As I’ve traveled between conferences and classrooms this fall, I’ve heard a lot of buzz around the concept and practice of “differentiation.” When I’ve asked teachers, literacy coaches, and language arts coordinators what differentiation looks like in their schools and districts, we’ve usually discussed a variety of programs that schools have purchased or the myriad ways that children are being scheduled, pulled here and pushed there to receive a dose of differentiated instruction, often from a teacher who is not their own.
It all seems complex and daunting, yet isn’t differentiation something we may effortlessly practice in our lives outside the classroom? The ways we differentiate in “real life” can offer us wisdom and comfort about differentiating instruction in our classrooms. So instead of starting by identifying and evaluating a variety of approaches to differentiating instruction, let’s begin by looking at examples of differentiation in real life—life outside of a school day or school year—and draw some lessons from it that apply to our classroom practice.
Let’s imagine you spent some time over the past couple of weeks planning to host Thanksgiving at your home for more than a dozen relatives and friends. There’s a lot to think about and do to get ready to make a memorable meal that will appeal to the taste buds of the pickiest eaters, as well as fill the bellies of your hungriest relatives. Right away, you consider these factors:
- Your teenagers and their cousins have voracious appetites, so you plan to cook two large turkeys this year, acknowledging that next Thanksgiving, you may have to outsource.
- Your niece is returning to town from her first semester at college. She’s now a vegan with a pierced nose. You keep this in mind as you plan the menu, researching vegan side dishes and baked goods. You find a recipe for an egg- and dairy-free dessert and a vegetable dish. Alas, you’re not ready to commit to preparing a Tofurky (at least this year).
- Auntie Mae will be in town, and you remember she has an undisclosed and mysterious stomach issue that nobody in the medical community can diagnose. You arrange the table so her seat is the one closest to the bathroom.
- Cousin Martin is a self-proclaimed foodie and Food Network aficionado, so you plan a couple of side dishes featuring some exotic spices and specialty store vegetables (one that is also vegan, coincidentally!).
- You dust off the activity table your children used when they were little and place it near the big table. You cover it with a disposable tablecloth, and set it with plastic cups, smaller forks, and cute turkey napkins for your sisters’ little kids.
- Everyone knows Uncle Phil likes his liquor and loves his politics and that they can be an incendiary mix. You ask (beg) your husband not to bring up the pros of pulling out of Afghanistan during dinner.
- Your recently widowed and childless neighbor just had knee surgery. He is alone and virtually immobile, so you plan to deliver a warm plate of dinner and a couple of pieces of pie right before you serve your guests.
- Your new sister-in-law is having sneezing fits and asks if you have a pet (which you don’t). You realize she’s been sneezing mostly in the family room, so you remove the fresh flowers—she didn’t realize she was allergic to tiger lilies until that moment.
- You prepare the guest room just in case Uncle Phil (or anyone else) needs or wants to stay out of the driver’s seat.
This real-life and accessible example of differentiation shares many of the same elements worth considering as we think about differentiating instruction for a class of diverse, eccentric, quirky learners with a wide variety of strengths, needs, and interests. What are the lessons we can transfer from the Thanksgiving feast to our classrooms?
A Generosity of Spirit
First and foremost, people who differentiate, whether it’s for a holiday meal or a unit of study for writing, display an inherent generosity of spirit. They don’t view differentiation as a chore, nor do they resent those who need some type of differentiation. There is a genuine desire to accommodate their guests and their students.
As one looks over the guest list for a big dinner and plans for the meal, a generosity of spirit isn’t characterized by eye-rolling over the 19-year-old vegan or feelings of annoyance over Auntie Mae’s needs for a comfortable chair and bathroom access. Instead, the host goes online to vegan recipe websites and talks to her neighbor about the best brand of fake eggs. The host finds a lumbar support cushion that will support Auntie Mae and fit the chair.
Likewise, a teacher isn’t put off by the effort involved to meet the needs of his or her students. He accommodates Marco’s need for a chair during whole-group meetings in the rug area because Marco has a muscular-skeletal issue that prevents him from sitting cross-legged for even a few minutes. She looks around for books on peregrine falcons at the public library book fair because Taylor is temporarily obsessed by them. He lets Marissa and Reina use manipulatives during math because they need to do so. She pulls small groups together during reading workshop to support those six children who continue to need fluency support. Teachers understand the needs of students are the top priority, and welcome the challenge of figuring out how to meet those needs.
Of course, there is much more involved in teaching young learners than hosting a Thanksgiving feast, and I’m not suggesting that classroom teachers are educational hosts. Even so, just as a host begins by asking himself, What can I do and provide to make sure my guests have a completely enjoyable evening?, a classroom teacher who differentiates instruction begins by asking herself, What can I do and provide to make sure my students have the best learning experience possible? And she looks forward to the challenge and outcome of answering that question.