Differentiating Instruction Part 1: and a Joyful Learning Book Giveaway

I have been feeling lately that my posts have been a little on the long side. In an attempt to keep them short and sweet, I will be breaking them up in segments when appropriate, so I can tackle the information of larger topics in readable, bite-sized pieces. This will also allow me to cover a topic in more depth, and with more specificity around each piece. The first piece I want to cover is differentiating instruction.

Differentiating instruction can look like many things in classrooms. It is also a buzzword in education right now that can, unfortunately, not carry much meaning in day to day instruction. Teachers use the word to describe many things that they are doing, and through the overuse of the word – there can be a loss for the true meaning of what the goal is for the instruction. That is why I am going to spend the next series of posts highlighting some of my favorite resources and strategies for individualizing instruction for learners.

One way teachers can be more responsive to diverse learners in their schools is through active engagement and collaborative learning. In their book, Joyful Learning: Active and Collaborative Learning in Inclusive Classrooms, Alice Udvari-Solner and Paula Kluth describe many useful, tried and true differentiation strategies for elementary and secondary teachers to engage and support students with diverse learning profiles. This book is one of my favorite resources, and is one that I give as teacher gifts annually to my sons’ teachers. It is always a welcome treasure, as the strategies they offer as well as the reasons they give for the use of each, are extremely versatile and effective in supporting all students, including English Language Learners and learners with disabilities.

I love their definition of differentiation, which they describe came from articulating the words of the many teachers that they have worked with over the years:   

            “Differentiation requires a desire to honor the individual. It is a conscious and critical act that calls into question what we teach, why we should teach it, and how we expect students to learn. Teachers attend not only to curriculum, instruction, and assessment, but also issues of relevance, meaning, and respect. A student’s individual needs, experiences, and interests influence the design of learning experiences. The presence of difference in the classroom is not viewed as a liability but as the necessary catalyst for changes that will improve instruction for all.”

In my next post I will offer some of their specific strategies as well as situations that I have been in that I have used them, or seen them used effectively.

NOW – for the fun part! If you write a comment about how you have seen or used effective, active engagement or collaborative learning to meet the diverse needs in classrooms, or with a question about how they could be used in your classroom (or your son’s or daughter’s if you are a parent) – I will randomly choose one winner from the comments and send a copy of Joyful Learning to you.

Let’s hear all about those great things that are happening in our schools, and any questions there are about how we could differentiate more effectively!

18 thoughts on “Differentiating Instruction Part 1: and a Joyful Learning Book Giveaway

  1. Rachel Thierry Morgan

    My son is in the 3rd grade this year and has an incredible general education teacher! We have pushed for inclusion and he is doing great! My son when anxious does tend to yell out or say “snow” quite frequently so his teacher had a brilliant idea on how to calm him and said to the class one time when he was really upset and yelling snow and crying that Adam has a great idea even though its not time for science let’s make snow and that is exactly what her class did and Adam calmed quickly and now Adam keeps a container of the snow he made on his desk to help him not get so upset and the other kids thought it was cool that they got to make snow and it was Adam’s idea so it helped him socially with his peers as well! The teacher is getting Adam’s respect and trust! We continue to work each day with his team on making the best learning environment for Adam!

    1. Jennifer Sommerness Post author

      Hi Rachel – I LOVE this story! So many parts of this make sense to me in terms of what differentiation can look like. I love how the teacher realized that your son’s fascination with snow could be an onramp for an activity that all students could participate in, and that he could be successful and respected in it. I think I have played with the snow that you are talking about – I love the feel of it! Great idea to have some of it on hand for those times where he could use a little confidence and soothing too. The fact that the other students in the class were excited about it and could see it as a special thing, instead of a disruption – is priceless. Fabulous!

