Sunday, July 20, 2014

Differentiation Defined

I had an incredible opportunity this summer to hear Carol Ann Tomlinson speak about differentiation. I can remember when the buzzword, “differentiation” started being thrown around about 20 years ago. An image developed around what a differentiated classroom looked like, which generally included students doing different things rather than all one assignment.

Carol Tomlinson explains in her book, Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom :

Differentiation of instruction is often misconstrued. It would be handy to represent differentiation as simply instructional decision- making through which a teacher creates varied learning options to address students’ diverse readiness levels, interests, and learning preferences.

True differentiation evolves from five elements that flow freely between each other: 


The learning environment that allows risk-taking, acceptance, purpose, and growth is the climate that nurtures differentiation. The teacher’s belief that all the students in the classroom can be successful and her ability to instill the growth mindset in her students is key. Teachers who view their students through the lens of “capacity,” work from the students’ strengths and interests to guide and coach them. There is opportunity for all students to access the curriculum with modifications and accommodations made for students with special needs or ELL students. The teacher is reflective both on her practices as well as tuning in to students to make sure every child is learning.

The curriculum should have clear goals about what students should know, understand, and be able to do. It should result in student understanding of important content and engage students in learning.  Goals for learning should be very precise in order to differentiate effectively. Assessment should be effective so as to be able to inform the teacher of the students’ status with KUD’s. (Know, Understand, Be Able to Do)  The teachers should be able to plan for students as they master the requirements as well as for students who have lacking skills or knowledge.




A focus on understanding will require students to apply, synthesize or create with tasks that allow the students to use their understanding of the content. Knowing that students will understand at various levels of complexity, the teacher will have to provide varied ways for students to develop understanding. Student understanding plays a large role in assessment along side knowledge and skills.

Engagement is central to differentiation.  In John Antonetti and Jim Garver’s  Look 2 Learn walkthrough protocol, student engagement is captured through noting evidence in the classroom of personal response, clear modeled expectations, emotional & intellectual safety, learning with others, choice, novelty, sense of audience, and authenticity. In order to conclude that students are “engaged” on the walkthrough protocol, 3 elements of student engagement need to be present.

Tomlinson refers to the notion of “teaching up” in her work on differentiation. She suggests that teachers begin designing lessons aligned to goals with the students who are advanced in their understanding in mind. Beginning planning with tasks that are of high cognitive demand and then planning scaffolding for others to access the task, increases the rigor for all. “Teaching up” affirms the message to the students of the teacher’s belief in their abilities and that she will support learning for all through varied pathways to the goals.


Clear understanding that differentiation is a flow of a risk-free learning environment, curriculum with clear goals around which student understanding can be developed and supported with appropriate assessment, and student work that engaging is essential for developing effectively differentiated classrooms.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger...

The value that two distinct teacher’s diversity of perspective, experience, talents, and knowledge bring to a classroom cannot be compared to a solo teacher in a classroom. But that diversity opens the door to a lot of possible conflict. Some things can be hashed out with establishing boundaries, scheduling time together, developing knowledge of each other, and learning together.

New co-teaching pairs as well as experienced pairs have an opportunity to do what Chip & Dan Heath suggest in the book, Decisive. They can begin the new year with meeting together to develop a vision for what the class will look like. The Heath Brothers use the term, “bookend the future.” Consider that if everything goes well, what will that look like? Imagining if it doesn’t go well and what that will look like allows you to plot out ways to avoid going off-course. Set up some “tripwires” that will provide a safety net. Tripwires for your relationship could include:
  • ·      Have not formally met to plan in 4 days
  • ·      Have not spent any time informally together in 2 days
  • ·      Can’t shake the feeling of annoyance over an incident that occurred 24 hours ago

Formalizing a plan to use the tripwires to get yourselves back on target will help the relationship immeasurably.


Conflict between the co-teaching pair is inevitable as well as desirable. If there was no conflict, there would be little change,   Teachers address problems and conflict  with parents and administrators daily and have different approaches to solving problems and making decisions.  The Decisive Framework can be very useful as a tool to help the decision making process.  Many of us have a tendency to narrow our focus, ignoring other possible options. Confirmation bias causes us to keep confirming a viewpoint without ever looking at the options or ideas that oppose our thinking.  Taking or gaining the perspective of another person helps to attain some distance from the problem before deciding. Imagining how things could go wrong and setting up tripwires to prevent that helps us to prepare to be wrong.

