clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Differentiated Instruction, Whatever That Is: Part I

If you are currently teaching, then you are currently wrestling with differentiated instruction. Or, pardon me, Differentiated Instruction, in capital letters. These are two of the most powerful, totemic buzz words in the field right now, and they present a true challenge for the beginning teacher. I would like to share my journey with Differentiated Instruction, over two posts.

Differentiated Instruction, like other big ideas in the field of education, is intriguing, noble and vague. It has the satisfying flavor of an old idea: tailor your instruction to the specific needs of your students, in order to maximize effectiveness. But Differentiated Instruction also carries an intimidating pedigree of new research and scholarly categorization: children can be classified within spectra of learning types such as visual or aural, kinesthetic or, yes, existential. The beginning teacher, looking around his crazy classroom, can easily lose his read on the students in the haze of such classifications.

My school had a solution. I was told to use my Data (another buzzword, perhaps even more primal and frightening) from reading assessments in order to plan lessons for small groups. Simple enough. Rabbit table, my second-lowest reading group, has difficulty recognizing words with long vowel sounds, especially the long o. I drew up a long o worksheet, and then the table wrote a short booklet using long o words, illustrated the booklet and stapled it together. Ka-BANG! Differentiation!

What were the other reading groups doing all the while? Snake Table was working on their character analysis worksheets. Eagle Table was working on their character analysis worksheets. Armadillo Table was goofing around, but they were supposed to be working on their character analysis worksheets. My assistant principal, who is trying to help me differentiate my instruction, took this all in with patient dissatisfaction.

“One table is doing something different, but the rest of the tables are all working on the same thing. How are you addressing their needs?”

“But Assistant Principal!” I said, “I use the mini-lesson to demonstrate filling in a character analysis worksheet, and then I only have the time to teach Rabbit Table long o vowels. How can I run around giving each table different work?”

“By creating different worksheets for each group.”

The next day, I gathered the class on the rug and showed them my Character Guide, a booklet about one character that included a physical description, a drawing, an analysis of his feelings, and his best and worst traits. The kids were excited. At the end of my demonstration I sent them to their tables for independent work.

“Okay Snake table, you start putting together your Character Guide. Armadillo Table, you are working on a rhyme recognition worksheet. Eagle Table is practicing scooping words. Rabbit table has a homophone worksheet.”

“But Mr. Arp,” Cheryll from Eagle Table complained, “we want to do the Character Guide. I don’t want to do a worksheet. That’s lame.”

For the millionth time, I lied and said, “No, it’s not that lame.”

Data, in the form of assessment results, was not a sufficient basis for differentiation. I found that I was attempting to create the appearance of differentiation, and my classroom had become a whirlwind of worksheets. In the next installment I will write about how I changed my strategy by talking to a more experienced colleague.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing the information families and educators need, but this kind of work isn't possible without your help.

Sign up for the newsletter Chalkbeat New York

Sign up for our newsletter.