Evolving Education, Differentiated Instruction

My grandfather taught in a one-room school in the late 1800s, sharing the basics of reading, writing, math, and a bit of science. His students ranged in age from 7 to 15, and many traveled a good distance just to attend class. While some kids returned every year, others only came to school for a few months. New learners were just starting to read or write, but some returning students were eager to take on great books and learn about other places and people.

one-room schoolhouse (c) Trudywsimmons | Dreamstime.com

Grandpa quickly found that some of his students struggled for months on “book-learning” tasks but excelled at the simple science projects they could manage in the modest classroom. Others were constantly drawing instead of writing, or itching to get outside and play a game. One eight-year-old had read all the books in the school, while another was still trying to master the alphabet. As their teacher, he found it a great challenge to meet the diverse needs of all of his students so they had an opportunity to learn. While he did not know the term, he was using differentiated instruction.

Just as in my grandfather’s school, my friend Germain’s fifth-grade students come from several small towns and farmsteads. Growing up in Minneapolis, he did his student teaching in an urban school affiliated with a major Midwestern university. He later found teaching in rural Georgia to be full of surprises.

“In my first year, I came armed with my textbooks and lesson plans. I was ready to design tiered lessons and manage grouping. I was eager to assess the levels of support and complexity each student needed.” The reality of managing his first classroom in a new environment soon hit. He had expected diversity among his students, but soon realized that “every label you hear—LD, ADD, EBD, GT, and more—was attached to a face now staring at me, sometimes defiantly.”

Fortunately, he had strong support in his district for applying differentiated instruction strategies. He credits his principal with giving him the advice that helped him through that first year: “Don’t try to do it on every topic, all the time.”

“That made me realize that I didn’t have to strive for perfect, but I did have to work on becoming a better teacher every day, and every year.”

Eight years later, Germain welcomes student teachers into his own classroom. His commitment to mastering the art of differentiated instruction is evident. “It’s like dancing,” he shares. “You waltz, boogie, and do the samba. You do some steps really well, others you need to practice more. And you keep doing it because you love it.”

I think that the teachers from those historic one-room schools would be glad to see the tradition of teaching being carried on in such a thoughtful and effective way—helping each student gain the skills he or she needs to build a successful future.

Do you have tips to help other teachers as they manage their time creating plans and documenting student progress? How do you assess your own development as a teacher in a differentiated classroom?

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Suggested Resources
Differentiating Instruction in the Regular Classroom by Diane Heacox, Ed.D.
Search ERIC (Education Resources Information Center) for differentiated instruction.

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About Mary Stennes Wilbourn

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2 Responses to Evolving Education, Differentiated Instruction

  1. O. Martin says:

    Nice piece. I rather like thinking that we are part of the continuum of teachers. If we commit to doing our best work for and with each student, and help bring new teachers along the path, there is much good in store for tomorrow’s kids.

  2. Jan J. says:

    As a teacher dedicated to RTI and differentiation, my non-teaching friends and family get a glazed over look when I try to explain how it all works. So thank you for giving me two superb analogies to use! The one room school house is right on, and the “it’s like dancing…” is a fun perspective.

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