Is Differentiation Possible?

One of the teachers I follow on Facebook shared this article about how differentiation doesn’t work.  It bothered me.  Being a resource teacher, differentiation is a big deal.  It is my job!  I take the general education curriculum and differnatie it for my students.  This article is basically saying that it’s impossible to teach different abilities of students in one classroom.  I’m not saying it doesn’t present challenges but it doesn’t have to mean teacher burnout or more planning time for the classroom teacher.  If you are like the majority of the other teachers who were leaving comments on the article, you are likely shaking your head at me and wondering what kind of fantasy world I live in. 

Many teachers were resonating with the article and it broke my heart!  My comment about the article was, “As a resource teacher, this article is hard to read. I support teachers in order to make differentiation happen. I think “work smarter, not harder” is what comes to mind. Differentiation doesn’t have to be impossible if done well. I’ve seen it work seamlessly in some classrooms and it’s beautiful! It’s about using all our resources in an inclusive setting instead of separating everyone.”

I want to highlight that if a classroom teacher is expected to meet the needs of all the students in their classroom, by themselves, it is not fair.  It feels impossible and it will lead to burnout.  I’m not saying the article is wrong about this.  I’m saying the way differentiation is approached, from the article’s perspective, is wrong.  I’ve been in classrooms where the ability levels span across 6 grade levels!  I understand where the article is coming from but I don’t want it to be the answer.  

One quote from the article reads, “The sad truth is this: By having dismantled many of the provisions we used to offer to kids on the edges of learning (classes for gifted kids, classes for kids who struggle to learn, and classes for those whose behaviors are disruptive to the learning process of others), we have sacrificed the learning of virtually every student.”  Talk about breaking my resource teacher heart!  It’s not about dismantling the provision of pulling kids out, it’s about embracing the provision of having support teachers push into the classrooms.  It’s about collaborating, being a team, and providing the best education we can under these tough circumstances of standardized testing and the lack of priority we feel on the education system.

Example 1

I taught in 2 different schools where I was amazed at their differentiation.  Teachers had 6 different grade levels in their classrooms and they were still meeting the needs of students.  

The first school I saw this happen in was actually one of my student teaching placements.  It was my first day there and I was observing my teacher.  We walked into a 2nd grade classroom and sat down at one of the round tables.  There were 3 teachers in the classroom, including us.  The classroom teacher instructed the students to, “go to their station.”  Each teacher had a group of 4-5 students and there was one group of students working on their own.  We spent 15 minutes with our first group and than everyone rotated.  We stayed through 2 rotations.  Here is the breakdown of what happened:

Rotation:  15 minutes each

Classroom Teacher Reading Specialist Special Education Teacher Independent Station Gifted Teacher

1

B

A and C

D
2

A

B

D and C

3

C

A B

D

4 D C A

B

Group A – Students below grade level (some with IEPs)

Group B – Students slightly below grade level (some with IEPs)

Group C – Students on grade level

Group D – Students above grade level

Students with IEPs were seen by the Special Education Teacher.  They were divided into 2 groups based on ability and then some general education students were also in those groups.  The special education teacher was in the room for 30 minutes.  After that, we rotated to another classroom that also had students with IEPs and did similar rotations.  This was basically the whole day.  Switching from classroom to classroom, working with small groups of mixed abilities, and working as a team with other teachers to make differentiation happen.  

The way this worked well was because the Special Education Teacher, Reading Specialist, and Gifted Teacher were part of the planning!  The rotations connected and worked well.  It was a well oiled machine and it made it possible to have the span of 6 ability levels in 1 classroom without pulling students out of the room into different groups.  Teachers pushed into the classroom and made small groups and rotations.  This allowed more students to get specialized instruction that they likely would not have had otherwise.

One other thing I learned in this student teaching placement was how to differentiate independent work.  The classroom teacher had a system to help students find books on their independent level.  She had also created a choice board of activities that could be used for any book and it was differentiated for 3 ability levels.  Therefore, during independent time, each student had a book on their level with activities that were on their independent level so everyone could be successful and on task!  It took a little planning at the beginning of the year but she uses the same system all year long.  Talk about saving time!  There were rarely behavior problems during this independent time because students were being successful.

Example 2

The second example is from an elementary public school setting where I taught for three years.  We almost had one ESL (English as a Second Language) Teacher for each grade because the diversity in the school was so great.  We had diversity of culture, language, economic background, family backgrounds, abilities, and behaviors in every grade level.  The only way to make it work was to be a team.

As the only resource teacher in the school, I taught in every grade.  Thankfully my administration tried to group the students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) in 1 or 2 classrooms per grade level.  This kept my schedule possible!  I figured out what classrooms the students with IEPs were in and then collaborated with those teachers.  I couldn’t meet all the needs of all the below grade level students in the whole school, but I could teach more students than just the ones with IEPs.  

I would start with “my” students, the ones with Individualized Education Plans, as my focus but if there were other students who would benefit from my instruction, they were  joined too!  I would push into classrooms and mostly do small group instruction.  Sometimes I’d only have 1 student with an IEP in the group with 4 general education students.  At the same time, a reading specialist was in the room with 4 students, and an ESL teacher was working with 6 others.  That left the classroom teacher to work with the on/above grade level students.  

Again, the focus was on support teachers pushing into the classrooms and being able to teach in small group settings to provide support for any student it was appropriate for!

There was one specific classroom that had a larger group of students learning english and a larger group of students with disabilities.  The ESL teacher and myself pushed into the classroom and we rotated small groups, similar to my first example.  We met once a week to make a plan for the next 5 days.  It worked so well!  I loved that my students weren’t only getting taught by me but also by the ESL teacher and an awesome classroom teacher.  

What does it take…

  • Classroom teachers being open to support teachers coming into their classes.
  • Administration supporting the idea of inclusion and allowing support teachers to push into classrooms.
  • Being creative about grouping students and how to rotate groups.
  • Giving up some independent planning times to plan together in teams.
  • Emailing, talking, sharing plans, and communicating openly with other teachers.
  • Wanting to be a team.

Maybe this feels impossible compared to where your school is at.  Maybe you don’t have enough support teachers at your school or your support teachers are too overworked.  Maybe your administrator isn’t supportive.  Maybe you are already burned out and trying something new feels overwhelming.

My examples aren’t perfect answers but they are my experiences of what has worked well.  If nothing else, I hope you can be inspired or that this has sparked a new idea for you!

Back to the article

I will advocate for inclusion until I’m blue in the face.  At the same time, I do pull small groups out of general education classrooms if it’s appropriate.  This could be based on behavior, distractibility in the general education classroom, or a number of other factors but the point is, it’s always different based on the students needs, which is the definition of differentiation.  There isn’t a set rule for differentiation.  It’s messy and complex, which is why so many teachers feel overwhelmed by it.  I don’t think one teacher can do it all.  I don’t think it’s designed to be that way.   

If you want some specific ideas about how to start differentiating in your classroom, you can check out this article.

Here’s to being a team!

Erika



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