How to Differentiate Any Lesson
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What does it mean to “differentiate?”
At the core, differentiation is just a fancy word to describe making strategic and focused efforts to meet individual students’ needs as best as we can.
If you’re like me, immediately when you hear this definition, you’re having an anxiety attack because the very thought of having to meet the individual needs of two dozen or more children was enough to put me over the edge.
But here’s what I finally figured out that helped me to think of differentiating as being more do-able in my own classroom - I realized that although I have 25 children in my classroom who are, of course, individuals, many of my students could be grouped according to how they learned best.
Also, you’re going to see that the power of differentiation often actually lies in empowering your students to learn about and make decisions about how they learn best.
That means that instead of thinking of differentiation as 25 separate needs, I could often meet many individual children's’ needs by making strategic changes to my lessons.
Also, by empowering my learners to be part of the conversation, they could start making decisions about how they learn best.
And don’t worry, you know me and I’m all about the practical application, so I’ll share very specific and practical examples of exactly how you can do this in your own classroom.
Let’s talk about what differentiation is NOT:
Differentiation does NOT mean creating five separate lesson plans for every lesson you teach.
So, if you are doing that, please stop. You are going to burn yourself out faster than a marshmallow too close to the campfire. 😂
What differentiation DOES mean is making small and strategic changes to your lessons so you can meet the needs of more and more of your students.
The Three Ways to Differentiate:
Most experts on differentiation agree that there are three main ways that you can differentiate in your classroom:
- Content (WHAT your students actually learn),
- Process (HOW your students will learn that content), and finally,
- Product (HOW your students show you what they have learned).
Let’s break this down so I can give you examples of how you can differentiate in each of the three areas.
However, do not let yourself get overwhelmed by this information. Instead, as I go through each of these three areas and give you some examples, I want you to commit to only ONE or TWO things you might do in your classroom this week to increase how you are differentiating lessons in your classroom.
How can you differentiate according to WHAT your students will actually learn?
- In today’s world of Common Core Standards and required outcomes, differentiating is a little challenging when it comes to content because every child is supposed to demonstrate competence in all of the standards, unless of course a student has an IEP (individualized education plan) or whatever they call it in your district – some call them IPP’s (individualized program plans) but whatever you call them in your district, modifying the content you teach is a possibility in order to help these students to achieve.
- One way that you can structure the content of your lessons to accommodate the different levels and abilities of your students is by thinking in terms of Bloom’s Taxonomy. That means that for any given lesson, you can scaffold the concepts that you want students to learn according to different levels of the taxonomy.
- For example, tasks that require students to simply remember and demonstrate understanding of a specific concept are at the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. So, if you are teaching a science lesson on the life cycle of a butterfly, for example, you would ask students to complete an assignment that required them to simply label the stages involved in a butterfly’s life cycle.
- The next level of Bloom’s Taxonomy is Applying and Analyzing. At this level, you might ask students to apply and analyze that knowledge of a butterfly’s life cycle by looking at pictures of butterflies at different stages and explain what stage they are at and what stage came before and will come after, for example.
- The final stage of Bloom’s Taxonomy is Evaluating and Creating, so you might ask students to write about which stage they think is the best stage and why, and/or have them create their own model of this stage using plasticine.
- So, thinking about content in terms of the different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy can help you to think more flexibly about how you might quickly and easily modify content to meet students’ needs.
- Another way of differentiating is to provide your students different levels of text based on their ability,
- Or, provide books on tape for your learners who need more support.
- Finally, one of the other main ways that you can differentiate in terms of content is by giving your students a lot of choices. So for example, giving your students choices of books to read, choices of topics of study, whenever possible, and choice of writing topics.
All right, let’s move on to the second way you can differentiate to meet the needs of specific students in your classroom. You can differentiate in terms of Process: meaning HOW your students will learn whatever you need them to learn.This is the most common way that we think about differentiation in classrooms.
- In terms of process, you can differentiate by giving specific students more time, for example, to complete a task that they need to, or by giving students manipulatives (especially in math) or other multi-sensory support.
- Also, one of the most common ways that I differentiated in my classroom for my students who needed a little more support in terms of processing time was by asking them to only do the EVEN numbers or the ODD numbers of an assignment. That strategy works really well for students who might not work quite as quickly as their peers, but you still need them to understand the content.
- You also could give students who need more support a learning buddy. However, if you choose this option, I would be very careful to first ask the higher level student if (s)he minds doing this - give them the choice. Also, I would change up the learning buddies often so they are not always working with the same student, and I always made the higher level learner feel super special if they chose to do this job for me.
I actually spent some time teaching my class about what it meant to be a “Student Teacher” in my classroom. I had special, sparkly lanyards made up that said “Student Teacher,” and whenever I asked a student to do this special job (and of course I respected it if they said no), then that student got to wear one of them.
I explicitly taught my class what my Student Teacher’s job was - and that was to help by clarifying what they were supposed to do, and by asking questions, not giving answers.
