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2014 ASCD Conference on Teaching Excellence

2014 ASCD Conference on Teaching Excellence

June 2729, 2014
Dallas, Tex.

Explore ways to make excellent teaching the reality in every classroom.



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Differentiated Classroom

by Carol Ann Tomlinson

Table of Contents

Chapter 9. How Do Teachers Make It All Work?

Students at work create various kinds of noise. They talk and measure and puzzle out and make the audible messes that an assistant principal is supposed to abhor. Their activity also exposes the inconvenient truth that some kids do the work faster than others. The neat march over material that is possible when only the teacher sets the pace of the journey is no longer possible.
Theodore Sizer, Horace's School

To this point, we largely have focused on issues related to differentiating the curriculum. The curriculum is essential; it is the heartbeat of teaching. But classroom management is important, too. It is the central nervous system of the classroom. Without the heart, there is no life, but without the nervous system, there is no function. This chapter focuses on classroom management that supports differentiated instruction.

Images of School

We all have our own images of “how to do school.” Parents base their images on the 13 or more years they spent in school. As teachers, we create different images of school: from our own early schooling through professional training to our first years teaching in the classroom. Students create their images of school day after day in their pilgrimages to become “educated.”

Images of school also are fueled by cartoons, movies, television, and books. As a rule, these images are dominated by rows of desks and a teacher working in front of the group. Students wait passively—slouched or wiggling—for the teacher to do whatever she had in mind for the day. Few of these images prepare us even to envision, let alone craft, classrooms that are differentiated in response to the array of children's learning needs.

Alas, there is no fail-safe way to master the alternate approaches to teaching and learning that common sense (and tomes of research) tells us would be more effective. This chapter cannot provide all the answers, either. It can, however, offer broad guidelines for those who seek more promising ways of thinking about, planning for, and being leaders in differentiated classrooms.

Getting Started

If the notion of a student-centered, differentiated classroom is new to you, here are a few suggestions to help you steer your thinking and planning in that direction.

Examine Your Philosophy About Individual Needs

A young teacher working hard to implement a differentiated classroom recently reflected, “Differentiated instruction isn't a strategy. It's a way of thinking about all you do when you teach and all that the kids do when they learn.” Not only is she correct, but her insight offers important guidance.

Instead of first focusing on what to do in the classroom, it's wisest to focus on how to think about teaching and learning.

  • Which makes better sense to you: that you do most of the work in the classroom, or that students are the primary workers and thinkers? Why?
  • Does it seem more likely to you that everyone should always need the same book, math problem, or art lesson? Or are students likely to show up at different points of readiness for reading and math and drawing? Why?
  • Do students all seem to learn in the same way or at the same pace? Or do some process information differently and at a different pace than others? How do you know?
  • Do you learn more about students by talking to them or talking with them? Why?
  • Do students become independent learners in classrooms where they are always told what to do? Or do they become independent when teachers systematically give them more responsibility for learning and teach them how to use the independence wisely? Why?
  • Do learners care if they have choices about what and how to learn? Do they care a lot or a little? Why?
  • Are we most motivated to grow when we try to reach our own ceilings or when the ceilings are someone else's? Why do you say so?
  • In general, are you more effective and efficient at teaching with small groups of students and individuals, or are you more effective with the whole class? Why do you say so?
  • Is learning richer and more permanent when it's rote or meaning based? How do you know?

Add your own questions about teaching to this list. There should be an unlimited supply of them. In the end, your evolving beliefs about your classroom will guide your choices as you plan for and reflect on instruction. Knowing what you believe also will help you feel more comfortable and confident in answering students', colleagues', administrators', and parents' questions about why you teach as you do.

Start Small

Like students, teachers are ready for differing degrees of challenge. Many teachers successfully start differentiating instruction with small, well-organized changes. Here are some suggestions. Use the ones that make sense for your starting point.

