How We Can Differentiate Amid Academic Diversity
Reviewed by Jeny Randall
I teach in a multi-age classroom of 4th and 5th graders. However, even in the span of a single grade, the need for differentiation is significant. I know I’m not alone in this experience, as I hear similar stories from colleagues across the country.
Some of our students require reading support, while others are reading well beyond grade level expectations. Some are more comfortable expressing themselves in writing, while others prefer to articulate their ideas through discussion, and still others are most comfortable sketching.
Their passions vary from spending time outdoors, to playing sports, cartooning, coding, or hanging out with friends. So it was with my “kids” in mind that I reached for Making Differentiation a Habit.
In this excellent resource, which Rick Wormeli calls “a thinking teacher’s manual for differentiation,” Diane Heacox focuses on “twelve critical elements for success in a differentiated classroom” (p.2), which she explores in the book’s twelve chapters.
She offers a range of strategies and tools that can be implemented immediately, and provides guidance for adapting them to fit a range of specific needs such as primary students, English language learners, gifted students and those with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). She articulates what differentiation is, and what it isn’t. She urges us as readers to “start small, but start somewhere” (p 57).
An excellent chapter on assessment examines different types of assessment and their roles in the classroom. It then offers strategies for formal and informal pre-assessment, considers which strategies are best suited to which curricular areas, and provides specific examples that range from computing percentiles differentiated by learning preference, to an amphibian topic web, to a check-in ticket assessing understanding of author’s voice.
Heacox provides similar treatment for formative assessment. This updated edition includes a new section on digital tools for assessment, which offers an annotated list of apps and other digital tools. It is comprehensive; however, in the rapidly evolving digital world some of these will be obsolete in the coming years and others will move to the forefront.
The section on summative assessment incorporates a list of strategies grouped according to Bloom’s levels, also new to this edition.
Support from school leadership
The final chapter shifts away from the classroom to an audience of school leaders and administrators. Here Heacox offers specific steps for developing an action plan for promoting differentiation. She also provides guidance on supporting teacher growth and catching differentiation in action in classrooms.
Heacox models the act of differentiation by creating opportunities for readers to differentiate their experiences. A pre-assessment tool, “Teacher Inventory on Differentiation Practices and Strategies” (p.14), invites readers to reflect on their current practices and focus their use of the book. An invitation in the introduction suggests that readers focus on areas of interest.
In addition, Heacox provides specific examples for a broad range of ages and disciplines. She also varies her delivery method through the use of anecdotes, specific examples, tips, and procedures. Checklists reinforce the ideas put forth in many chapters, and templates provide space to apply what has been discussed.
I was, at first, hesitant to fill out the Teacher Inventory, thinking I would want to reference it again later. Fortunately, the publishers provide digital copies of forms, templates, and checklists for download on their website, making it easy to complete multiple copies over time.
Finding time to differentiate
Differentiation takes extra effort, and Heacox acknowledges this, but she also provides tips for reducing time spent. For example, in her chapter “Prescribing Tiered Assignments and Using Flexible Grouping,” she suggests that most of the time we can use or modify what we have on hand rather than creating new assignments. To facilitate this, she includes instructions for a “Scavenger Hunt for Tiered Assignments.” In addition, the chapter “Developing Student Responsibility and Independence” offers structures and routines for helping students take greater control of their day to day learning and tasks.
It may be a minor gripe, but I found elements of the design distracting. For instance, scattered and overlapping greyscale circles in white space caught my eye and drew my attention from the text. More than once, I found myself brushing a stray hair from the page, only to find that it was a design element.
Today, as I stood at the white board jotting down student responses, I found myself stepping back to consider: was I reaching every student in the room? Was there another way I could articulate this concept? Though not new to differentiation in the classroom, I found myself reflecting on it in new ways.
I resolved to take Diane Heacox’s suggestion and identify one new strategy to implement as I approach my plans for the coming weeks. We may start small, but we should all start somewhere.
Jeny Randall teaches 4th and 5th grade Language Arts and science at Saratoga Independent School in New York State. As Middle School Coordinator, she is overseeing the curriculum and program development for the new middle school. Outside of school Randall teaches yoga, reads whatever students send her way, and spends time with her family, outside if possible.