Glimpses into Differentiated Classrooms

A local school district has been piloting differentiation efforts in a number of classrooms at various grade levels over the past school year. Current fiscal constraints have placed many initiatives in a precarious position for the upcoming school year. The curriculum coordinator for the district wonders whether or not a trip to model differentiated classrooms can convince school board members to continue to fund their endeavors.

The Kingston County School Board meeting includes a budget debate.

Kingston County School District is suffering from recent cuts in state-level funding. The school board faces critical decisions regarding educational programming for the next two years, so the newest initiatives are coming under the most scrutiny. Everyone thinks that schools will suffer less if cuts focus on expansion initiatives rather than established programs.

One more school board meeting is scheduled before the board members vote on the upcoming year’s budget. To inform board members about proposed and current projects, central office personnel are asked to prepare brief statements for the upcoming meeting.

School board members are invited to tour differentiated classrooms.

During a 15-minute presentation to the school board, curriculum coordinator Don Davis outlines the initiatives for the current school year. He suggests that school board members visit differentiated classrooms to understand this initiative.

See an overview of the presentation below:

One of the school board members asks, “Don, what would we see in a differentiated classroom?”

“Teachers being sensitive, respectful, and responsive to the growing diversity of our students. Teachers considering differences, planning learning experiences, and assessing different levels of outcomes.”

The following morning, while working at his desk, Don receives a phone call from school board member Rhonda Pierce. “I thought your idea about inviting board members to visit classrooms was terrific. Did you mean it?”

Don responds, “Yes, indeed, the offer is serious. I really want you to see these efforts firsthand.”

“Absolutely! Many aspects of education are abstract for those of us on the school board with no educational background. I struggle to understand many terms,” adds Rhonda. “Do you think you could set something up for us? I can’t speak for all board members, but this could have a big impact on decision-making and funding.”

“Sure,” Don replies. “I’ll get right on it and get back to you.”

“Wonderful, I’ll tell the other board members.”

Don immediately goes to work setting up classroom visits for participating board members. He has no trouble finding four teachers to host the observation team.

Members of the school board budget committee tour four differentiated classrooms.

Less than a week after his invitation, Don guides a group of five school board members as they visit four classrooms in two different schools. During the visit to each school, the building administrators join the team.

Task Force #2 science students research and plan their device

The team first observes Mrs. Jacobsen’s sixth grade science class at Lexington Middle School. Students have been investigating the impact of simple machines on modern technology and on our current lifestyles. The study is part of an ongoing attempt to help students make connections between science and daily life.

Students have been assigned to one or two “task force” groups by Mrs. Jacobsen based on her assessment of their readiness levels, interests and learning profiles. Task Force 1 will work in self-selected groups of three or four students to explore simple machines at work in more complex ways in the school. They will complete a photo safari, of places in which they hypothesize one or more simple machines are disguised as part of something more complex. They will complete photo layouts naming their found objects, state hypotheses of which simple machines are involved and why they think so, and search out evidence which supports or refutes their hypotheses, including online sources and reference books. Students must then add a “tested hypothesis” statement in which they note whether their original hypothesis was accepted or refuted and explain why.

Students in Task Force 2 must determine a school, personal, or societal need which is unsolved, research the need to understand it in some detail, and develop a device for addressing the problem. The device must contain at least three simple machines working in concert. They will create a diagram and text, carefully outlining its parts and how they work together. Students may then make a working model, non-working but accurate and proportional model, a model in which humans take on the roles of the parts of the device and demonstrate how it works, or devise a different demonstration.

The team next visits Miss Justin’s seventh-grade English class. The teacher works with students in a variety of ways to tap into their interests, readiness levels, and learning profiles. Based on pre-testing, she assigns students different vocabulary studies, super sentences, and spelling lists. Students often select topics of interest to them for particular writing assignments. For each writing form there are certain criteria required for all students. In addition, students learn to pinpoint personal goals and formulate criteria. Miss Justin generally adds a couple of criteria to each student’s general and personal list for major assignments.

In literature, students often select novels, dramas or short stories of interest to accompany whole-class pieces, enabling a common focus with personalized side explorations. Products are often produced alone or in student-selected groups and offer options for expression of student learning. Miss Justin offers guidance for how to ensure top quality production. She finds group investigation appropriate for high-level study of student-generated topics, and teams, games, and tournaments useful for studying vocabulary, basic literature, grammar constructs, and other straightforward data requiring student mastery.

Fred encourages quiet as he begins his choice activity in Mrs. Walker’s class

The team heads to Eagle’s Nest Elementary and Mrs. Walker’s first-grade classroom. Here students engage in center work on language arts, as they do every morning. Work is assigned on the Teacher Choice and Student Choice boards. Each student has at least two days a week of student choice selections and at least two of teacher choice selections.

For example, on days when Fred is assigned to Teacher Choice, Mrs. Walker will select centers and materials at his level of language readiness and see that he works at centers that include those materials. On his student choice days, Fred may select from any of 8-12 pockets on the student choice board. These offer a wide range of choices, from listening, to computer work, to writing/drawing, to model-making. All of the options encourage students to use language in ways they find pleasurable. Mrs. Walker can even guide student choices by color-coding rows of pockets on the chart, and, for example, telling Fred he may pick any choice from the red and yellow rows (but not blue row). Often, she also staggers center work so that some students work at centers while others work with her in directed reading activities or individual conferences, and others do desk work in math or language.

One of Mrs. Greene’s students experiments with a recorder solo

In Mr. Greene’s fifth and sixth grade combined music class, students are learning to play the recorder. Ultimately, students will play for school and community events. Students have a wide range of musical experience and skills. Mr. Greene often arranges music so that the score contains some basic parts that allow students to play while they explore foundational concepts related to rhythm and melody. He includes other parts that require more complex fingering, reading, and rhythm. He also adds brief solo parts for the most advanced students. He begins class with all students reading a piece together, then breaks into groups. He works first with the more basic group, then with the intermediate group, and finally with the advanced group, eventually bringing everyone back together again. He likes the fact that everyone plays real music, makes a contribution, and is challenged at an appropriate level of readiness.

He also likes how students who begin at a novice level will demonstrate considerable facility with reading and playing music and quickly move on to more complex music, keeping their interest high.

School administrators and teachers debrief school board members on what they have observed.

At the conclusion of the visits, the school board members are pleased with what they’ve seen, but have specific questions as well. Don asks teachers and principals to meet with board members in the Eagle’s Nest conference room. He wants to make sure the board has a true understanding and appreciation for differentiation.

They want to highlight specific strategies, ideas, and issues related to differentiation represented by the model lessons observed today. They need to do so without using jargon, so that the board members can clearly understand what they saw today. They want the board to appreciate the best practices and strategies related to differentiation.