  • Begin the process of differentiation by teaching all of your students to do an “anchor activity,” which is meaningful work done individually and silently. This could be journal writing, free reading, foreign language pattern drills, seatwork in math, or sketchbook assignments. It's something useful and important for students to do on a relatively regular basis throughout at least a portion of the year. It may seem a bit of a paradox to begin differentiation by not differentiating. But when you ask all students to learn to work absolutely quietly on one (or more) anchor activities, you pave the way for breaking off individuals or small groups to do other tasks while the remaining students continue with the comfortable, predictable anchor activity.
  • Early on, you may want to ask some students to work with an anchor activity and others to work on a different task, which also requires no conversation or collaboration. This introduces the idea that students won't always do the same work. You create an atmosphere that's conducive to individual focus, and you emphasize attending to one's own work rather than focusing on what someone else does.
  • Try a differentiated task for only a small block of time. In a primary classroom, for example, begin a language arts period with all students doing paired reading from the same “reading boxes.” After 10 minutes of paired reading, differentiated by reading readiness, call all students to the reading corner to listen to a story together. Now discuss it as a whole class. Or, in a middle school history class, begin with a whole-class discussion and common use of a graphic organizer to compare two time periods. For the last 10 minutes of class, ask students to do one of two journal entries in their learning logs. The entries can be at different levels of complexity or based on two different interest areas. Starting small like this is the “think-versus-sink” approach. You think your way to success without sinking beneath too many changes. You also teach your students to succeed in an independent, learner-centered class. You don't ask them to manage too many routines and processes for which they are unprepared.

Grow Slowly—but Grow

It's better just to do a few things well. Set goals for yourself, and stick with them, but make sure they are reasonable goals. Like students, teachers grow best when they are moderately challenged. Waiting until conditions are ideal or until you are sure of yourself yields lethargy, not growth. On the other hand, trying to do too many things before you have a chance to think them through leads to frustration and failure. Here are some small but significant starts that might work for you. Pick one or two of them as goals for a year.

  • Take notes on your students each day. Be conscious of what works and what doesn't for which learners.
  • Assess students before you begin to teach a skill or topic. Study the results of this preassessment and their implications for you and your students.
  • Look at all work students do (discussions, journal entries, centers, products, quizzes, group tasks, homework) as indicators of student need, not marks in a gradebook.
  • Try creating one differentiated lesson per unit.
  • Differentiate one product per semester.
  • Find multiple resources for a couple of key parts of your curriculum. For example, consider using several texts, supplementary books at varied readability levels (from basic to quite advanced), videos, or audiotapes that you or volunteers make over time.
  • Establish class criteria for success with products. Then work with students to add personal criteria to their lists. You can add one or two for each child based on what you know of the student's strengths and needs.
  • Give students more choices about how to work, how to express learning, or which homework assignments to do. (Generally, structured choices work best.)
  • Develop and use a two-day learning contract the first marking period, a four-day learning contract the second marking period, and a week-long learning contract the third marking period.

These are just a few possibilities. The idea is to commit yourself to grow. Then try something new, reflect on what you learned from the experience, and apply those insights to the next new step.

Envision How an Activity Will Look

Olympic athletes often pause before an event, close their eyes, and see themselves completing the competition. They envision clearing the vault, making the ski jump, or completing the dive. This is a good idea for a teacher in a differentiated classroom, too. Take time before the day begins to ask yourself how you want a differentiated activity to begin, what you want it to look like as it progresses, and how it should end. Think about what could go wrong along the way. Then plan to keep those things from happening. Write out procedures for yourself and directions you'll give students. Of course you can't envision every possible snafu, but you get better and better at second-guessing and at making plans and giving successful directions. Especially in the early stages, improvisational differentiation is less likely to succeed than choreographed differentiation.

Step Back and Reflect

As you work your way into a differentiated classroom, be sure you think your way into it as well. When you try something new, take time to reflect before you take the next step. You could ask yourself many questions. Here are a few.

