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March 8, 2021

Setting the Stage for Differentiation

I hope your school year is off to a great start and you are spending time getting to know your students, building community, and growing to love the individuals who you’ll be spending your days with. But you may also be feeling overwhelmed. Maybe you’re realizing that you have five students who are struggling with reading, two students with behavior challenges, six English Language Learners, one full-inclusion Special Ed student, and three more students with IEPS. And just one YOU.

How are you supposed to meet all of their needs? You’ll need to differentiate, but how? In order to differentiate, you need to know your students really well. Getting to know your students means looking at them through multiple lenses. Only after seeing the full picture of each of your students can you begin to tackle differentiation. You’ll be getting to know your students all year long, but here are three ways that you can start to assess your class right now:

1) Content Knowledge

When I was teaching, I would spend the first few weeks of school building a strong classroom community. We would share about ourselves, play games, and get to know each other. Fun times! But after a few weeks of community building, it would hit me: I needed to move on to teaching new content. Suddenly, I would feel frenzied. I needed to teach my kids to read! I needed to teach them about addition and subtraction! The weight of the year would suddenly be on my shoulders.

But before I could move into teaching content, I needed to assess my students’ content knowledge. Whether administering reading assessments or informally observing your students’ writing, the key is coming up with an assortment of assessments that work for you. The important thing is administering assessments that give you useful data. Once you have that data, you’ll be able to group kids by ability or mixed-ability, spending more time with students who are struggling. The possibilities are endless!

Reading Workshop in classroom

Watch Rick Kleine conduct one-on-one reading workshop conferences with his students. As you watch, notice how Rick is simultaneously assessing his students’ reading abilities and differentiating to meet their individual needs.

2) Learner Skills

It’s not only important to assess what your students know, but also how they best learn. Try to design tasks that will give you insight into your students as learners. When having students work in groups, observe how students interact with each other. Maybe you’ll notice that some students are natural leaders, some struggle with accepting other’s ideas, or some are reluctant to share their thoughts.

The information you gather will allow you to plan for effective group work in the future– perhaps you will choose to put all the students who are reluctant to share their thoughts together, so that they will feel more comfortable in a quieter group. Or maybe you’ll assign students specific roles when working in groups, allowing them to step out of their comfort zones to work on new skills.

3) Interests

Engagement is key to academic success. As you design lessons, you may think about what interests you. But this isn’t always what interests your students! Talk with your students and encourage them to share their interests with the class. This will not only help to create a class culture where students feel invested and valued, but it will also give you information about how to best engage your class. If you find out that a quarter of your students are comic fanatics and a quarter of your students are drama enthusiasts, maybe you’ll design a writing project that allows students to express their knowledge through comics or playwriting.

students in program for at risk kids

Watch how Craig Morrison uses what he knows about his students’ interests to design an entire skateboarding program. It’s inspiring to see this program turn “at-risk” students into engaged and motivated learners.

Conversation about assessment often veers towards test scores. But test scores are just one piece of useful assessment data. As you settle into the school year, think about what information is essential for you to find out about your students. Then consider how you’ll get that information and what you’ll do with it. With meaningful assessments under your belt, you’ll be on your way towards solving the differentiation puzzle!

Be sure to check out more differentiation videos in Teaching Channel’s video library.


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