Starting Up the Differentiated Classroom
Mary Hooper


"Yo, what's up Mrs. Hooper!" Her voice rises above the opening day din of parents and students swarming in front of my classroom. I turn and see one of my impish 2nd grade students. "Know what I did all summer instead of writing in that journal you gave me?" I shrug. "No, Carly, what did you do?" "I was fishin' all day, everyday! AND I caught a 21-incher on Loon Lake. AND I got to slice it open, take out the guts, see the bones, and everything. That was way better than doing dumb schoolwork."

I smile. "Sounds like you have some awesome fish tales to tell," I say. After a pause, I add, "Maybe you could try writing about them today in your journal." She looks directly back at me, rolls her eyes, and laughs. I give her a squeeze. Welcome back, Carly.

Eventually I become aware of a slight tugging at the side of my skirt. It's a wide-eyed little girl, no more than three-feet tall. She stares intently at me, her free hand firmly grasping the wrist of one of my 3rd grade boys. "I am Madeline Kathryn Miller," she announces. "I am six years old, and I am in your 1st grade. Bobby is in your 3rd grade, and he's my neighbor. He is supposed to take care of me today, but I told him I can do this myself!" Bobby shakes his head, gives me her hand, and goes in search of his buddies. Madeline continues. "You know what else? I know about reading. I read 27 books in four different genres—that means types—and I summarized each book in a reading log."

I bend down to give her a hug. "Madeline, it sounds like you've been working very hard," I tell her. "You must be proud of yourself. I'm glad I have such an enthusiastic worker in my class this year."

So they come, one by one and two by two, little ones of every shape, size, temperament, ability, and interest. Sometimes it seems I teach on Noah's Ark rather than in a primary, multi-age classroom. Still, despite their many differences, my students carry with them many similar hopes for the new school year. Each little one is hoping that this year will bring acceptance from others and recognition of her special talents. Each child would like to be successful and accomplish things that he has dreamed of. It is my year long challenge to address those hopes, embrace the diversity within my classroom, and create an environment where a variety of children can thrive.

After almost 20 years in the classroom, the butterflies still take wing in my stomach when I consider the wide range of students who will spend time with me. An endless parade of obstacles could prevent me from reaching them: There is so little time. Resources are often in short supply. Cooperation doesn't always come easily from colleagues, parents, or students. How can I structure a differentiated program in the face of such challenges? If this is a question you've been wrestling with, I hope the following suggestions will help you answer it.

1. Begin with self-reflection.Each summer and at other times during the year, I reexamine my beliefs and attitudes. What is my role as a teacher? What climate am I trying to foster within the room? What do I believe about how children best learn?

One of my beliefs is that all children do not arrive at the same developmental spot at the same time. Madeline Kathryn could probably facilitate a literature group on the first day of 1st grade. Conversely, some of her classmates, some in the 2nd or 3rd grade, are struggling with sound-and-letter correspondence. The recognition of vastly varying degrees of readiness helps strengthen my conviction to provide multiple entry points into the curriculum and a variety of ways for students to explore content and demonstrate what they have learned.

Another key belief is that there is an inherent worth in each child. Every child is deserving of respectful work. Inquiry, challenge, exciting literature, stimulating games, and quality materials should not be reserved for the good students or accelerated learners. Tasks and materials should be scaled to size so they are equally accessible for troubled students or those with learning difficulties. Mind-deadening, simplistic worksheets and bland repetitive tasks are not an option for any student.

Yet another conviction is that students are deserving of trust. Given clear guidelines, consistent consequences, and ongoing encouragement, students are capable of making good choices. For many years I have watched students become empowered by the trust I place in them. They are highly motivated to schedule their own time, choose partners, pick assignments, and develop projects. Of course, my students sometimes slip up—we all do—but we use those poor choices to examine what happened, revise our thinking, and try again.

Out of the trust and high regard for students evolves a student-centered, active classroom, focused on students' development, interests, and the unique ways they learn. I take on the role of a guide, encouraging students to grapple with important concepts, critically analyze ideas, and develop resourcefulness and perseverance in solving problems.

2. Share your beliefs and views about differentiation with your class.On the first day of school, my students and I sit down and talk about what it means to be "fair." We sit on the floor, nibble on animal crackers, and think big, philosophical thoughts.

We ponder the fact that not everyone learns to ride a bike when they are five or to inline skate by the time they are six. I ask them what they think I should do about math—some people need to work on counting, others are ready to add, and still others understand how to multiply. It seems people learn at different times.

We discuss how some people learn best by hearing things, while other people must walk around and touch things before they understand. Still others need to see things in colors and shapes. It seems people learn in different ways.

People also learn at different rates. Some people can hear something once and understand. Others may need to hear it several more times.

I then ask students: "If people learn at different times, in different ways, and at different rates, would it be fair if I gave everyone the very same kind of math to do at the same time and in the same way?" Through this process, we develop a shared agreement about why differentiation is important and what differentiation looks like in the classroom.

3. Develop a clear set of guidelines and consequences for your classroom.Differentiated activities cannot take place successfully amid mayhem. On the first day of school, my students and I develop our classroom rules and consequences. We discuss what it will take to make our learning community successful, and we post that list of behavioral guidelines. From that point on, I consistently enforce what we agreed upon.

4. Become an assessing fool. Assessment and instruction in the differentiated classroom are inseparable. Assessment is not something that is reserved for the end of a unit of study. It is done on a daily basis. What I observe one day is critical for the next day's instruction.

Keep in mind that there are many types of assessment. There are standardized tests and book tests. There are teacher-made tests. There are also teacher observations, student products, conversations, and interactions that give critical clues to student development. I try to glean information about a student from as many contexts as I can. In doing so, I have a much more complete picture of the individual. Then, I am able to make a better instructional fit.

5. Create a system to develop various instructional strategies.Independent study, tiered lessons, learning contracts, learning centers, and interest centers—these are all instructional strategies that are used in the differentiated classroom. How is it possible to learn to work with any more than one or two of them? First, don't panic. Second, don't reinvent the wheel. There are steps that are common to working with all of those strategies. Become familiar with those steps and adjust from there. What is most important is that you know your students, know the content, and be clear about what you want each student to achieve.

6. Finally, enjoy the journey. As a teacher in a differentiated classroom, I understand that I am here for a marathon, not a sprint. The things that I hope to accomplish within my classroom will be done over the course of my teaching career, not in a day.

Working with differentiated programming allows me to take my students beyond where they dreamed they could go, and it pushes me to go beyond my own dreams and expectations.