Teaching middle school is not for the faint of heart. But if you're called to do it, you know there's nothing else quite like it. Join us in discussing what works - and what doesn't.

Differentiating in a Middle School Classroom

Heather Wolpert - Gawron Middle school teacher by day, educational author/blogger by night

So you're standing there in front of a group of typical middle schoolers, and by definition each one lays somewhere on the developmental line between elementary level and high school. You've got kids reading at 4th grade levels and ones reading at 12th grade levels all in the same room. You've got kids playing Operation and those playing Doctor.

So how do you differentiate for this wide range of students without creating 36 different lesson plans? How do you differentiate in a way that doesn't burn you out of middle school entirely?

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Differentiation

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I find that inquiry activities and open ended projects allow for maximum creativity and differentiation. I allow my students to collaborate and evaluate our rubrics to give them ownership. Project based learning allows my students to go at their own pace and helps them push themselves at their own level. When the student owns the learning process differentiation naturally occurs.

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night

Student Choice

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I'm a big believer in student choice as well a means to boost ownership. In addition to your rubric comment, I think a great activity is to allow students to re-write the rubric in their own words. It's a great small group, whole group, or individual activity and the words chosen on the rubric can be used for goal-setting exit cards as well! Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. I think your point that differentiation naturally occurs when students own the process is one that should help teachers who are freaked out by the concept. It's scary to think you have to create 36 different lessons, yet that is the myth of differentiation. As you say, it happens when the students own the process. Thanks so much for commenting!

-Heather WG

Middle school math and science teacher from Leawood, Kansas

Quote:So you're standing

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So you're standing there in front of a group of typical middle schoolers......So how do you differentiate for this wide range of students without creating 36 different lesson plans? How do you differentiate in a way that doesn't burn you out of middle school entirely?
Join the discussion!

I swing for the fences...by that I mean I teach to the top of the class and figure a way to get the rest to get up there. If you do that they learn to expect more from themselves and they learn to be a team...helping each other do more than they thought they could and finding ways to compensate.

I could never differentiate for all those kids and you're right it would burn me out if I tried.

marsha

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night

"Swing for the fences is right!"

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I think this is a brilliant way to put it. Many of those outside of education (and within) think that we need to track in order to raise students to a higher level. But little do they know, that the lower students rise when they see higher product modeled. And it isn't just with the modeling. So many parents of "gifted" students get a rise when they believe that their children are being used as teachers. Little do they know that just because the groups are mixed, does not mean the teacher is aiming low. Aye, there's the rub...The power is really in the hands of the teacher. Higher expectations for all is just that, "for all." And that is true differentiation.

Thanks so much for your comment and for joining in on the discussion!

-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Charter school humanities teacher for non-traditional middle grade learners

Excellent Ideas

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What a great start to the discussion!

I work with students who experience some difficulty with executive function - the ability to self-monitor and self-prioritize tasks. I try to provide personalized, flexible work plans and indivudalized feedback that students can use to track the completion and mastery of their own work and learning to help them organize themselves rather than depending on adults in the classroom to do that for them. The differentiation by time and choice that the plans offer each student have helped make students more aware of their progress in class and capability to manage their behavior to help their learning.

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night

Differentiated Feedback

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Quote:

I try to provide personalized, flexible work plans and indivudalized feedback that students can use to track the completion and mastery of their own work and learning to help them organize themselves rather than depending on adults in the classroom to do that for them. The differentiation by time and choice that the plans offer each student have helped make students more aware of their progress in class and capability to manage their behavior to help their learning.

Absolutely dead on. Another way to differentiate feedback would be for students to take notes based on your verbal feeback, say in a brief conference about an essay or other piece of work. We all know that students don't really read all the red marks so many of us put so much time into jotting onto a student's paper. I've ditched that method of feedback altogether. Instead, I give verbal feedback and have the student take notes. In the beginning of the year, I give a template that they fill out as we talk, but I slowly ween them off of the template. Also, and I know this is pretty controversial here, I encourage them to use texting language as a means to write shorthand. It's engaging and applicable to their lives.

