George Lucas Educational Foundation

Differentiating in a Middle School Classroom

Differentiating in a Middle School Classroom

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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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This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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DC the Coteacher's picture
DC the Coteacher
7th grade math and 8th grade language arts

I agree whole heartedly with you. I am the co-teacher in my classes, however, I am also qualified to teach Gifted students. Defining student potential based upon the labels they've been given is a mistake. I often find students that have been labeled as underachievers provide unique and resourceful perspectives to the classroom. Gifted students get bored if not challenged. The key for me has been to keep goals attainable and provide suitable, varied resources and supports that allow everyone to achieve to their maximum level. In essence, one lesson with different levels of classroom supports and assessments. Ask everyone the hard question(s) at the end of the class and see who has something to contribute.

DC the Coteacher's picture
DC the Coteacher
7th grade math and 8th grade language arts

We use centers more frequently in math than in language arts. Any recommendations for setting up or selecting topics for center work?

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

Hi DC,
If you're really looking for great ELA center ideas, have you thought about consulting the elementary school teachers in your district? Most elementary school classrooms live and die by the center system, so they could probably give you a ton of ideas that your kids will already be familiar with because they experienced them a couple of years previously.

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

DC the Coteacher.....I setup centers a couple of ways. Some centers I do class-wide and everyone spends time doing them. I always differentiate these for those students who have already mastered the topic but may be interested or able to go deeper in. I also do centers based on smaller groups of students for our RTI time. Often times I have a smaller group of students who need more practice with a particular skill or are interested in a particular topic. So I will set up centers that specific groups of students visit during RTI time when I am busy working one on one or in my own small focused group.

I tend to pick my ELA (or math) centers based on curriculum areas that need more focus because many students may understand the concept, but are not consistently displaying mastery. In other words they need more practice. I also tend to pick center topics based on what I can easily differentiate.

Some centers I create are best for students to attempt individually. I also create some that either require student collaboration or may work better with multiple students who are then available to help support those who have questions about their learning. My center activities range from being based on technology, game, manipulative, pencil and paper or a variety of other activity methods.

Nichole Carter's picture
Nichole Carter
Eighth grade ELA teacher from Portland, OR.

How to get started:

There are a lot of resources out there already, and most of the teachers that are embarking on this process are willing to share what they have or help your problem solve. Twitter #geniushour, also on Google+

Joy Kirr's livebinder for Genius Hour is a great place to start:

Practical tips:

1. Face to Face time is invaluable:

While the students are working independently you are still there helping them focus and problem solve. The relationships you build with them come into play here. You will be using that genius hour time to work with them and conference with them and help them reflect on where they are at in the process.

2. Let Go:

You have to learn to let go of the process at a certain point and be fine with letting the kids work at their own pace. Some get stuck in parts and take awhile to get over the hump while others are zooming ahead.

3. Think about your benchmarks:

How do you want your students to show their mastery of their essential question? For me I had certain items due along the way to keep them on task. A video pitch, an interview, a book to guide their research, and finally a TED style talk to their peers.

4. To grade or not to grade?

Some people don't agree with grading this project. They want this to be project for the sake of learning, I do grade it. Where do you fall in the spectrum?

5. Utilize your own social network:

Use facebook, twitter, google+ to find mentors and/or people to help with interviews.

6. Reflect

Constantly reflect on the process. What is working with your students, what isn't? Not all genius hour's will look the same and I think that is ok. It is about the engagement and creativity for YOUR kids.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Brilliant, thank you. These are great!

Hmm... it occurs to me that these tips are helpful across grade levels. Would you mind if I re-posted them in the Personalized Learning topic?

I'd give you credit of course. Or if you'd prefer, you can post it yourself using the Start a New Discussion link in the left sidebar. Just let me know and thanks again!

Nichole Carter's picture
Nichole Carter
Eighth grade ELA teacher from Portland, OR.

I love using our LMS to help assigned different lexile leveled reading pieces to different groups of students for this very reason. We are a 1:1 iPad school so I feel that by utilizing the technology it makes it much more seamless to provide differentiated instruction, sometimes even without the students being aware that they have different items than the peer next to them.

I also noticed someone mentioned that student buy-in and choice are a big help to differentiated instruction. I have introduced the genius hour project with my students this year, and the level of engagement is unparalleled, I really look forward to bringing that type of student choice into more lessons and standards based tests next year. Engagement and opening ended/inquiry based pieces are where my mind is headed as we revamp our curriculum for next year.

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