  • Which students seemed to be engaged in learning? Which were not? Do you know why in either case?
  • What evidence do you have that each student understood or “owned” what you hoped would come from the lesson? Do you need to get more evidence to answer this question?
  • How did you feel about the introduction you gave to the activity or lesson?
  • In what ways did the activity or lesson begin as you wished? Did it get off track? How? What worked and what didn't as students began to work? Were your directions clear? Were materials easily accessible? Did you specify the time for moving (to stations, centers, or small groups, for example)? Did you specify and reinforce the time allotted to settle down?
  • As the activity or lesson progressed, how well did students remain focused? If there was point where focus was ragged, can you figure out why? If focus was maintained throughout, why did things work so well? How did group size work? Do any students need to sit in a different place in the room? Did you see any pairings or groups that were unproductive? Were there any students who do not work well in groups, or do not work well alone? Did students know how to monitor the quality of their work? Did they know how to get help?
  • How was the conclusion to the activity or lesson? Was there enough warning for students to stop their work in an organized way? Did they know where to put materials and supplies? Were a few students specified to put away materials, move furniture, or handle other clean-up tasks? Were things well organized for the next class or the next day? Did students make the transition to the next class or next activity in a self-controlled way?
  • Did you have a sense of who was learning what as the lesson progressed? How did you interact with individuals and groups as they worked? What useful information did you gather as you moved among groups? What effective coaching were you able to do? How might you improve your data gathering and coaching?

Make notes of things you want to retain the next time you try a differentiated activity. Also note things you want to improve. Make specific plans to use the insights you gain from your reflection.

Settling In for the Long Haul

If your teaching philosophy embraces attention to individual students, and if you develop routines and procedures for a differentiated classroom in a systematic and reflective way, differentiation gradually will become a way of life. It won't be something you do every once in a great while. At that point, you need to incorporate at least three things in your routines.

Talk with Students Early and Often

As you develop a clear philosophy about what it means to do differentiated instruction, share your thinking with your students. Be a metacognitive teacher; that is, unpack your thinking in conversations with students. Compared to the images many students have about school, you're changing the “rules.” Let them know why and how. Here are some ideas that may help you involve your students in creating a responsive classroom.

  • Use an activity that helps students reflect on the fact that they differ from one another in how they learn and what they like to learn about. (They already know this fact quite clearly, by the way.) Depending on the students' ages, the activity will vary. Some teachers ask their students to graph their strengths and weaknesses on a range of skills related and unrelated to the class in question. Some teachers have their students write autobiographies about themselves as learners. They reflect on questions about positive and negative school experiences, best and worst subjects, and effective and ineffective ways of learning. A teacher of young children sent home a survey asking parents to provide ages at which their children sat up, walked, ran, talked, got their first tooth, lost their first tooth, and rode a bike. She helped students create bar graphs that clearly showed how children do things on different timetables. They concluded it wasn't nearly so important when someone learned to talk as it was that they learned. Throughout the year, she brought students back to the graphs to remind them it was fine if some students learned a skill before or after others. In the end, what mattered was learning the skill and using it well.
  • When you complete the above activity, let students know that their differing strengths, needs, and learning preferences present an interesting problem to you as a teacher. Ask them if they believe you should pay attention to developing their individual strengths and helping them improve in difficult areas by focusing on the ways that work best for them individually. Or do they believe you will do a better job of teaching by ignoring those things? Chances are, they won't choose the “forget-who-we-are” approach.
  • Now you can begin an ongoing discussion of how a differentiated classroom looks and operates. Talk about how your role will differ. For example, you'll work with small groups and individuals rather than only the whole class. Students' roles will differ, too. They'll help and support one another's learning in different ways, making it possible for you to work with individuals and small groups. Students will take more responsibility for class operation, using time wisely so everyone can learn. Their assignments will differ. Not everyone will always have the same assignment in class or for homework. The classroom will look different, with small groups or individuals working on various tasks. Students will see more movement, and they'll use a wider range of materials.
  • From this point, you are ready to ask students to help you establish guidelines and procedures to make the classroom work. Let them help you decide how to begin class, how to give directions when multiple things are about to begin at once, how they should get help when you are busy, what they must do when they finish an assignment, how to keep the class focused as activities progress, and how to conclude an activity smoothly. These conversations can occur as the need for each procedure emerges, but they are pivotal in establishing and maintaining a successful learning environment.