It's great to see you here, Chad. I follow you on Twitter and it's a pleasure to see you here too! Thanks for joining in on the conversation!
-Heather WG

6th Grade Math Teacher in Point Pleasant, NJ

Formative Assessment and Flexible Grouping

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Our first lesson at the beginning of each new math unit is the unit test! Our sixth grade math curriculum is a 'wrap up' of basic math skills in preparation for algebra and other higher math. The students who have mastered these concepts prior to our unit work on independent projects during classtime. Students who have mastered some but not all of the unit concepts may participate in one-day enrichment activities, challenge homeworks, or act as student teachers, depending on the concept. Giving a pretest also allows me to group students differently for different skills, sometimes homogenously, sometimes not.

My favorite part of this strategy is when I discover that a struggling math student really GETS a concept and I can invite him/her to be a student teacher or to complete a self-directed enrichment activity in the back of the room. Those are the moments that make it all worthwhile.

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night

FA & FG

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Starting with the test itself is fantastic. I mean, who brainwashed all of education into thinking that tests only had to be summative? In fact, only assessing at the end of a unit compartmentalizes the information such that the brain dumps it after the unit it done! Who said students wouldn't learn if they used the assessment formatively or allowed them to go back and actually rethink and rework their answers? Frankly, the information embeds itself even deeper upon further reflection, so why NOT allow students that opportunity?

In regards to fluid grouping, I'm totally into it. I wrote a post some time ago that suggests one way to fluid group easily. You can read it here: http://tinyurl.com/l9fu2u.

Basically, I use character names from literature to name the desks in every group so I can then call on all "Watsons" to do X or all "Juliets" to do Y. Depending on who is sitting in what position, I can create a leveled group or a heterogeneous group. Just a thought.

Thanks so much for commenting on Edutopia, and check back in as more suggestions come pouring in from group members with like minds!
-Heather WG

6th-8th Special Ed, LS & Mentally Gifted teacher

Building Confidence

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With the students I teach, I often find that their confidence and self-esteem is pretty damaged by the time they reach the middle school level. Much of what I do to differentiate, is to find that they are good at and help them begin to be successful. EVERYONE is good at something and EVERYONE has difficulty in something. Students at my school are often reminded of what they can't do or what they have difficulty doing. They start to believe the comments and stop trying.

I share with students that I'm a really bad speller. Have always been, will probably always be. My brain just doesn't work in a way that picks up spelling easily. I can't seem to "see" how the word should be spelled even though I can read it when I see it. I share my short-comings with them and how I overcame it - thank God for spell check! This can help them start to believe in themselves and see things that they can do and how to use that to help them in the areas they have trouble with.

I also love projects. If it were up to me, I would never give another "test" - just projects to have students "show what they know". It really gets them involved in and lets them be creative. I always give as much choice as I can so they can choose how they want to express their knowledge. With MG (mentally gifted), I get to do projects all the time - and the kids LOVE it! It allows them to come at the content in a way that makes sense to them. Every student can find a way to present their understanding if we only give them the opportunity.

Middle School Math

Differentiation

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I came here because differentiation is not my strong point. I like what Marsha said about 'swinging for the fences.' (I never heard that expression before, and I don't quite get it...) I appreciate the 'aim high' approach - having high expectations. I'd say that's pretty much my approach, too.

Our math program is sort of geared toward differentiation. The meat of the problem is usually in the first few questions, so that becomes the basic requirement. Those who finish quickly move on to the rest of the problem. Whole class discussion afterward goes through the whole problem.

I also differentiate homework, giving a base assignment and requiring 20 minutes of honest work, rather than completion of the problems. My experience is that the majority of the students will complete the assignment, while those with real difficulty will work 20 minutes and have a parent sign off to that effect (not my requirement, but one self-imposed by students and/or parents). I also periodically assign a challenge problem for those students who want to explore the concept more deeply. Typically in my regular math classes not too many students attempt these. Those who would probably rise to this challenge are already skimmed off for the 'enriched' math classes.

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