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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated Instruction

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I have been teaching for about 9 years, and every year I try to do a little bit more differentiation. This year I am ramping up my DI but it's certainly a lot of work, trying to analyze students' individual learning styles, multiple intelligences, etc. and then create different tiers of instruction and assignments. I am curious to hear from the group at Edutopia if anyone has suggestions and advice for creating a completely differentiated classroom, along with the management and preparation that goes with it.

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Kari's picture

Power Teaching videos can be found on youtube. It can be a great tool to use in your classroom, but it's really a classroom management tool. It gets the students to be active participants instead of passive learners. The man who came up with it is a college professor who uses these methods with his students. He had adapted many strategies for younger students as well.

The key thing about this is to make sure it matches your personality. Try a strategy for about 2 weeks before you decide if you want to keep it or not. Incorporate 1 thing at a time so you don't overwhelm yourself or your students. Personally, I don't like many of the strategies because they don't match my personality, but I use some methods during my English Language Learner rotation. I need to kids to use question and response frame in order to get them to talk in complete sentences. Partnering them up so everyone talks at the same time gives them a comfort level, while ensuring whole class participation. I sometimes feel like a cheerleader during this time, but the kids are learning.

Kari's picture

Some have talked about separating students according to their learning type or by their level. In California at least, it's against the law to arrange classes by ability level. That's segregation. We have resource and special day classes, but parents and educators have signed off on that to allow those students to learn. They have to be tested into those classes and don't just get sorted. We have Honors/AP classes, but those are classes offered to middle and high school students that stretch their abilities and don't diminish the expectations. They are also optional, not mandatory.

As teachers, we are given the discrepency to group students within our classrooms, but having different levels of student ability in one room means there are student models for the lower performing students to observe. Often, a higher level student increases understanding of material when asked to explain concepts to a fellow student. Hearing an explanation from a peer allows the lower level student to hear the concept in a way that might make more sense than the teacher's explanation. Segregating based on ability can be detrimental. We can pair up with another teacher so that only some of our time is spent teaching a heterogeneous group, but we can't let that become the standard. It's about what's best for the kids, not what's easiest for the teachers.

So Cherie, I agree with you about the benefit to herogeneous pair to help the low kids. How I do that is I rank the students to pair them. I don't match the highest kid to the lowest kid, but instead match 1 with 12, 2 with 13, 3 with 14, and so on (I have 22 in my class).

Kari's picture

Amy B, you asked about ideas. It depends on what level your students are, but here are some ideas. Take the vocabulary your students are working on. It doesn't matter if it's subject specific or what level.

Have the kids match a word to a picture, match a word to a word, or match a word to a definition. If you have somehow created pairs, you can create Memory, Go Fish, or Dominoes where the kids have to find a match. It is something that takes a bit of prep time, but once the kids have the rules down, you can play it with math words, science words, story vocabulary, or sight words. You can even do this with problems and answers for math problems.

The key to having successful centers is to have a set number of games where the rules of the game stay the same, but the content of the game changes. For example, once the kids play memory matching pictures of animals, they use the same rules to match a picture to a word, a word to a word, and a math problem to the answer.

Of course, the other key is to decide which game you want the kids to play all year and only introduce 1 new game (with new rules)a month. That way the kids know what to do during centers, but the content is changing.

I teach using Envisions, and this is how the games are. There are about 7 different games, so the rules stay consistent for the whole year, but the games ask students to practice different concepts. They are also differentiated into 2 levels. I just tell my kids which groups play the 1 star game and which get to play the 2 star game.

Kari's picture

I loved Andrea Hall's choice for homework! Jenee had similar ideas. I just find it difficult to do for the younger students. There's a chance I could be a history teacher at a high school next year, so I was thinking that I might give students a choice about whether to read the chapter in the textbook or watch a video on Discovery Streaming. It would depend on how well the video segments and the chapters matched up. That way struggling readers could still get the information and be able to participate. Visual learners would benefit from the pictures too. Then I would use the Bloom's Taxonomy questions to evaluate their understanding. Deciding which level of question to ask is differentiating.