Continue to Empower Students

There will always be classroom roles only the teacher can fulfill. However, many teachers have found it easier to do things for students rather than teach them to do those things for themselves. Look for things you don't have to do, and gradually prepare your students to do them effectively. For example, can students learn to move furniture efficiently and quietly when the room needs to be rearranged? Can students hand out or collect work folders or other materials? Can students check one another's work in a responsible way at any point? Can students learn to straighten up the room? Can they learn to file their own work in designated places rather than bring it to you? Can they learn to keep accurate records of what they complete and when? Can they keep records of their grades to gauge how their performance is progressing? Can they learn to set personal learning goals and to assess their progress according to those goals? The answer to all those questions, and many more like them, is yes—as long as you teach them how! Helping students master these things not only develops more independent and thoughtful learners, but it creates a classroom that belongs to kids as much as to adults. It's also a classroom where the teacher is not frazzled from trying to do everything for everyone!

Continue to Be Analytical

Classrooms are busy places. We often get caught in the undertow of “doing,” and we fail to take time for reflecting. Learning to facilitate a differentiated classroom is like learning to conduct a large orchestra. It calls for many players, many parts, many instruments, and many skills. A skilled conductor hears and sees many things at once, but she also takes time away from the podium to reflect on things like the intent of the composer and balance among the sections. She listens to recordings of rehearsals and compares those to performance goals. She identifies a need for additional attention to particular passages and a need for sectional rehearsals.

As your differentiated classroom evolves, cultivate your analytical skills. Some days, just look at how students get into and out of groups, or look only at students who are currently advanced in the subject. Take notes on who elects to work with visual materials and who gravitates to kinesthetic opportunities. Videotape the class every once in a while, or ask a colleague to be a second pair of eyes in your classroom. In either case, you'll identify things that are going well that you'd have missed otherwise, and you'll discover areas that need additional work.

Be analytical with your students, too. Ask them to recall the guidelines you established together for working effectively in a group. Have them analyze with you those procedures that are working well for them and those that are not. Let them make suggestions for how to get even better at working together (or beginning class or moving around the room). Express your pleasure to them when you see them growing in responsibility and independence. Let them tell you when they feel proud. And work together when there is dissonance, too, not to eliminate the passage from the piece, but to attend to it as a whole or in “sectional rehearsals.”

Some Practical Considerations

Many years ago, a professor suggested to me that the majority of teaching success stemmed from knowing where to keep the pencils. At the time, I was too much a novice to know what he was saying, and I thought him shallow. Three decades and thousands of students later, I understand. Here are some mundane but altogether essential hints for your consideration as you establish a differentiated classroom. The list is not exhaustive, and some items will not apply to your classroom, but the thoughts below may prompt you to consider something crucial about “where to put the pencils” in your professional world.

Give Thoughtful Directions

When you give directions for multiple tasks simultaneously, don't give everyone directions for all the tasks. It wastes time, it's confusing, and it calls too much attention to task variance. The trick, then, is how to let everyone know what to do without giving whole-group directions. Here are some hints and possibilities:

  • Start the class with a familiar task. Once students settle in, meet with one small group at a time to give directions for differentiated tasks.
  • Give directions today for tomorrow. That is, today, give directions to a careful listener and a careful follower in each group. They can give directions to their group when the task begins tomorrow.
  • Use task cards. Students can go to assigned (or selected) spots in the room and find out what to do by reading a carefully written task card. With younger students, assign more fluent readers to read task cards to the group at the start of the activity.
  • Use tape-recorded directions. Tape-recorded directions work wonderfully for students who have difficulty with print, when you don't have time to write a task card, or when directions are complex enough you'd like to explain them a couple of ways.
  • Put directions on an overhead or a flip chart for some activities.
  • Be sure you think twice about introducing a completely new format in a small-group task. For example, it makes better sense to use graphic organizers several times with the whole class before you ask a small group to use them. It is better to have all students work at the same learning center until they understand how to work there; then, differentiate work at the center.
  • Make yourself “off limits” at strategic times in the instructional sequence. You may want to make it “standard procedure” that no one can ask you questions during the first five minutes of any activity. That way, you can walk among students, making sure they settle down and have their materials. You won't be cornered by one student, giving others the opportunity to remain off task. You also need uninterrupted time for meeting with small groups and individuals. With older students, you just might announce those times. With younger ones, you could indicate you're off limits by wearing a ribbon around your neck or a baseball cap. In either case, make certain students understand why they cannot come to you at those times.

