Differentiation Part 2 and a Community Meeting Announcement

Photo by Dan Habib – from the fantastic “Including Samuel” Documentary

My last post about differentiation two weeks ago was short and sweet. From that post, there were many comments from parents about what is happening in their school, for their son or daughter. I would like to use those comments as a spring board for this post. Thank you, in advance, for your stories and insight.

One mother spoke about her son, Adam. She detailed how he says the word “snow” when excited or anxious, and how the teacher chose to stop instruction and go with Adam’s suggestion – made time for making snow and teaching around it to the whole class. This, to me, is the epitome of differentiation. Taking something that can be seen as disruptive, and turning it upside down, and instead using it as a teachable moment for the entire class. Not only does this example show how flexible teachers can be in their day, but it also shows how so much can be gained by so little. Adam must have felt empowered, instead of anxious; included instead of singled out; and respected for what he brings to the class. The entire class must have felt like they understood not only the topic better, but also how to honor what each individual brings to any situation.

Fascinations, or even obsessions, can be considered a negative thing. However, if we see it for what it is – a deep interest in something – it carries a different, positive, connotation. I have a personal obsession, and that is for cooking. I know many people that don’t understand the degree of perfection that I try for in my cooking. I read cookbooks cover to cover, obsess about the tools I have for the job, and am constantly thinking about how I could make something taste better each time I make it. At times, it is therapeutic – I could spend days in my kitchen and come out feeling energized. Other times, it is a personal challenge to make something better than the time before, and I am my own harshest critic. This example of my deep interest, my obsession which I have, is not one that is considered too different from one that many people have – so it isn’t seen as a negative, especially because I cook for others so frequently – and they benefit from it. But not all people have fascinations that are similar to other people, so it is seen as a negative quality.

Adam’s fascination with snow brings him comfort, and I would guess that it is something that goes beyond the school day as a deep interest that he has. Just because we all don’t have the same level of interest in snow as Adam, doesn’t mean that his interest isn’t valid. I love the way that this teacher realized that, and changed the course of the day to include his interest. A way to continue to differentiate for Adam through his fascination would be the use of snow, or weather related materials, to teach Adam about many things during the course of the year. Perhaps he would be the classroom weatherman, could use the weather map for geography lessons, could use temperatures and inches of snowfall to do math, or write poetry and creative stories including the topic of snow. Not only Adam’s interests, but the unique interests of the other students in the class could be integrated into the curriculum, along with ways for students to explore, share and teach to each other about their fascinations.

Another mother asks the question of how a second grade daughter with an intellectual disability that is still learning basic math facts with manipulatives can be included within a spiral curriculum. A spiral curriculum is one that touches on many subjects within math, and by design, doesn’t focus on any one math foundation, before going onto another one. Spiral curriculums assume that the kids will pick up and master the math facts over time, with the topics being covered briefly and being touched on enough in increasing levels of difficulty, that they learn the necessary components. The good news is, the lack of needing to master a particular skill before moving on is one that is oftentimes helpful for kids with disabilities. In this sense, they are able to work on a plethora of skills, not just one that needs to be mastered, before moving on. The reality is that some kids with disabilities won’t ever “master” particular skills – it is important to expose them to a diverse set of skills and support them with curricular adaptations so they can be engaged to the fullest extent during the activity. There may be parts of the math curriculum that are easy for your daughter (or any child in the class) to engage in and learn. Focusing on any one set of skills before allowing a student to move on to new sets of skills can be a dangerous assumption when including kids with disabilities. The key is giving opportunities for repeated practice, as well as an increased number of opportunities for actual use of the skills within different settings and environments.