You will find it adorable, by the way, to hear your own voice in your students as they are helping their peers because they start saying things like, “Okay, that’s great Tim. You got that one right. Now, here’s what the next question says. What do you think the answer might be? Do you see the clue in the picture?”
It was so cute - almost like having an entire group of mini-me’s in my classroom. Finally, I always gave my Student Teachers a special person award for taking on this important role. A Special Person Award is a small, laminated, bright yellow award that they get to exchange for a treat from my treasure chest anytime they want to... so that was a pretty coveted job in my classroom.
- You can also meet the diverse learning styles of your students by giving them choice of where they work in the classroom - some students just seem to be able to concentrate best when they are laying on their stomach, laying in the reading corner, for example, while others find it easier to concentrate when they feel the sun as they work by the window.
- And finally, you can also differentiate by involving flexible grouping in your classroom. There are times when you can let your students make choices about whether or not they will work alone, with a partner, or in a small group.
However, if you do want to incorporate flexible grouping into your classroom, I would be careful about how you do it. When I give choices like this in my classroom, I usually asked all of my students to stand. Then, I asked first who would like to work by themselves, and these students sat down.
Then I asked who would like to work in pairs - and although I did often let my students choose their pairs or small groups, I was highly conscious of children feeling left out or that horrible feeling of being “picked last.”
Some groups really took to heart my emphasis on being kind and caring because I talked about it a LOT, but sometimes I had classes that just needed more support and guidance in this area before I could trust them with the hearts of my more vulnerable students.
My greatest joy was knowing that I could trust my students with the hearts of their peers, and they knew how much I loved it when they showed strength of character and caring because I was very vocal about celebrating this in front of the class.
Especially if a high achieving student chose to work with a child who we all knew needed more support, it just made my heart sing. Then, I would pull him or her aside and tell them how much I appreciated their huge and loving heart, and that it made me love them even more.
My students absolutely loved this kind of flexible grouping, and I let them know that how much we did this depended entirely on them. If a pair of students didn’t stay on task or get their work done, I would usually give them a couple of warnings, but then I was clear: If you abuse the choice, you lose the choice - we can try again tomorrow.
That meant that they had lost the choice of where and who to work with today (and now I got to choose where they worked), but that we would try again tomorrow. That way, my students always knew that they could have a fresh start and another chance tomorrow, which gave them multiple chances to learn to self-regulate so they could enjoy more of what they really wanted - working with their friends.
- All right, so those are some ideas in terms of how you can differentiate in terms of PROCESS in your classroom. All very do-able, right? But remember, just pick one or two ideas here to implement into your classroom this week. Don’t try to do it all right away!
Finally, the third way that you can differentiate learning in your classroom is in terms of the PRODUCT - in other words, how your students will show you what they’ve learned.
- One of the most common ways that we have students show us what they’ve learned is, of course, by completing a paper and pencil summative assessment. But beyond the traditional paper and pencil test, there are a lot of options available to you.
- You might want to consider letting students do a take-home exam, for example, or, you might want to try your hand at project-based learning - check out this awesome strategy by clicking here. :-)
- And of course, there are many different kinds of creative, formative assessments that you can implement in your classroom, such as using Exit Tickets - meaning that you ask your students to write 3 things they learned today before they can leave class, or ask them to tell you one thing they found interesting from today’s lesson.
- You could give a simple 5-point True/False quiz, or you could ask students to draw and label something that they learned today, or have students turn to a partner to do a quick think-pair-share.
- You could ask your students to interview each other and write down their partner’s answers about what they learned today, or you could get super creative and for larger projects, have your students create 3D shoe-box dioramas to demonstrate their learning.
- The possibilities are literally endless, but hopefully I’ve given you some ideas in terms of how you might ask different students to demonstrate their learning, especially if you have some students who have a hard time completing traditional assessments.
Grab my FREE Differentiation Teacher Cheat Sheet so you have a quick reference for ideas you can implement as you are planning each week by clicking below:
Next Week’s Show:
Also, I really hope you tune in for next week’s podcast because we are going to talk about how to make new friends as a new teacher in a new school. This is one of those topics that a lot of you reach out to me privately about, and in next week’s episode, I am going to give you lots of super practical idea and tips that I know you’ll be able to use right away.
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I hope you have a wonderful week and remember: Just because you are a beginning elementary teacher, there is no need for you to struggle like one!
P.S. By the way, if you've been struggling to improve your classroom management, you might want to check out my new program...
Dr. Lori Friesen | Beginning Teacher Mentor
Creator of the R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, Dr. Lori Friesen has mentored thousands of beginning teachers across the country through her workshops and courses. Host of the popular podcast, Beginning Teacher Talk, and creator of the innovative literacy program for 1st and 2nd grade, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed, Dr. Lori is dedicated to serving educators and inspiring learners. Learn more at drlorifriesen.com and at howdogshelpkids.com.
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