How I Differentiate: Strategies from A Master Teacher

Master Teacher Guest Blog Series — Part 1: All About the Kids — Post 2 of 5

A request we often hear from TeachCycle participants and BetterLesson users is, “I need help differentiating!” Many teachers recognize the need for differentiation, but sometimes struggle to put strategies into practice in ways that meet their students’ needs. Today’s blog, from Ruth Hutson, explores how one Master Teacher makes the ideas of differentiation a reality, ensuring that her teaching is always “All About the Kids”.

When I first started teaching, Carol Ann Tomlinson was beginning to make her recommendations about classroom differentiation. I was really sold on her argument concerning the importance of differentiating assessment techniques, instructional and delivery techniques, and classroom setting. What resonated with me was the fact that people all learn in different ways. Students enter the classroom at different places in their learning and we should meet their needs in the ways that they learn rather than what is convenient for the teacher.

When the NGSS and Common Core standards were released and I found myself realigning my curriculum, I took a hard look at where to differentiate my biology curriculum. I found myself torn between the necessity of all of my students meeting content area expectations versus the need to encourage students to become independent inquisitive learners.

After re-reading Kathie E. Nunley’s approach of Layered Curriculum, I decided that in my classroom, meeting the recommended standard would be the baseline where basic learning and skills are met. When students apply those standards and critically think about those standards, they extend their basic knowledge. By taking this approach, I still address my students’ needs, while ensuring they meet the demands of the new standards and standardized testing.

What Differentiation Looks Like In My Classroom

Differentiating Assessment:

When differentiating assessment, I use Bloom’s taxonomy, which organizes the cognitive processes in order of increasing complexity: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, and evaluating and creating.

Students can demonstrate that they know the material through a variety of products. Students showed their mastery through traditional tests, written projects, and summative blog posts on a topic of their choosing.

Differentiating Delivery:

When writing lessons, I incorporate a variety of methods in order to meet the diverse learning styles of my students.

Differentiating Setting:

In addition to ensuring that I incorporate the preferred learning styles for all of my students, I also consider how to provide students with the proper amount of support. Some of my students prefer to work independently, while others need more one-on-one interaction. Stations allow me to provide more one-on-one interaction with students that need help.

Maintaining a positive learning environment is important when differentiating. Flexibility in the classroom is the key. One of the hardest things for me to do was to transition from a frontal control in the classroom to a guide to actively involved students.

Finally, positive management of a differentiated classroom is one of the keys to success. Teachers need to consider where supplies will be located and stored, how students will assist in cleanup, and how noise level will be controlled in the classroom.

Where I still struggle

There are still times when I struggle with a messy classroom because students do not put materials away. The noise level can get a little loud and some days keeping students on task seems impossible. There are days I find myself simply planning with the sole consideration of students’ learning styles and not fully considering their student learning profiles. However, I have found that differentiation has lead to a much richer learning experience for all my students.

The gains I see from differentiating

With those struggles in mind, remember that differentiation should not be a task that complicates your teaching practice. It should be a way of organizing that allows you to teach all of your students by considering the unique individuals they are. Initially, it does require some additional work, however, in the long run you will see gains in more student involvement and comprehension, deeper understanding and appreciation of the content as it applies to students’ everyday life, and maybe even higher assessment scores.

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Ruth Hutson is the science teacher at Blue Valley High in Randolph, Kansas and is a part of the BetterLesson Science Master Teacher Project. The only high school science teacher in her district, Ruth teaches Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science, Physics, Anatomy & Physiology, and Genetics. In addition to teaching, Ruth serves as an online advisor for the NSTA Learning Center, helping to train preservice teachers. She also moderates web seminars for NSTA.