If there are enriching activities that expose students to the various elements (in this case math), that are structured in ways that different learners can access the information – then all students win! Adding visual or tactile (manipulative) supports to a lecture, or using props, models and visual aides to add meaning for all learners is one way to differentiate during math instruction. Another way to differentiate is through pairing students up to talk about what they have learned with one another. This can be done during a lesson, or after a lesson has been completed. In the Joyful Learning: Active and Collaborative Learning in Inclusive Classrooms book written by Paula Kluth and Alice Udvari-Solner, that I mentioned in my last differentiation post, they suggest using the following prompts to guide paired learning for any subject, called a “turn and talk”:

“At certain intervals in the lecture, ask students to turn to the person next to them (or assign partners in advance) and discuss what you just presented.

  • Ask your partner a question about ________
  • Paraphrase what I just taught
  • Share the most interesting thing you just learned.”

Specifically, to answer this mother’s question, I would also suggest that the IEP be written in a way that the skills that are being worked on are general enough that it is a compliment to the spiral curriculum. If there are skills that are needed on top of what will be gained through the curriculum, then the IEP should reflect that – but many times, IEP’s are written in a way that makes including kids with disabilities more difficult. Writing an IEP that explains the strengths that a student has, as well as detailing goals that can be reached within a general education curriculum is extremely important. I will write a post specifically about what this can look like, but suffice it to say that the actual IEP that this young woman has for second grade may be part of the issue, not the spiral math curriculum itself.

One more example that was given in my last differentiation post was from a mother of a young man that is on the autism spectrum. She wrote that he was the star of a video that the entire class made about building relationships, and the DVD was sent home to all of the families. I love the idea of creating a video, and involving the students in the entire process. Establishing and nurturing friendships and social networks for kids with and without disabilities, I believe, is one of the most important pieces of inclusive practice. Creating communities within schools and classrooms for all kids is a way to prevent bullying, as well as enhance academic outcomes. Kids who belong, who feel a part of a group, and who have established, positive friendships succeed more often than those who are disconnected or isolated socially. There are many ways of teaching kids about friendships. One example is through the use of Circle of Friends, originally developed by Marsha Forest and Jack Pearpoint of Toronto and their organization, Inclusion Press. This process helps create interdependence and encourages us to take care of each other through our relationships and communities.

I recently was in a fourth grade classroom and did a Circle of Friends with the students. This classroom contained kids with and without disabilities, as well as students that were new to the school and the district. By having the students first think about who is in their life, in their circles of support, and then asking them to consider what it is like for a person whose circles aren’t as full, they were easily able to generate ideas of how to bring people into their lives and begin to establish friendships with other students around them. This process is always fantastic. Kids who think about their reality first – then are asked to think outside of themselves in these ways, never cease to amaze me. The responses given by the kids, the ideas of how to be a good friend, and the acknowledgement that their circles will look differently from time to time depending on circumstances that exist – are nothing short of incredible.

A teacher that I know was describing to me recently what kids have to offer about creating relationships. She said,

“I love how kids, of all ages, are so more open to things than let’s say adults. I love how kids dream big and try to make things better.

Adults, at times, can see limitations of time, cost or whatever…. I think the heartbeat is in all kids. First, they must be empowered to know how they can make a difference in this big world if only with one other person. Let it begin.”

Again, I feel as though I have only touched on the tip of the iceberg for this post. Please continue to leave comments and stories, struggles and celebrations for us all to learn from. I will keep them in mind as starting points for thinking and writing in my future posts.

Also – if you are in the Twin Cities area and would like to attend the community meeting that I am hosting the evening of March 2nd, please read my “Events” section for details. One of the things we will be doing is watching an unbelievable documentary, Including Samuel. That is a picture of Samuel at the top of my post. The screening will surely start a wonderful conversation about inclusive practices in our neighborhood schools. Thanks, and I hope to see you there!

1 thought on “Differentiation Part 2 and a Community Meeting Announcement

  1. Jessica

    Thank you for your response to my question regarding my daughter with an intellectual disability and the spiral math curriculum. It is such a battle to ensure her inclusion because of the deeply rooted philosophy of “mastering foundational skills” before moving on to other skills. Your answer was just what I needed to better understand how to counter that argument from staff. Thank you! I really look forward to your post about how IEP goals can be written to be achieved within the general education curriculum!


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