems and apply strategies to solve problems.

These skills are all skills that can be incorporated into differentiated instruction. Helping parents see the benefit of possessing these skills and where they fall into the natural structure of a differentiated classroom can help some resistant parents see the value in this type of classroom structure.

Parents can be an incredibly valuable tool in building a differentiated classroom. They can provide information about their child that the classroom teacher might not know or see during the regular school day. They are also a great barometer for how thing are going with differentiation. Eidson (2008) encourages parents to talk with their students to see how the differentiated classroom is working for them. As educators, we should make it a priority to exchange information with the parents of our students as another way to gauge the effectiveness of our instruction. This exchange of information will provide the parent with a greater sense of inclusion in the educational process, which in turn will help to create a positive view of the differentiated classroom.


A parent’s guide to 21st-century learning. (2012). Edutopia. Retrieved from

Crowe, C. (November 1, 2004). Wonderful Wednesdays. Retrieved from

Eidson, C. (October 3, 2008). What every parent should know about differentiated instruction. Retrieved from

Smutny, J. (September, 2004). Differentiated instruction for young gifted children: How parents can help. Retrieved from

Soukup, D. (n.d.). Parent letter differentiated instruction. Retrieved from

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



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

Methods of differentiation in the classroom. (2010). Retrieved from

NAESP. (2011). Response to intervention in primary grade reading. Retreived from

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


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

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

WCPSS AG Program. (2009). Toolbox for planning rigorous instruction: Essential elements of differentiated instruction. Retrieved from