Establish Routines for Getting Help

For a variety of reasons, students in a multitask classroom must learn to get help from someone other than you much of the time. Teach them how to do that, and make provisions for help from other sources.

  • Work with students on being good listeners. Kids often learn sloppy listening habits because they know someone will reexplain what they miss. Help them learn to focus on you when you talk, ask them to “replay” what you said in their heads, and ask someone to summarize aloud essential directions. They'll learn to need less help if they listen to you well in the first place. That takes time on their part and perseverance on yours.
  • Ask students to go through a four-step RICE process if they are stuck about what to do next. They first should try hard to Recall what you said. If that doesn't work, they should close their eyes, see you talking, use good practical intelligence, and Imagine logically what the directions would have been for the task. If that doesn't help, they can Check with a classmate (someone at their table or nearby doing the same task). This should be done in a whisper. If there's still no sense of direction, designate one or more “Experts of the day” who have the independence or skills necessary to provide guidance. The “expert” should continue with his work, stopping only long enough to help someone who is genuinely stuck. (Over time, most students can serve as an expert of the day for one or more tasks.)
  • Make sure students understand that in the rare instances where even the RICE procedure fails, they must then move to a preapproved anchor activity. Let them know it's acceptable to tell you how they tried the RICE procedure, came up empty, and began working with the preapproved alternative until they could get your help. It is not acceptable to sit and wait, or to hinder others. Always be sure students know how much you value time. Help them understand that there are many important things to accomplish and little time for doing them. Wise use of time should be a classroom ethic.

Stay Aware, Stay Organized

Many teachers fear a sense that they will not know what's going on when students work with a variety of tasks in a differentiated classroom. Plus, an effective teacher can't afford to be “out of the loop.” In a differentiated classroom, the teacher should have more awareness of what and how students are doing, not less. Teachers must look at the issue of staying “on top of” student progress in a different way. Here are some helpful ideas for accomplishing a new way of staying organized and aware for your classroom.

  • Use student work folders. These always stay in the classroom and contain all work in progress (including partially completed tasks, independent study work, and anchor options). The folders also should contain a record-keeping sheet. Here, students document work they have completed and date of completion. Students also should note individual conferences they've had with you, reflecting your conversations about progress and goals. Older students can keep running records of grades on the inside cover of their folders. Such folders provide you a ready way to review student progress and also can be useful for parent-teacher conferences and conferences among parents, teachers, and students.
  • Make a list of all skills and competencies you want your students to master in each facet of your subject (for example, in writing, spelling, reading, and grammar). Then extend the list to skills more basic than the ones you're working toward and skills more advanced than the targeted ones. Then turn the skills into a checklist. Sequentially arrange the competencies on the left, and put spaces for several dates and comments across the rest of the page beside each competency. Make one checklist for each student, and keep the lists alphabetically in a notebook. Periodically spot-check students' work using the checklist, or do a formal written or oral assessment with individuals or the group from time to time. As you record observations over time, you should see a clear pattern of individual growth. Not only will that help you monitor student progress, it also should be a great help in developing differentiated assignments targeted to student need. These observations aid in student-teacher planning conferences, too.
  • Establish carefully organized and coded places where students should place completed assignments (for example, stack trays, boxes, or folders). This is much more effective than having assignments brought to you, and it is more effective than having a variety of assignments all piled together.
  • Carry a clipboard around the class with you much of the time. Make brief notes about nifty things you see students do, “Aha's!”, points of confusion, or working conditions that need to be tightened. Use the notes for reflection, planning, and individual and classroom conversations.
  • Don't feel compelled to grade everything. (You'd never think of grading a piano student's every practice session!) There's a time for students to figure things out, and a time for seeing if they did, but the two shouldn't always be the same. Help your students see how important it is to complete activities so they become more and more skilled and insightful. Use peer checkers or “experts of the day” when an accuracy check is necessary. When it's time for formal assessment, help students see the link between good practice and success.
  • When students are working with sense-making activities and you feel a need to “grade,” choose things like whether the student stayed on task, worked hard, got help appropriately, or moved to anchor activities when work was completed. On your clipboard, you might keep a class list with spaces for a daily assessment of these sorts of things. If you see a student have a breakthrough or make a real leap of progress, put a plus in today's space. If a student has real difficulty staying on task despite reminders, put a minus in today's space. Later, put checks in the other spaces. Look for patterns over time, and work with what they tell you. Though you can convert the pattern into a single daily work grade if necessary, there are plenty of other opportunities for formal grading. Remember that grading means more to students if it's infrequent. Continual grading of everything impairs students' willingness to learn from mistakes, makes them teacher dependent, and teaches them to learn for grades, not for its own value. All this grading also makes you crazy and robs you of important thinking and planning time.