      Thank you so much for sharing your story! I look forward to more comments from you – to share with everyone about how success can look in a differentiated classroom. Best to you! Jen

  2. Penny

    We chose to wave the white flag and homeschool; collaborative and engaged learning happens more/better at home. I would love to win the book to get more ideas to incorporate at home and in co-op settings. We had a wonderful experience in a co-op physical education class last fall learning competitive jump rope. Was so much fun to see my child Double Dutch! 😉

    1. Jennifer Sommerness Post author

      Hello Penny,
      You are certainly in the running for the book. It will, I am sure, offer some great thinking for engagement in any environment. You may also love Paula’s book “You’re Going to Love This Kid”. I have given that book to many parents in the past. I have to keep ordering that book too, as I seem to let people borrow it – and it never returns because people love it so much for it’s usefulness.

      I hope that you come back to the website and comment in the future – I would love to hear how it is going for you! We could all learn a great deal from your experiences. Thanks for commenting and good luck! Jen

  3. Jessica

    My second-grade daughter has an intellectual disability and is still learning basic math facts with manipulatives. I have pushed for her inclusion, but the teacher struggles to meet my daughter’s needs within a “spiral curriculum.” The staff feel that my daughter needs consistent, condensed time to work on the “foundation” skills. How can they provide that to my daughter within the general education curriculum and in the general education classroom? Thanks for a great giveaway!

    1. Rachel Morgan

      Hi Jessica,
      We had some resistance last year with our son being placed in a general education setting and they didn’t think he could do it. I found that requesting a period of time to try it (we said 5 weeks) and helping them appropriate adaptions and modifications for your particular child (great references are any of Paula Kluth’s books but especially “From Tutor Scripts to Talking Sticks”). Let them know that you will help in anyway possible to make this dream of inclusion for your daughter come true. I find many schools have very low expectations for our children and this causes boredom for them. My son has a difficult time with letters and numbers in isolation and I was told that he couldn’t move on until he mastered that skill and I asked “Why?” I explained that there was no meaning for him when working in isolation and that he was bored of seeing the same few things over and over again and told them they needed to move onto to simple math problems and sight words and it is about mastering a concept not the actual problems. We are still working on this with them but since we had our 5 weeks of challenging him in the general education class here we are a year and a half later and he is making great strides in the general education room and academically! Keep pushing for inclusion it does work! Keep educating every general education teacher your daughter has on her specific needs and help with modification many teachers are well intended they just need help learning how your child learns! Hope this helps!

      1. Jennifer Sommerness Post author

        Thank you for your response – I completely agree with your sentiment that it can work, and many times parents are in the unique position of pushing and educating the educators! 😉 I also agree that Paula’s book is an amazing resource. Tutor Scripts is one that has ideas mapped out in such an intuitive way – that teachers are sure to love it, and it is based on creating meaningful supports for kids. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

        Teachers have the best of intentions, this I have seen over and over again. The question you ask of “why” is an extremely important one, and one that parents shouldn’t be afraid to ask. Oftentimes I think teachers don’t want to give up the academic part, and to their credit – they shouldn’t until they have tried many avenues! That being said – when the pressure is relieved by parents through a conversation (asking “why”, for example) that refocuses on the general well being and success of the student – which is larger spanning than just purely academics – then they can breathe and get creative in how they approach teaching your child. Once they know that they have some room to “play” in their practice, and that they have you to collaborate with – not having to defend what they are doing, it is amazing what can happen.

        Keep the doors of communication open, presume positive intentions from the teachers, and see where your collaboration can lead. Sometimes just giving teachers the OK to NOT focus on academics for a while, they start doing things that will naturally open up academics for all students in their classes.

        Thank you for the comment!

    2. Jennifer Sommerness Post author

      Thanks so much for the question. In my next posts, I hope that I can flesh out more specifics around what you are talking about – curricular adaptations and meaningful supports and strategies that meet the individual’s needs. It is a large part of why I am soliciting people’s comments and stories through this post, in hopes that we can have some real life kids that we can problem solve around together. Thanks for giving the details for your daughter’s story – and please come back to see the posts that are coming up to help in your thinking too.

      That being said, my “off the top of my head” response to you is that even a spiral curriculum can meet the needs of your daughter, if supported and adapted in a way that is useful for her. Great that they are using manipulatives, by the way – that is a good start. Do you have an IEP that is what I would call a “working IEP”? One that focuses on what she CAN do, and also those areas of need? If you have an IEP that focuses on the positive, and has those things listed that she can do – then the needs areas that she may have are much easier to address.

