They might say something like:
Admin is requiring us to have differentiation options in our lesson plans. What's a good way to account for all the levels of learners in my class?
More often than not they won't use the d word. They'll say something along the lines of:
I've got a lot of low kids in my class. It takes them forever to solve a problem. Some of them can't even read. The high kids finish right away and then just sit around and wait while I try to help the others. What can I do?
When I hear comments like this, I set aside (for the moment) my concerns about labeling learners as high and low. I compliment the teacher on her observation that something is wrong, that not all needs are being met, that precious class time is being wasted, and that she wants to do something about it. But what?
Sometimes teachers will assign certain groups of students certain problems, or adapt assignments, like this:
One common method I've seen employed is dividing students into ability-based groups. Teachers might call this guided math, or math workshop. After a whole-class lesson, the teacher will meet with the so-called struggling students and lead them through the problem set while the "high fliers" work through the problems on their own, and then move on to some game or other activity. If there's time, the students in the teacher-led group may get to play a game. There's rarely enough time.
While I do believe there is a time and place for teachers to meet with small, skill-based groups, too often this model becomes the daily, default structure. The groups calcify, and all the inherent social, emotional, and academic implications manifest themselves. So what's the answer?
Here's a differentiation template that I've used. I take no credit for inventing it, only experimenting with it in some of my elementary classrooms to good effect. I've written about this before, but as we begin the 2018-2019 school year I feel it's a good time for a revisit. It goes like this:
Grab a scissors. Take whatever problem you want the kids to solve and remove the question. Keep just the text. If the questions are generated based on a chart or some other graphic, keep just the graphic.
After a quick notice and wonder, ask the students to write their own questions, questions that can be solved using the information in the prompt. First in their notebooks and then, after vetting, on chart paper. Ask students to vary the question type between "thin" and "thick" questions.
Select a variety of questions and post them around the room. Allow students freedom of choice to solve whichever problems they want, using whatever strategies they want.
I like this model because it avoids the stigmatization of students being put in high, middle, and low groups and it allows for students to self-differentiate, both in terms of the questions they write and the questions they elect to solve. Engagement is increased because, rather than being told which questions to answer, students have been given the opportunity to pose their own questions and decide which they'd like to tackle. It's the definition of a low floor/high ceiling task, and it provides opportunities for small group interactions within a whole group community setting. The teacher can elect to work with whatever students she feels need guidance without the students feeling that they've been singled out in an ability-based group. Most important, it's fun.
If you'd like to know more about how this has played out in classroom settings, see posts here, here, and here. Comments are open for your ideas, observations, and reflections.