Consider “Home Base” Seats

In a differentiated class, it's often helpful to have students assigned to “home base” seats where they begin and end class every day. Students always begin the class in those seats. Some days they will remain in them. If differentiated activities lead them to other parts of the room, they will return to their “home base” seats when the class ends.

“Home base” seats help you check attendance quickly. They make it simple for students to distribute work folders for you. “Home base” seats also make it easier to ensure that the room is straight at the end of an activity, and they provides an orderly format for dismissal or transition. Assigned seats also let you develop positive peer groupings for those times when students work at “home base.”

Establish Start-Up and Wrap-Up Procedures

Before students begin to move to various work areas, let them know how quickly they should be in their new places and working. You should make the time realistic, but you also should be a bit on the stingy side. After students move through the room, let them know how they did. Work with them so they get used to settling in efficiently.

During the activity, keep your eye on the clock. Give students about a two-minute signal that their work time is about to end (flash the lights or just walk to each table and tell them). Follow that with another signal to return to “home base” seating. Students should know that you expect them to return to those seats within 30 seconds.

Teach Students to Work for Quality

A few students in every class seem inclined to measure their success by how quickly they complete their work rather than by how thoughtful they were in doing it. Be clear with your students that craftsmanship and a sense of pride in work are what matter. Help them know why. Let students analyze the differences in work that is hastily finished versus work that shows persistence, revision, and creativity.

Sometimes, students finish work quickly because it's too easy for them or the directions don't clearly state standards of excellence. When those are not problems, patiently and persistently insist that only quality work is acceptable. One teacher called it “working for a Bingo.” She taught her students to resist the urge to turn in work until they had done absolutely everything they could think of to improve it. Then they could say, “Bingo! That's it! That's my very best.”

Developing a Support System

At least four groups can help you on your path to a differentiated classroom. Colleagues, administrators, parents, and community members all can aid you and your students. With all four groups, you'll probably have to take the initiative to enlist their help. Here are some thoughts about seeking their goodwill and active support.

Calling on Colleagues

The unhappy truth in many schools is that some of your colleagues will be resentful if you do something innovative or expend more energy than the norm in your work. A happier truth is that in these same places, there are always a few soulmates who are energized by their work, catalyzed by someone else's ideas, and ready to take the risk of growth. Find one or two people from the latter group and work together.

In many schools, an art teacher, a special educator, a teacher of the gifted, and a few classroom teachers already differentiate instruction. They may not feel like experts, but neither do you. They have great ideas and routines already in place. You have ideas and questions to enrich them. At the very least, they'll feel enriched by the compliment you pay them in wanting to learn from and with them. Meet with them regularly, ask for time to spend in one another's classrooms, plan together, troubleshoot as a team, share lessons and materials, and take turns teaching and watching as peer coaches. The synergy from such collegial partnerships can be one of the most amazing benefits of a job that all too often is isolating.

Making Principals Partners

Some principals are suspicious of movement and talking in a classroom. I once watched a colleague with whom I team-taught change such an attitude.

This colleague was clear in her own mind about what we were doing in our differentiated classroom and why it was important. She often stopped by the principal's office to say, “When you're out and about in the halls today, you'll notice our students are working in groups.” She'd explain why and add, “I hope you'll stop by and take a look.” In the beginning, that's what the principal did. He would pause beside the door briefly. My colleague eventually invited, “I hope you'll stop in and watch awhile.” When he did that, she encouraged, “Talk with the students and make sure they know what they are doing. I think you'll find that they do.” While we taught our students to be resourceful and independent, she taught the principal to appreciate that sort of classroom. He became our biggest champion. If your principal is suspicious of differentiation, or not supportive, for some other reason, try being his or her teacher too!

If your building administrator already supports student-centered, differentiated classrooms, share with him or her your personal goals for the month or the year. Invite your principal to help you figure out how to achieve those goals in your classroom. Your principal then can target observations more appropriately, and you can draw on the insights of a veteran educator who sees lots of classrooms in action.

Bringing Parents Aboard

Most parents want appropriate things for their children in school. They want them to grow, to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses, to find the classroom exciting, and to wake up eager to go to school the next morning. Yet as surely as a differentiated classroom must confront children's images of how we do school, it also must deal with parents' stereotypical images of school.

Ask parents to write out for you, or tell you, their wishes for their child's year in school. Really listen and learn. Then systematically show parents how a differentiated classroom acknowledges and builds on their child's strengths, provides opportunities to bolster weaker areas, keeps track of individual growth, and promotes engagement and excitement. Use a variety of ways to help parents understand that you are building a curriculum and way of instruction that includes the same goals they desire for their youngsters. For example, periodic class letters, weekly or monthly newsletters, parent conferences with work folders or portfolios, and student evaluations help achieve this goal.

You might want to invite parents to take an active role in the class. Parent volunteers can review math concepts with struggling learners, read with advanced readers who want adult conversation about their advanced books, or work on a project with any student who enjoys the pride of knowing an adult finds him worthy of time and attention. Parents also can be a treasure trove of novels, computer expertise, maps, or hands-on learning materials—all things that expand the learning options for their own and others' children.

Parent-teacher partnerships are important to differentiated classrooms. A parent always knows a child more deeply than a teacher possibly can. There's much for the teacher to learn from that depth of knowledge. On the other hand, a teacher knows a child in ways that a parent cannot. There's much for a parent to gain from that breadth of knowledge. Looking at a child from both parent and teacher viewpoints increases the chances of helping that child realize her full potential. The wisest teachers teach parents as well as children. They eagerly seek opportunities to learn from parents as well.

Involving the Community

The world outside the classroom offers more opportunities than even the most magical classroom. It makes sense to open up a differentiated classroom to that larger world.

Frederick learns best when he builds models of things. Phan needs someone to toss around ideas in his native language before he writes in English. Saranne is more advanced in computers than anyone in her building, and 4th grade Charlie has pretty well finished 6th grade math. Francie desperately wants to know how to dance, Philip is itchy to learn about archeology, and Genice wants to use a 35 mm. camera to take pictures for her history project. The teacher who can facilitate all those things is rare, indeed.

However, a service club can volunteer regularly to make audiotapes for struggling readers and students with learning disabilities. Mentors can help students discover a world of possibilities with photography, baseball statistics, or jazz. A church can provide volunteers for students trying to communicate in two languages. A company can provide old carpet to cover a reading corner in the classroom. Museums and galleries can provide ideas, materials, or guidance on independent projects. A senior citizens center can provide guidance for a wide range of orbital investigations (see Chapter 6). The world is a classroom replete with resources and mentors. A generous teacher links learners with those wide options.

As mentioned before, don't try to do everything at once. Each year, devise one new way to link up with a colleague, gain insight and support from an administrator, learn from and teach parents, or invite a bit of the world into your classroom. Remember that becoming an expert at differentiation is a career-long goal. One step at a time, you can get there.

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