Create a Vibrant, Differentiated Classroom

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September 18, 2018

‘Teacher, I’m Through! Now What Do I Do?’ 

This question was commonly heard in elementary classrooms throughout the day in my early years of teaching. Students were lined up in rows in the classroom. The teacher presented the content from the front of the class while students listened quietly. The class received their worksheet after the content was delivered. By the time the last student received her worksheet, the first student who had received it raised her hand and told the teacher that she was finished and wanted to know what to work on next.
Today, the effective elementary classroom is much more vibrant and active. Walking into the room, a visitor might see a small group of students at a table with the teacher in one corner, a group of kids huddled around a computer in another corner, several students reading independently and taking notes around the room and other students engaged in partner activities.

It’s loud. It looks chaotic. However, all students are actively taking charge of their learning and finding ways to exhibit their new knowledge in real-life ways to present to classmates and their families. Kids in these classrooms are excited to learn, excited to show what they’re learning, and they are able to use technology to collaborate with their peers while they use problem-solving skills together.

Identify Priority Standards

The first step in creating a differentiated classroom environment is working with colleagues to identify priority standards. At the second-grade level, there are more than 40 Michigan State Standards in English Language Arts and more than 25 standards in mathematics. The vast majority of those standards have specific sub-standards, as well.

In addition, elementary teachers strive to balance their day with the teaching requirements in social studies, science, handwriting, the arts, physical education and social skills. There is just not enough time in the school year to teach every standard to mastery.

We have worked tirelessly in Vicksburg to collaborate with grade level teams to identify priority standards. This doesn’t mean that we don’t teach every standard as prescribed by the state. Instead, we carefully identify the overall goal for the content that will prove students have mastery. By identifying these priority standards, we can provide opportunities for students to dig deeper into fewer standards rather than just quickly teach and assess a wide variety of standards at a surface level.

Assess Students’ Knowledge of the Standard

Every student has academic strengths. One student may read stories with fluency and expression but may not comprehend the text. Another student may be able to add and subtract three-digit numbers but may not understand the difference between two-dimensional and three-dimensional shapes.

Prior to beginning work in the classroom around a new priority standard, the teacher needs to assess students’ knowledge of that standard to determine which student needs which instruction. There is no one-size-fits-all approach in a classroom. If a student has already mastered the content, they must be given opportunities to work on content that they have not yet mastered.

Equity isn’t everyone getting the same thing in your classroom. It is allowing students to move on to something new when they are ready, and it is revisiting content with students who need additional support. Equity is giving every student a fair chance at success.

Use Data to Drive Instruction

Differentiated instructional groups are then developed based on this data. At this point, the teacher determines which students need additional supports in order to master the grade-level content. She plans specific activities in order to meet the needs of those students. Should the assessment show that students are already working at or above grade level on that priority standard, enrichment activities are designed to enable students to move beyond the grade-level curriculum into more challenging material.

In an effective classroom, this does not mean that a student is working on a program on a computer. Instead, students are immersed in projects to dig deeper into the content and extend their learning beyond the confines of their grade level curriculum.

For example, the teacher may identify a small group of students who struggle in reading comprehension. She meets in a guided reading group with these students daily to scaffold their learning and provide opportunities for guided practice with grade-level text. Around the room, groups of students are also developing reading comprehension skills by digging deeper into a text that they have read independently.

One group of students may be programming an Ozobot, a small robot, to retell a story. Other students are creating a book review on Flipgrid, a website that allows teachers to create “grids” of short discussion-style questions that students respond to through recorded videos. More students are spending this time reading independently. Some students are writing a persuasive letter to their pen pals across the state, recommending the book that they just read with details and examples from the text.

In this way, all students will exhibit their learning in a variety of ways to their teacher and classmates while not working on the same activity. Every student has a chance to work at their unique individual level while moving toward a common priority standard in reading comprehension.

Students Set and Monitor Goals with Teacher

There’s a common misconception that differentiated, individualized learning is only for students who are struggling with the academic content. Students who are working above grade level also benefit greatly from this type of instruction because they are able to push ahead while teachers continue to teach and reinforce the grade level content to the students who need it. All students are able to take ownership of their education, which develops self-directed learning skills for students that will help them throughout their lives.
An integral part of cultivating self-directed learners is developing specific learning goals as a team. Teachers meet with students to examine their data, set goals for learning and track the data based on formative assessments given throughout the unit of study. When students take ownership of their own data, they are able to articulate their progression toward learning goals to classmates, teacher and families.


This same process continues with potentially all of your grade-level standards! At first, the thought of individualizing learning to this degree with every standard is overwhelming. Just start slowly. Students need to be given opportunities to build stamina at the beginning of the year in order to sustain work independently for significant periods of time. Adding a little bit of time each day is all that it takes, though, to create an environment that fosters strong independent learners. The more engaging the work is for the students, the more stamina they’ll have to complete the tasks, as well.
Let’s connect! I would love to hear about the ways you have individualized learning in your classroom.

Laura Chang is Michigan’s Teacher of the Year for 2018-19, and Meemic is proud to partner with the Michigan Department of Education for the program. Laura is entering her nineteenth year of teaching at Sunset Lake Elementary in Vicksburg Community Schools, where she is currently a K-5 interventionist.
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