I also thought about giving formatting choices when proving understanding. For example, if I had a set of questions for students to answer, I would let them choose to conduct an interview (so long as the students is the one answering the questions)and tape it, write an essay, or an oral report. The oral report could have a visual like an art project to go with it. That way everyone hands in something, they're all answering the same questions, but how they go about it is up to the individual. I would then grade based on a rubric. For the video part of the grade would be picture quality and sound, the essay would have mechanics and grammar, and the art project would be matching it to the topic. All 3 types would have the rest of the rubric match because it would deal with the ability to answer the questions. In short, presentation would be part of the grade and content would be another.

That is how I would conduct differentiated grading. Otherwise, if you only measure a student against him/herself, you're setting that student up for failure the next year unless everyone grade the same. Also, how is it fair for 2 students to both get an A when their work widely differs. An A is an A. You might instead have effort weigh in on the grade so that kids get at least a D is they do all parts of the assignment, even if it isn't done well. That way you reward their effort, but don't set them up for failure the next year.

Kari's picture

Karen, have you ever heard of Step Up to Writing? It's not quite what you're asking for, but it could be adapted. It works on getting kids to set up a paragraph that then leads to multi paragraph essays. It uses the colors of the traffic light to code sentences. You create an I chart. Above the horizontal line of the I is your green sentence (topic sentence) where kids write out the whole sentence. Next, you have yellows on the left of the vertical line of the I. This is where you write the transition words to get you from one idea to the next. You also JOT (Just One or Two) words as the main idea. On the right side of the vertical line of the I, you have your reds (details). Again, you JOT ideas and match up as many reds as you want/need to each yellow. You separate them by drawing horizontal lines through the body of the I to differentiate ideas. Finally, you have your last green below the horizontal line of the I. This is your conclusion sentence. Once students fill out the I chart, they turn it into sentences. If I had 2 yellows and 2 reds per yellow, and color coded my paragraph, it would look like: green, yellow, red, red, yellow, red, red, green.

Once you teach students to write using this format, you can differentiate writing by reducing or increasing the number of red and yellow sentences based on the needs of your students. Johnny may have to write 4 yellows and have 3 reds per yellow. Susie may have to write 3 yellows and have 2 reds per yellow.

Andrea R.'s picture
Andrea R.

I like this very much. It would be nice if I could 'see' it though.

Andrea R.

Krista's picture
8th grade lit/comp and history teacher from Illinois, near St. Louis, MO

For those of you using differentiation in middle school, I'm wondering what would be the best starting point to use differentiation in a language arts classroom. I have the same students for a block (roughly 100 minutes). I'm wondering if I should plan a unit to start or just build slowly through using adapted worksheets, etc. Any suggestions?


Krista's picture
8th grade lit/comp and history teacher from Illinois, near St. Louis, MO


I was reading your blog about Step Up to Writing. We had a similar program in use in our elementary buildings a few years ago and it did seem helpful. However, I'm curious if this program creates a "cookie-cutter" approach to writing. I only ask because our district discontinued its use because our state said they didn't want to see this formatted writing on the state tests. I'm just curious how other states view it.


Brandi Banks's picture
Brandi Banks
First Grade Teacher

We had participated in a program called being a writer. We soon quit participating because as a first grade teacher my students were only required to write one sentence up until after Christmas. Well, with writers workshop they can write a whole page by Christmas time with little to no trouble. In addition, my kids already make their own books and love to write because of that. We have not found a writing "program" that has really appealed to us as a whole district yet. Maybe some day!!!

Lori's picture

As I was reading through some of these posts, I noticed a few different posts concerning Power Teaching. This is the first I have heard of this concept. It was stated in one post that examples could be seen on youtube. I definitely will check those out and see if it is something that would be useful in my classroom.

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