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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Differentiating in a Middle School Classroom

Differentiating in a Middle School Classroom

Related Tags: 6-8 Middle School
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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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Kathie Marshall's picture

Heather, I agree with you, and I don't think teaching "texting" use is controversial at all. I tell my students I "invented" Cornell note-taking while I was in high school, though I folded my paper in half and had to create my own "texting" shorthand. I became such an expert "texter" that I paid my way through college working for an attorney because my school "texting" was also a great employment strategy. Then we begin a discussion about shorthand expressions they already know, and I share some I learned along the way. Students see the applicability of texting to school and vice-versa, and they're very accepting of Cornell note-taking as a useful practice.

David Suarez's picture

I absolutely agree with and love the notion of swinging for the fences for all students.  High expectations for all is the most critical and basic ingredient to building an intoxicating learning culture within a class and broader school community.

I also support attempts to push the fences back even further for our sluggers and super sluggers.  If lesson and unit ending homeruns are the goals we have for all students, what do we do when a select group of kids find the distant fences well within their reach?  I like tiering as a way to offer even more distant fences to kids who are up to even greater challenges.  Teachers in Oakland a few years back and more recently in Jakarta have had a lot of fun implementing this strategy as a way to make sure we push all students to reach distances that are "learning maximizing" depending on their starting points when they they arrive to our classes.  All students are held to a rigorous grade level standard (the homerun), but we also provide exceptionally challenging tasks for kids who are trying to hit the ball out of the stadium each time they're up to bat.

Relative to workload, it was a lot of work upfront.  Dividing work between collaborative teachers and organizing the completed tiered assignments and assessments in a way that made them easily shared between teachers and used from year to year has gone a long way towards making our efforts sustainable and fun.  To offer more perspective, out of the seven teachers who originally embarked on this effort in Jakarta, there were three mothers and one father with pre-kindergarten age children at home, one mother with teenagers and one new (and very proud) grandmother. :)  

We now find ourselves with a tiered math program that's highly responsive to individual needs while not killing the teachers who are pulling it off.  In fact, teachers are finding themselves feeling a lot more effective and less stressed out than the days when we didn't tier.  It certainly helps to have tiered assignments and assessments  in place for just about all lessons and units we teach.  We're not providing individual fences for each child, but doing our best to meet individual needs by offering three sets of fences that seem to match the readiness levels kids tend to bring to class. Then again, students are able to mix assignments, so for example, they might choose do complete half of a standard assignment and half of an advanced assignment rather than the entirety of either one, so I guess the options available to students are more numerous than just the three.  In the baseball analogy, I guess that would be like asking a student to swing for one fence during their first 5 at-bats and then push the fences further back for the last 5 tries.  This sort of flexibility to adjust challenge levels is common outside the classroom, from video games to ski slopes.  Maybe that's one reason it really resonates with kids when brought into the classroom.

I've tried to explain more about our efforts and shared some samples of what these different expectations look like at http://challengebychoice.wordpress.com/ .  Check it out if this sounds at all interesting.  We've had a ton of fun with this approach and there's no doubt that our students are benefitting.

Nice to meet all of you.  I really enjoyed reading all of the comments that have been shared.  Thank you!


Kelly Kietzerow's picture

I am glad that I found this discussion. I am still a fairly new teacher and come to teaching after years in business. In my second year of teaching, an experience teacher in my school district showed me how to create differenated assignments that were easy for me to grade and the students are able to choose what assignment they want to do. At the beginning of each chapter, the students receive a "unit sheet" which lists all of the possible assignments for the chapter and the number of points that are needed for that chapter. There are assignments that all students have to complete and then there are assignments that students can choose. The assignments are geared toward the different learning styles and include skits, songs/raps, poems/descriptive stories, posters, etc. I have had students inform me that doing these different types of assignments that they understood the information better. By the students being able to have some say in their assignments, they were more willing to complete the assignments and increase their understanding of the subject.

Roy Gutscher's picture
Roy Gutscher
8th Grade Reading/Language Arts Teacher

Pre-assessment is the key to finding what skill levels your students are. I believe that a centers based instruction. Students are grouped heterogeneously by their skill or interest level. My higher students may be conducting research while my lower groups are completing the same skill but at a different level. This also gives me more time with my lower students; while my higher groups work as a group or as individuals to complete their tasks. Many times my higher level will help as a peer tutor. Two of my students last year year stated they learned a great deal from these experiences. ANother thing I like doing is to give students a choice of assignments whenever possible. This has helped with student buy-in of the assignment.

shanebravo's picture
In the world the parent-child relationship is one of the longest lasting so

Whenever a child goes into school, he wants to go in college, but when he found himself in college then he miss his middle school classroom., whenever he was in college and after college all the tensions like found an earning source Home work, reaching at school time all such things he miss when, responsibilities are in creased a, then how it is possible that a man not forget his middle school classroom. This is the best part of every one's life.

Things to do with Children

Barbara's picture
seventh Math, eighth Science

all this is new to me and would appreciate any help you all can give me, Web sites and how to set up group work etc.
Thank you all :)

Jessica's picture
Building Confidence in Students, One Child at a Time

In middle school, students begin making choices that affect the rest of their lives. Many will start selecting classes that will help them on the path to college. Some will deal with bullies for the first time, while others might find and nurture a talent.

charlotte's picture

I like your idea. I like to allow my students to engage in projects. However, I tend to feel strapped for time! How do you "fit" it in and elaborately cover all the state objectiives.What grade/ subject do you teach?

charlotte's picture

I tend to do that, too. I have always set high expectations in my class. However, for some reason, my middle to low level learners seem to do better on standardized test. Any suggestions??

Kathy Evenson's picture
Kathy Evenson
8th Grade Language Arts Teacher, Colorado

"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."

Verbal feedback is a must and I love the idea of having students take notes on the feedback. I don't know why I have never thought of that! As for the texting language, what makes it any different than the office shorthand my mother learned back in the 50s? It isn't for audience consumption. It is for the student's consumption and as long as they understand it, that is what matters.

I too agree that students should be held to high standards and expectations, but in my classroom I have found it unrealistic to have my developing readers attempt to tackle the text that my high flyers are ready for. It leads to frustration, disengagement, a feeling of failure, and a dislike/hatred of reading. Even with significant scaffolding, it is difficult to take a 4th grade level reader to the level of comprehension necessary to understand text at the high end of 8th grade complexity. My approach is to analyze my essential question, teach mini-lessons to address the common standards and then differentiate the text that the reader engages with. I meet with small groups and conference frequently with individual readers, enabling me to teach the standards, but also meet students individual needs.

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