      It is not uncommon for teachers to express the need for “consistent, condensed time” to work on skills. What needs to happen in your case, my best guess, is that the teachers need some ideas as to how that can still be done in an inclusive setting, using the curriculum that all kids are using. I will focus more on this area in my next posts. Please come back, and don’t forget to share and invite the teachers to check out the conversation as well. I think it will be useful.

      An aside story – I was part of a team that was problem solving for a young woman in high school with significant mental and physical disabilities. We were able to create meaningful adaptations for her to be included in a high school advanced calculus class. We did it by first focusing on what she could do, and then creating adaptations and supports that were meaningful based on a working IEP for her. It CAN be done.

      Please come back and we can talk about how this can look for your daughter. Thank you for the inspiration! Jen

  4. Marjorie Guldan

    My daughter has down syndrome and is in a regular first grade class with a 1:1. I’m happy with the progress she’s made so far but I keep hearing from the IEP team how far behind she is. I already overruled them last year when they wanted to have her repeat kindergarten and since she’s missed some time due to perthes related surgeries and PT I fully expect that fight again this year. I feel like we are just not on the same page when it comes to expectations. I realized a long time ago that it will take my daughter longer to reach goals but she usually does get there in her own time. I want her to be included and I want her to succeed in reading, writing and math (and she does have the basics down so far) but I need them to understand that it’s okay that she’s not at the same level as her friends academically…and probably never will be……but socially she fits in perfectly. Now they’re focusing on behaviors as being the problem when she only has the usual DS related behaviors – short attention span, impulsivity, stubborness and occasional refusal to work. I feel like they’re blaming her when they are supposed to be the professionals and find a way to reach her. Am I wrong?

    1. Jennifer Sommerness Post author

      Thanks for your comment also! I believe that some of what I wrote above would also apply in your case.

      When you say you are not on the same page, that leads me to believe that maybe your IEP meetings have a bit of adversarial tone to them? Is that the case? If so, I would possibly have different ideas for you.

      Let me know, and thank you for your comment! Jen

    2. Rachel Morgan

      Hi Marjorie,
      First I want to say kudos to you for being assertive in your beliefs that your daughter belongs in the general education classes with her peers! It is really important to stress to the educators that the purpose of your daughter’s IEP is to write an educational plan that adressess your daughter’s “individual” educational needs (hence the name of the plan Individual Education Plan) while at school and has no bearings on placement. It appears from your post that your daughter has a para professional and your daughter should be placed by law in the least restrictive environment. As far as the “behaviors” you mentioned I would be asking a lot of questions on what is happening right before the “behavior” to figure out what is causing the behavior. I find not only with my son but with many other children I work with that the academic expectations for our kidos with special needs is very low and they get bored very quickly so that can cause short attention span and refusal to work or it could be a sensory need or something that is in the classroom that is distracting, etc… Just because you have special needs doesn’t mean that equals a “behavior child” you are not born with behaviors these are reactions to something that is taking place in your environment so you may want to dig in a little more to what is happening right before the so called behaviors. Keep in mind you can be an incredible resource for the educators don’t be afraid to let them know what works for your daughter you know her better then anyone and you are your daughter’s number one teacher for the rest of her life! Good luck your daughter is very lucky to have you in her life!

      1. Jennifer Sommerness Post author

        Thank you, Rachel for the comments. I sent an email directly to Marjorie that explained much of the same!

        I was a part of writing a job-embedded curriculum for paraprofessionals that has an entire unit just talking about behavior as communication. It is, indeed, a very important topic.

        I look forward to posting about that as well. So much to talk about! Thanks again, Jen

  5. Janice Martin

    We homeschool also. We have found it to be so beneficial to be able to work on collaborative projects and really individualize instruction. There are so many other settings, such as recreation programs and religious education classes, where these concepts should be applied. I believe that we, as a society, are just beginning to get a glimpse of what real inclusion looks like.

    Would love to win the book!

