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Baby Steps: A Beginner's Guide

Baby Steps: A Beginner's Guide



 Baby Steps: A Beginner's Guide
Kari Sue Wehrmann

The journey to a differentiated classroom starts with small steps.

Have you seen the movie What About Bob?, starring Bill Murray? Bob's psychiatrist tells him to take baby steps to get past his anxieties and fears. Bob repeats his "baby steps, baby steps" mantra as he embarks on a new adventure. Last year, my new challenge was to teach gifted and talented students in a mixed-ability middle school language arts classroom. How would I meet all of my students' needs? After some research and experimentation, I found the answer: differentiation.

Carol Ann Tomlinson's (1995) informal definition of differentiation in How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms is to "shake things up a bit" (p. 32). Because students bring a variety of abilities and interests to the classroom, teachers should offer a variety of learning options.

Teachers differentiate curriculum through content, process, and product. Content differentiation means giving the students different material to cover. For instance, a student has already read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Instead of having the student reread it with the class, an option might be to assign that student I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. A common differentiation of process is curriculum compacting, which means paring the curriculum to the essentials so that gifted and talented students may move quickly through the material, test out, and go on to more aptitude-appropriate material (Reis, Burns, & Renzulli, 1992). Product differentiation occurs when we allow students to demonstrate their learning through different assessment formats. For example, students could show their understanding of Romeo and Juliet by modernizing the script, acting out a scene, or creating musical accompaniment for the play's important scenes.

Some Basic Tips

Is differentiation the straw that breaks the busy teacher's back? Here are some tips I compiled from my research for making differentiation doable and for meeting the needs of gifted and talented students.

First, like Bob, take baby steps. A runner training for a marathon doesn't jog 20 miles on the first workout. The same idea applies here. Add differentiation activities gradually so that they don't overwhelm you or your students. Start with one student and differentiate only the content, for example.

Second, make activities different; don't just add more of the same. Sometimes teachers differentiate the product by having some students do more of what the other students are doing. Instead of solving 25 multiplication problems, the gifted and talented students must work 50 problems. What message are we giving those students who have already mastered the mathematical concept? The answer: being mediocre is a better choice than being gifted (Taylor, 1999).

Third, the best way to meet the needs of the gifted in a mixed-ability classroom is to raise the bar for everyone. Yes, there are times when I specifically target an activity for the gifted and talented, but many times I open an alternative learning experience to the whole class. By doing this, I communicate to my students that I think each of them is capable of high achievement.

My fourth tip is to find your students' passions. Discover what makes them tick. I tap into students' interests during class discussions, when I create assignments, and when I see students in the halls between classes. Linking their world to school creates more engaging and relevant educational experiences.

Taking Baby Steps

Taking these tips into account, I took these baby steps in my classroom last year.

Differentiating Content for a Small Group

Objective: To create an individualized, alternative learning experience for talented writers during a formula essay unit so that gifted students might show growth and retain interest in writing.

Four of my English 9 students had demonstrated their mastery of the formula essay, so I gave them the option to demonstrate their growth in writing in an independent study format or to do a series of formula essays with the general class. All four students chose the independent study option.

Each student developed a different project. One student penned an essay and entered it in a creative writing contest. Another student wanted to work on using colorful details in her narrative writing. Her incredible first draft was 10 single-spaced pages. The third student read A Prayer for Owen Meany and wrote a comparison/contrast paper of the book and the movie, Simon Birch. The fourth student researched influential figures from the Civil Rights movement and wrote a historical fiction piece.

This learning opportunity allowed four students to work on the same concept that the rest of the class was working on but allowed for individual differentiation of curriculum in content and process. The product, a paper, was the same for all students.

Differentiating Content, Process, and Product for a Small Group

Objective: To create an alternative learning experience for talented readers during a unit onThe Acorn People so that those students might show growth in their knowledge of diversity (the book's theme) and sustain an interest in reading.

My English 8 students read The Acorn People, a book about a group of physically challenged young people who confront obstacles and learn to believe in themselves. Despite its important lesson, the book's reading level doesn't challenge talented 8th graders. Because many of these 8th graders could read the book in one sitting at home, I gave them an alternative learning experience.

