By: Jennifer McCormick, Middle School Assistant Principal; Mike Jordan, Assistant Teacher; Kai Blackwood, Kindergarten Teacher; and Elizabeth Leboo, ELL Teacher

In a 4th grade classroom, the teachers have planned a close reading task on anthropology, in preparation for the fall expedition. Knowing that their students have a variety of reading levels, they have anticipated some challenges that students may have with understanding the original text. They write a synthesis text, including much of the content specific vocabulary the students need, but simplifying the language so that the text is not overwhelmingly technical. Taking learning styles into account, and knowing that their students benefit from using text features to comprehend, they include some carefully evaluated visuals to enhance comprehension. Since the students will be asked to make a claim about what an anthropologist does based on in-depth understanding of the text, they create a chart for kids to notice and record unfamiliar words. The chart steered kids to the text and context, and provided an activity in making meaning based on using these clues. When students still struggled in understanding, teachers used careful, probing questions to redirect kids to the parts of the text where the word meanings were more explicit. Later on, students listened to each other during share and debrief, and were able to get clarity on any unfamiliar words that they were still unsure about.

Are the many steps to this activity really necessary?  Why not just pass out the text and have students read it?

You may remember your own schooling, when every student read from the same textbook. Thinking back to high school, you might recall an entire class dedicated to deciphering Lord of the Flies.

At Two Rivers, we know that ‘one-size’ does not ‘fit all’ when it comes to teaching and learning. Differentiated instruction is a classroom model through which all students’ academic skills and abilities, learning styles and personal interests are embraced.

The practice of differentiation ensures that each student gets what he or she needs in class. In math, this may mean that some students explore a concept with counters while others explore the same concept by drawing a graph or writing an equation.  In a reading class, this may look like students breaking up into small reading groups to read different pieces of text that are at their instructional reading levels.  Meeting students where they are allows us to push them towards growth.

To realize differentiation for every student, specific structures are built into our school that guarantee that every student has access to what he or she needs to succeed.  These structures include instructional strategies like flexible groups and centers; scheduling structures like labs, tutoring classes, and differentiated math classes; and staffing structures.  All of these work together in realizing the potential of differentiated classrooms where every student gets what he or she needs.

Instructional Structures that Support Differentiation: Flex Groups and Centers

The primary instructional structure for providing differentiated instruction at Two Rivers is flexible groups.  The purpose of flex groups is to allow  students the opportunity to express their potential by accessing multiple venues for a particular course of study, within groups that can change as students’ needs change.  For example in reading, students work with teachers in groups based on students ability to decode the text or comprehend the text. Several of these different groups may work with or without teacher support.   When it comes to teaching reading and understanding concepts, this multifaceted approach allows students the opportunity to access the material based on the specific skills that each student needs.

The concept of centers figures strongly into the idea of flex groups, as the two concepts can mutually support the goal of breaking down the class based on lesson goals.  Centers are stations in the classroom where students work independently on targeted, differentiated assignments.  Particularly during our English language arts classes, they are a way that we promote literacy learning targets by allowing the students to move about the room to different areas, for the purposes of completing different parts of the lesson.  In many cases the parts appear unrelated, but essentially they are working toward a greater understanding of reading and language use.  These centers are composed of:  word sort, partner quizzes, word hunts, independent reading, partner reading, writing and listening.  Each center allows students to access a different piece through different goals.  Through the use of flexible groups and centers teachers can target experiences for each student to meet their needs.

Scheduling Structures that Support Differentiation: Writing Intensive, Lab, and Differentiated Math Classes

Differentiated instruction is something we do all the time, both in our classrooms organically, as well as through structures that are built into our day.  Three of the structures built into our Middle School schedule that support differentiation are our writing intensive classes, lab, and differentiated math classes.

All of our students write in their English language arts classes, and are pushed to develop their critical thinking and writing skills throughout all the content classes.  We know, however, that there are students who need extra support with writing, and that while pushing their conceptual knowledge is invaluable, they also need time carved out during the day where they can receive assistance with writing mechanics.   These students are placed in a writing intensive class at the beginning of the year.  In writing intensive, students can practice basic writing skills and receive extra support in writing structure, skills which transfer comprehensive writing pieces in the subject area courses.