  6. Troy Kubly

    Hi everyone!
    I am an Educational Specialist (Resource) that helps students with unique needs succeed in the general education curriculum. This is my first year in Special Education after six years in general education. I am a National Board Certified Teacher and chose to make the switch, in part, because I saw too many students missing opportunities based on their disability. Unlike many special education teacher, I am able to offer suggestions that I have tried myself as a general education teacher. To say it is easy to manage all of the needs of a classroom of 32 students would be a lie. To say it can be done and when it is, it is very rewarding would be a valid statement. As a parent, you need to find that one teacher the same vision of inclusion as you do for your child. Use the power of your IEP to help guide your child to a quality teacher and unique goals that are created so your child can not only succeed but grow and develop. I embrace the differences. Every waking moment I spend I am thinking about ways to reach my students, many of them with autism. I follow this site because I want to learn all I can about the different disabilities that affect my students. I read what I can, take classes when I can and attend seminars and workshops so I can be the best teacher for my students. Some I actually see in small groups but most I follow as a consult or collaborate teacher. I try to be the little angel that is watching over them as they learn and shine at school. My classroom sparkles with my student’s work and successes. I was told by another SpEd teacher that the room should be plain and simple as not to distract the students. Her room is sterile, like a hospital. My experiences have shown to be very different. My room is a home, a safe place to be, a happy place to learn and looks just like an ordinary elementary room. Why should my students work in a white space? The world isn’t white. I could go on with lots of examples but for lack of space just let me say to you that I adore my new position. Most teachers want to do the best for your child but might just not know how. As a Resource Teacher, I hope to obtain a copy of this book to share with those teachers that I receive the most reluctance from simply because they need help to understand what they can do. Thank you for all the great comments and resources this site provides. It is a very important bookmark on my computer! 🙂

  7. Becky Roskamp

    In my child’s school the whole grade (about 20 kids) participated in creating a video about building relationships in which my ASD son was the star! It was fantastic and a great learning experience for all the kids (and the parents as well when the DVD was sent home with the kiddos).

  8. Rachel Morgan

    I commend you for all you are doing for the children you work with and I think it is great that you have both the perspective of a general education teacher as well as a special education resource teacher. I am a mother of four children one with special needs as well as an early interventionist for the past 8yrs and have also started a non-profit org. to help families as well. I sit on both the parent side as well as the educators point of view. I am every day looking for new resources, seminars, workshops, books etc… to help me with not only my son but all the other children and families I work with. Any resources you have I would love to hear about. I have recently started working with the local university on speaking to education students on how to collaborate with parents to better help the students they will be working with and I think that the number one resource we need to remember to utilize first and foremost on a daily basis are the parents of each individual child and as educators to continue to empower the parent and remind them they know their child better then anyone. I truly believe that the best educators keep the line of communication open with the parents and should sit down with each family prior to working with any student to ask as many questions as possible to get to know that child as best they can. Family is forever and parents are the first and number one educator in their child’s life and the teachers and IEP team are there to support the family. Trust, Respect & Transparency are keys to a great collaborative effort! It sounds like your off to a great start Troy and I wish you all the best!

  9. David Coffey

    I have become very interested in using an approach often associated with literacy instruction called the Gradual Release of Responsibility. There’s a pretty straightforward video describing the idea here:

    I like how Dr. Wilhelm thinks about differentiation based on instructional support and not just activities. I’d be interested to discuss how this approach could apply in inclusion classrooms.

  10. Meghan

    My son is hyperlexic (part of his diagnosis) and for a kindergartener, that means he’s an early reader. His teacher’s are eager to keep him engaged. Together, we came up with little things to add to the depth of his learning while not further increasing the gap between him and his peers. (He has social skills deficits – we’re trying to not have him academically a 6th grader and socially a 4 year old. We’re trying to close the gap.) One example is during letter learning. When other children are circling which pictures begin with the letter “p”, my guy finishes that work and then writes the names of the items in each picture. If he finishes that while the other kids are still working, he’s challenged to write 3 more “p” words on the back of the page. If there’s still more time (usually there isn’t but…), he can draw the pictures of those items. It’s working out well!


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