When Differentiation Feels Impossible

I know that differentiation is SO important.  I know it is the right thing to do. But sometimes it is SO difficult to make sure I am meeting the needs of all learners.

Right now we’re plugging away with the concept of regrouping when adding 3 digit numbers.

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There is a group of 6 students in my class who’ve gone BEYOND mastering that concept. I know that I can’t spend an extra day with their bored faces staring up at me.  I just can’t take it, and I know in my heart it isn’t right to continue whole group teaching when they need the support of a higher level thinking challenge.

So…meet Open Ended Problems! I’ve used them before when students have mastered content, these problems get them thinking and are REALLY challenging and complex. Great, right?

Well today something went wrong. In a perfect world, I’m instructing the students who are struggling with adding/regrouping as a whole group, while the other students are working on the open ended challenge at their desk. That didn’t happen today. The students who were struggling with adding/regrouping were frustrated…and the students working with the open ended challenges were frustrated. Everyone in the room at some point had red cheeks, tears in their eyes at times, scrunched up faces, and a general lack of unease.

Why the frustration?  What was happening?! I realized that while I was working with my group, we were being interrupted by the students who were working on the open ended challenges.  They weren’t coming up all at once, rather, they were coming up one at a time, every minute or so, interrupting the thought process of the group. They weren’t interrupting to be rude, they simply ran into a problem while they were working, and came to ask me what to do.

That was when it hit me that we are sorely lacking in the Math Practice Standard 1: I can make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.

Instead of making sense of the problem, those 6 student’s first course of action were to come straight to the teacher. Not used to feeling challenged, they were “stuck” because they are used to answers coming quickly.  They weren’t used to having to read the problem more than once, and didn’t even realize that their questions that they asked were answered RIGHT in the problem they hand in their hands.

After about 5 minutes of these interruptions, I explained to the group of students working on the challenges that they would be meeting with me in 15 minutes.  Once they knew this was coming, the tension in the room released. ALL of the students began to breathe and feel more comfortable.  That simple gesture of letting them know that they’d get their time with me was the solution.  The students in front of me relaxed, the students at their desks relaxed and we were able to go on with our work. By the time I got to that group of 6 students, most of them had figured out the answers to the questions they had!

Sometimes, differentiation feels impossible. It is difficult, but it is RIGHT.  Everyone in the room had a challenging task, and that is how it should be.  Now, I’ve just got to reteach and work on my expectations and routines for small group work.

Differentiation looks different in all subject areas, but I find it to be the MOST challenging during math.  How do you differentiate and hold students accountable? Do you do centers, or a math workshop style? I would love to hear suggestions, comments, questions and more!  The more we share the more we learn.

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2 thoughts on “When Differentiation Feels Impossible

  1. I am facing this same problem. I have 6 students who I have allowed to go ahead. I teach fifth grade and in my school my grade is the one that is the deciding grade of who gets split into advanced math (pre-algebra) and basic math at the end of the year. My wish is those I know will progress to advanced next year gets the chance to be exposed to the whole math book while the rest I know will probably not get that chance. Very challenging for sure.

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