Our labs in the middle school also support differentiation by providing students with targeted instruction where they need it most.  At the beginning of the year, we review our students’ assessment data – state test proficiency, performance on periodic assessments throughout the year, performance and growth on MAP (Measures of Academic Progress), performance in their academic classes and teacher recommendations.  Using these data sources, we look to see where students need the most support, or if they are proficient and need an extra push.  Our labs fall into three bands: intervention labs, that are focused on helping to fill gaps in basic skills and knowledge; push labs, for students who are on the cusp of grade level and need some extra time and practice with the grade level work; and advanced labs, which provide extension for students who have mastered grade level work in a specific content area and are ready for the next challenge.

Our intervention labs focus on providing practice with basic skills and knowledge in either the English language arts or math classroom; students are placed depending on their academic need.  Intervention labs are incredibly important and necessary, because this is the time built into the day where students can work in a small group (average intervention lab class is 7 students) with a teacher to receive targeted instruction and practice with foundational skills that are not being covered in their math or English language arts class.  Filling in these skill gaps makes students better able to access the current content.

Our push labs help students practice with grade-level English language arts skills.  Here, students look at their performance data on interim assessments and set goals for what skills they need to work on to master grade level content.  Students then work with complex texts that challenge them to hone their skills as readers and writers, and receive extra support from their grade-level English language arts teacher in doing this work.

Our advanced labs provide students with the opportunity to extend and challenge their thinking in a specific content area.  We have advanced labs in science, math, Spanish and social studies.  Students in our advanced science labs develop their own science identities, and then form groups around a science experiment they want to take on.   Students in our advanced math lab are challenged with complex math problems in preparation for the American Mathematical Competition 8 (AMC 8).  Students work on exam problems from the previous years, draft solutions, and engage in critique of their peers’ work.  In our advanced Spanish lab, students who are proficient in Spanish push their skills by having conversations, writing a Two Rivers Spanish newsletter called, “Que Pasa, TR?” and preparing to take the National Spanish Exam at the end of the year.  In our advanced social studies lab, students gain a deeper understanding of historical contextualization by exploring contemporary issues and historical thinking.

Lab provides an opportunity for all students to receive targeted instructions exactly where they need it, in the content where they need it most.  It’s a living example of differentiation every day.

In addition to writing intensive and lab, we offer explicit differentiation in math classes in the middle school.  All of our math instruction allows for all students to develop proficiency in mathematical concepts, application and communication. Taking learning styles and differences into account, math teachers guide students through multiple ways to approach real-life mathematical problems, and support them in various ways to demonstrate understanding. Realizing that all math students do not enter middle school with the same set of basic skills, Math classes are not only divided by grade level, but extensive assessment data is used to place students according to their level. For example, some middle school students  who have demonstrated preparedness to work on more advanced mathematics are able to take a credit-bearing Algebra class. Students who have not reached proficiency with grade level math are supported in the appropriate grade level work in addition to attending a Math Lab that supports their ongoing development of basic numeracy skills.

Staffing Structures that Support Differentiation: Special Educator Support

In addition to instructional structures and scheduling classes that support differentiation, Two Rivers’ commitment to making high quality education accessible to all learners is reflected in our faculty composition. A special educator is a member of every grade level team in Grades 2-5, participating in the planning, instruction and assessment of all students. Preschool through Grade 1 are supported by an early childhood special educator, and, at the Middle School level, special educators co-teach in both math and English language arts classes, as well as teach individual intervention classes in reading, writing and math.  Students with identified learning differences are supported to meet their individual learning goals in whole class activities, small groups and through individual instruction in the classroom setting. Including a qualified special educator on teams ensures that accommodations and strategies for students with special educational needs are consistently planned for and incorporated into every aspect of learning.
At Two Rivers, we are able to meet our students where they are in their learning journey because of the structures that support differentiation.  Through flexible groups, centers, intensive writing, labs, differentiated math classes, and supportive staffing structure, we are better able to guide and challenge all students as they become expert thinkers and complex communicators.