“Get your book baskets,” a 2nd grade teacher says, and the students scramble excitedly to retrieve their baskets from the cubbies. No two book baskets were the same, as they contain books the students had selected based on each child’s assessed reading level.
“Students use the Good Fit Book strategy to select classroom books, from their daily reading baskets, at their independent reading level. And they participate in small book clubs to encourage literary discussion, improve comprehension and fluency, and develop a love of reading,” 2nd grade Lead Teacher Kathy Thompsen said.
Much has changed in education since the days of the one-room schoolhouse. However, one thing has remained constant: teachers still contend with the essential challenge of how to effectively reach students today — in the same class and around the same age — who span a spectrum of learning styles, levels of readiness, and interests. One important classroom practice that has evolved over decades and addresses this critical dilemma is differentiation.
Differentiated instruction factors in the unique learning profiles of students before a lesson plan is developed, according to Carol Ann Tomlinson, a thought leader in the field.
Differentiated instruction “is a way of thinking about teaching and learning that begins where the student is rather than with a prescribed plan that ignores their differences,” Tomlinson wrote.Differentiation adapts teaching approaches, school materials, subject content, class projects, and assessment methods to optimally meet the needs of diverse learners.
Teachers provide specific alternatives and use a variety of instructional strategies, without assuming one student’s roadmap for learning is the same as another’s. Some students learn best by reading and writing. Others gain by watching a video or listening to an audiobook. While some students do better with role-playing, simulations, and interactive online exercises on iPads. The aim is not to force-fit learners into a uniform mold; it is to ensure that students can approach learning in different ways but with similarly successful outcomes.
A vital element in enabling access to the curriculum in different ways is through a flexible classroom. Even the seating is considered to provide an optimal learning environment for students. JCDS incorporates various types of furniture and arrangements to support both individual and group work. Depending on grade level, the classroom may have rolling desks, quiet peace places for reading or small group work, desks clustered together to facilitate teamwork, and/or rugs for Morning Meeting. Learning centers are also used in the classroom to house an array of materials with differing levels of complexity.
An important tool to help differentiate instruction is formative assessment, which is a measure for learning. Essentially, teachers become students of their students to better gauge current comprehension and guide future instruction. This ongoing process provides feedback on student progress and assists in closing any gaps between the current level and the targeted level of learning.
JCDS teachers use a range of strategies and tactics every day to get a snapshot of where a student is on a particular learning curve to help achieve educational goals. As an example, 2nd grade Associate Teacher Ashley Turner said: “We pre-assesses all red words (words that are non-phonetic) before teaching them. If 80% or more of the class does not know the word, then we teach it.”
Differentiation is not only seen in core academics at JCDS, it is also evident in the other areas of the school such as specials and after-school enrichment programs. “In addition to regular band rehearsals, I hold special sectional rehearsals to work on individual instrument groups to focus on the different needs of each instrument and student. I also have 5 levels of challenges of progressive skills for the students to work on at their individual pace,” Chrystal Staples, Band Specialist at JCDS, said.
The focus has clearly shifted from teaching a subject to teaching the student — a focus that is fully embraced and advanced at JCDS.
Examples of differentiation at JCDS:
“The children are at all different reading levels in Pre-K 4. We work in small groups to meet the needs of the children. Some children just need to focus on letter recognition or sound correspondence. Others are practicing memorizing red words. Some children are reading short stories, while other children are blending small three letter words. We pull them one-on-one or in small groups so that we can differentiate instruction for whatever level they are at.”
—Missy Melba, Pre-K 4 Lead Teacher
“We differentiate instruction through one-on-one individualized reading, writing, and phonics conferencing, small group math concept review groups, and scaffolding whole group lessons to meet the needs of each child in all areas. Students are provided with enrichment opportunities in both math and reading based on their academic needs and areas of interest. Students share their knowledge and understanding of math concepts in a variety of ways like journaling, drawing a picture, or teaching a friend. It is important to differentiate based not only on academic needs but students’ interests as well.”
—Lindsey Upchurch, 1st Grade Lead Teacher
“In the Shark Lab makerspace, students can choose which station they would like to work in to create a solution to a presented problem. These include 3D printing, Legos, and robotics. They can also use fabrics, wood, cardboard, paper, or even make a video in the production studio.”
— Shannon Johnson, K-6th Grade, Science/Technology Integration Specialist
“In math, we have challenge activities that the students can work on when they are done. There are prizes for completing each level and the challenge activities are all higher order, critical thinking questions that build on skills learned in class. This also allows me to work with small groups for students who need some extra help.”
— Tejal McLeod, 4th Grade Lead Teacher