Liz Wiseman  has branded the term “accidental diminisher”  in her book Multipliers when considering leaders who unintentionally slow down or stop the learning  of the adults around them. Either of the teachers in a co-teaching pair can be an accidental diminisher by moving too fast, being overly optimistic or setting too high of a standard for quality or pace. One teacher can encourage helplessness in their partner by taking everything on or overwhelming the other with a barrage of ideas or enthusiasm. In other words, the accidental diminisher can suck the life out of the room.



Using the Accidental Diminisher visual and talking through the ideas in advance of ill feelings or “shutdown” could be a structure that enhances self-awareness.  



Co-teaching pairs spend as much or more time together as couples in committed relationships. Investing time up-front to develop common understanding and then creating a shared vision of the best possible classroom with ways to know when things are going south will secure your future together.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Building school culture that supports inclusion...

Is the culture in your school open to a full inclusion program? Assess where your staff is through reflection on what you hear throughout the school, in IEP meetings, and in parent/teacher conferences.

Do you hear…
He doesn’t belong in this class.
She only wants to play on her iPad.
He has to improve in several areas.
That’s the responsibility of the special ed teacher.

Or do you hear…
He loves to be read to.
She really gets into anything with technology.
What can we do to support his success?
We need to provide scaffolds for him to improve in several areas.
This is how I think I can help him.

There are two lenses in which to view children with special needs; the capacity lens or the deficit lens. The capacity lens presupposes that the student has strengths and interests. School personnel assume responsibility to support students regardless of the challenges.

The view through the deficit lens highlights the areas that the student struggles with.  The very same teachers who say, “Johnny’s too needy to be in this class,” may be very kind teachers and want the best for their students. Often teachers viewing students through the deficit lens believe that the student needs to fit into the classroom or program.  The misguided remarks about students needing to fit the program rather than the program adjusting for the students, can result in a school culture that will not support inclusion.

The resources listed below provide a more thorough explanation of the capacity and deficit lenses.  After reading them, consider what your school can do to boost the capacity of the staff. Working in teams and identifying the positive characteristics and interests of students and then pinpointing resources and supports that can be made available, is a great place to begin.





Sunday, July 6, 2014

Selecting co-teaching pairs

Just like everyone’s not cut out for marriage, some teachers just won’t be successful as a co-teacher. Principals and those involved in hiring, have an opportunity to  screen applicants for potential future candidates. First, and foremost, we look for open and flexible teachers. Probing so that the hiring team can determine the true essence of the candidate, is, of course the challenge. Asking questions and engaging the candidate in conversation on topics of experience with new learning, working on collaborative teams, and attitudes regarding inclusion may help screen candidates.


When choosing co-teaching pairs from within existing staff, this  co-teacher selection checklist can help.  In my experience, when teachers have worked together in a school prior to the inclusion program, it is best to allow co-teachers to choose each other. Teachers that have committed independent of administrative direction, are more likely to be successful.

Support of the co-teaching pair is critical. Especially if the pair has chosen to work together, they may be hesitant to seek help from an administrator when they have conflicts that aren’t getting resolved. It is difficult for people who are working together closely to confront issues in a direct manner. Just like in marriage, we may assume that things will “work themselves out.” It’s best to just assume that, after a few weeks into the year, there may be issues that would best be addressed through a formal meeting structure. Getting all the co-teaching pairs together and using a cooperative structure such as “inside, outside circle” and asking some open-ended  questions such as “What’s it like to share resources? What co-operative learning structures have you used this routinely this year? Are students being treated fairly? How are we doing with grading? How are assessments being created? Has parity been established?” Just asking some of those questions  will help start a conversation towards resolving issues that may be brewing. This article by Dr. Wendy Murawski can provide many conversation starters.


Co-teaching can bring out and utilize the best of two teachers but only with work. Administrators need to be attentive to what is going on both in and outside the classroom with co-teachers, giving them feedback and support as needed.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Beginning the co-teaching relationship...





The most critical component to success in co-teaching is within the relationship between the two teachers. There can’t be any generalities made regarding prior relationship between the two, length of time spent in teaching, prior experiences in teaching. I’ve seen great partnerships develop between two brand new teachers who never met before as well as teachers that new each other professionally for years. Just like the foundation of a good marriage is formed through shared experiences, open and honest conversation, and the development of shared values and goals, a co-teaching partnership is shored up using similar strategies.

The co-teaching pair can begin by considering such issues as student discipline, sharing how they engage students in learning, instructional methods and routines, monitoring learning and feedback to students, use of cooperative structures, and previous success with differentiating learning.


Talking together about their own values and ideals will help them form a shared vision for their class. Co-creating a “brand” for their class will help them begin to see their journey as a shared one while they grow to learn about each other’s strengths and quirks.

Here are some great resources to get started: