Differentiate Better: The time is now

Nicole Greene, NBCTSeptember 21, 2020

Differentiation. For some, this single word describes their entire teaching practice. This same word, though, causes heart palpitations in many others. Our job description gets longer with no sign of reprieve (or appropriate pay, but hey, that’s for a different blog). Differentiating feels like the icing on the top of the unattainable cake. In this new strange era of hybrid/remote learning, where reaching students has never felt more challenging, effective differentiation has never been more important. My hope is to provide you with ways to start today, without increasing your workload or changing your practice.

What differentiating is…and what it definitely is not.

I think the biggest  obstacle to overcome, when it comes to differentiation, is mindset. Many teachers go in thinking it’s too hard; giving up before giving it an honest effort. Using the growth mindset we foster in our kids, I like to think differentiating is as accessible as your feelings towards it. It’s important to note that differentiating is essential to reaching all your students, even if you’re not in the special needs classroom. Simply put, if you’re not differentiating, you’re not at any time meeting the needs of all your students.

It’s crucial to understand that differentiation is not making everything different for each of your students . If you’re envisioning staying up all night to create 10 different activities then staying up all night the next to grade them, exhale and let go of that overcomplication. Differentiation is not having a different lesson, assignment, or assessment each and every day. On the contrary, differentiation is making modifications that make curriculum accessible to all learners. When differentiating, you’re deciding to modify either product or process . Product refers to assignments, assessments, etc – essentially anything that demonstrates knowledge acquired. Process refers to the way in which you provide instruction to your students.

Differentiating Process

When planning a unit or lesson, think about the learners you have in your classroom. Consider what they’ll need in place to access the content. A big mental hurdle to overcome when planning to differentiate is the notion that you will need to teach a lesson differently to each sub-group or student. That would  be both inefficient, and it would  slow the learning process for everyone. Instead, plan to build in as many supports as you can in the lesson the first time around. Make your lesson as dynamic as possible including visual, physical and auditory supports. Here are some examples of process differentiation:

  1. Record  your lesson so students who struggle with processing or memory can relisten whenever they need.
  2. Be preemptive and flexible about “fidgets” and attention tools students will utilize.
  3. Pause frequently for processing and to answer questions.
  4. Check understanding and identify early  students who will need small group instruction
  5. Be prepared with enrichment opportunities for quicker paced or higher comprehending students.

Differentiating Product

Product differentiation often comes with the stigma that assignments are either shortened or made easier (please, say anything but “dumbed-down”). I’d be much quicker to call these lowering expectations than providing appropriate supports – neither are effective differentiation. Instead, consider your learners and identify the ways they can best show you what they’ve learned. Activities and assessments mean nothing if they inhibit your students’ ability to share their understanding. Rather than create different assignments for each lesson or unit, you can differentiate product by:

  1. Creating a choice board ahead of time. This way, you’ll have planned for the different assignment/assessment products in advance and can reuse structures and rubrics.
  2. Allow students to record themselves saying the answers to questions/problems or verbalize their thought process. This is especially helpful for students with fine-motor and written language struggles.
  3. Instead of traditional tests, engage in a conversation with your students to assess understanding.
  4. Assign projects instead of unit tests that emphasize application and problem-solving rather than rote-memorization.
  5. Allow students to utilize notes, videos, or the internet when taking assessments (this probably falls into the categories of process and product, depending on how you utilize it). Remember, no one accuses you of cheating when you look the answer to something up on your phone!
  6. Be flexible about turn in dates for students who need more time.
  7. Provide more support for students who struggle with output – graphic organizers, sentence starters, fill-in-the blanks, word banks. While a blank page may feel like a world of opportunity for some students, it will make others shut down all together.
  8. Make time in class for checking/grading. Students can self or peer check to help learn from their mistakes and lessen your time spent after hours.
  9. Allow students to choose a certain number of problems to complete or work under a timer. They can show what they know without losing stamina.

Moving Forward

Wherever you are in your differentiating process, remember that the goal isn’t to make things easier for your students, nor is it to make things harder for you. Focus on accessibility and keep in mind all of the students you’ll be able to reach in deeper and more profound ways. If you have any differentiation ideas I haven’t mentioned, please comment them below.

Nicole Greene, NBCT

Nicole Greene is a special education teacher in NYC and an Exceptional Needs NBCT, working with students in grades 4-12. She earned her education degree at Stony Brook University and is a proud Seawolf Alum. Nicole has committed her career to working with students who learn and think differently, learning about and advocating for educational equity, mentoring new teachers, and being a social justice accomplice (be more than an ally!). You can keep up with Nicole on Twitter @MrsG_ENSNBCT (she’s very proud to be an NBCT if you can’t tell)!