These students could choose another book that dealt with the same lesson and create a project to show their understanding of the book. I would have to approve and sign a student-created learning contract. Six students from my 7th period class piloted this idea. At first, the road was bumpy because the students were not used to having so much freedom. I listed a few books: Tuesdays with Morrie, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, or a biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Stephen Hawking. Students responded that they were tired of reading about visible differences, such as being in a wheelchair or a person's skin color. They wanted to read a book that covered a different type of diversity and finally decided on multiple intelligences theory. The students read Seven Kinds of Smart: Identifying and Developing Your Multiple Intelligences and Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.

The students knew that their goals were to show growth in their knowledge of diversity, to sustain an interest in reading, and to create a product to demonstrate their understanding of their books. They created a video of a talk show, with one host interviewing other group members about their findings on multiple intelligences and diversity.

Here are some changes I will make if I do this project again. Because these students were spending some of their class time outside the classroom to shoot and edit the talk show, the other students in the class felt excluded from the fun. Originally, I had planned that differentiated projects would parallel the activities of the general class so that all of the students could benefit. Because students showed so much enthusiasm for the multiple intelligences project, I allowed the students to run with it. Their work did help them sustain an interest in reading, but I believe it may have diminished the other students' interest in language arts. Next time, I will be more sensitive to that dynamic.

After the gifted students edited and reviewed their video, they decided that their work did not show as much effort as the work that the rest of the class had done on The Acorn People. They decided that each group member would write a paper to accompany the video. The video was their group work, and the paper would show their individual growth.

The day after the general class took the final exam on The Acorn People, the gifted students showed their video, handed in their papers, and made their presentation to the entire class. Although the project wasn't a raging success, it prepared me for my third activity, the Passion Project. This would be the first time I differentiated content, process, and product for the entire class.

Differentiating Content, Process, and Product for All Students

Objective: To offer students individualized learning experiences during an independent study unit so that students might sustain or create an interest, showcase their interests, and develop their skills in language arts.

My culminating goal was to differentiate in content, process, and product for every student. I started by modifying Roger Taylor's (1999) I-SEARCH projects for independent study work. For these projects, students write a learning contract and create a product, such as a video or a diary, from a list of about 50 suggestions. (For the list, visit Taylor has categorized the list by multiple intelligences so that students can choose to create a product that uses their learning strengths.

With I-SEARCH as a model, I developed the Passion Project for my English 8 students. After a year of differentiating individual tests and projects, I opened up the curriculum for the last two weeks of the semester. Students created their own language arts goals, project proposals, and quality indicators. They could work on projects individually or in small groups.

We devoted two class periods to preparation, identifying language-arts goals and matching those goals with appropriate products. I shared some of Taylor's I-SEARCH examples. At first, students were reluctant to believe that they could create a comic strip or an animated movie for English class. Most students thought this work was too elementary for junior high. They had a stereotyped notion that academic work should be assessed by taking a test or writing a paper. After discussing and sharing more product examples, the students saw, for example, that even though creating a fairy tale to demonstrate knowledge about mythology might seem juvenile, a high quality tale could show a sophisticated understanding of Greek gods and goddesses.

Students prepared rough drafts of their project proposals for my review and comment. Then we spent a class period revisiting and clarifying my expectations for the projects. Students wrote their final proposals, which had to be approved and signed by the student, his or her parent(s) or guardian(s), and me. If students didn't meet the deadline for the proposal or didn't want to create a project, I assigned them a project.

At the beginning of the Passion Project, I felt very tentative. But once students started working, I was amazed! Every student finalized a schedule for those two weeks and everyone worked in a frenzy. When they handed in their final products, I was awed by their work. Because students were allowed to choose the way they wanted to demonstrate their knowledge, they were able to build on their strengths and passions. One student demonstrated his knowledge of the history of linguistics through a storyboard and audiotape for a commercial. Another student completed a 22-page science fiction story.

The fear I felt at the beginning of the school year has turned to eagerness and excitement. By combining tips from the experts and making revisions along the way, a new world has opened up for me and for my students.


Reis, S. M., Burns, D. E., & Renzulli, J. S. (1992). Curriculum compacting: The complete guide to modifying the regular curriculum for high ability students. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.

Taylor, R. (1999). Current, best instructional strategies for your gifted and highly capable students. Bellevue, WA: Bureau of Education and Research.

Tomlinson, C. A. (1995). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. 

Kari Sue Wehrmannteaches English at Hopkins West Junior High School, 3830 Baker Rd., Minnetonka, MN 55305; Phone: (952) 988-4150 ext. 6898; e-mail: .