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# Small Steps for Differentiation: Same Task – Different Entry Points

When thinking of differentiation in the classroom, it is easy to fall into the trap of putting pressure on ourselves to perfectly level activities for every student. My mind goes to having a rotated set of groups and centers all perfectly ready to go. In this scenario you never run out of time, every student is exactly where they need to be, AND they are accountable, focused and staying on task the entire time.

YEAH RIGHT!

Don’t get me wrong, math workshops are a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t always work as smoothly as we’d like. It is okay to differentiate in small ways, taking small steps to be sure that we are meeting the needs of all children without going crazy ourselves.

This past summer I was lucky enough to read work by Timothy Kanold, and then I was able to work with him in a workshop as well. He proposes that instead of coming up with different activities for every student, we have the same task, but with different entry points. So what does this look like exactly?

Here is an example for a second grade classroom where the learning target would be “I can count money up to a specific amount.”(CCSS 2.MD.C.8):

Task: How many ways can you build 58 cents? Build it and record it.

All of the students in this group are given the same task, but usually all of the students have different levels of knowledge surrounding this task. So instead of coming up with 25 different activities you have only one.  As the activity begins and students begin to work, two things will happen which we all can predict every time. Some students will struggle, and others will fly.  This is when you strategically give certain students more.

For the students who struggle in this case you would lay down another task next to it, where the number is more accessible, and you may also consider telling them the value of all of the coins.

Instead of 58 cents, the students who struggle are working with a more accessible number, side by side with the other students.

In this case for the students that are excelling there are many options: ask them to find the solution if you eliminate one of the types of coins, ask them to show their thinking algebraically using a table, give a different amount and have them predict the number of solutions they may find before solving, or ask them to write a story in which you may need to come up with 58 cents worth of change.

The main thing is that you have to truly be walking your room, listening to your students and conferring with them as they solve. The BEST part of this method, is students are working together and hearing one another’s thinking, elevating the learning for all in the room.

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# Release of Materials: More Small Steps for Differentiation

I struggled to understand a very basic thing when I taught third grade, and I see it’s importance all the time now that I am in many classrooms K-4.  Math is incredibly abstract for elementary minds, and the need to provide them with hands on tools and manipulatives is essential for conceptual understanding. So often we skip this step (or at least I did) because we as teachers are developmentally past needing this to understand numbers.  So often we skip this step (or at least I did) because tools are messy, noisy and the students play with them. So often we skip this step (or at least I did) because we run out of time to grab them, or it takes too much time to get them out and put them away. Despite all of this, we really need to allow students to have them so that we can see where they are developmentally.

Which leads me to another small step for differentiating in your classroom.

When introducing a concept, provide tools always to the students. Then, as you notice that some students need more of a challenge, ask them to try it without the materials to see if they can make the connection with just the numbers and symbols. For example, Make 8 Go Fish:

This is a great, easy game for K-1 students. They play Go Fish but ask for pairs that make a given number. In this case I chose 8 for a student that I am working one on one with right now. She struggled to find combinations that sum to 8, so we built them using ten frames before we started the game. Some students may need this support, while others may be ready to do it without ten frames or any tools at all.

Sometimes we force tools on all students, or we just don’t provide them at all to any of them.  Put it in your student’s hands by teaching them how to recognize that feeling of when they do or don’t need them.  Challenge them by releasing those materials when they no longer need them!

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# Differentiate in Small Steps: Give Them Two Problems

Differentiation is difficult. There is no doubt about it. I’ve been on a mission to find small ways to differentiate without stressing myself out, and without stressing out the teachers I work with.

I often found myself realizing that I was giving one math problem to the whole class when I’d look at my gifted kids faces. You know that look on their face? That boredom in their eyes look…where they’d rather be someplace else than sit and do another problem that they already know how to do. That is what inspired my idea of just putting two problems up, a meets the target (happy) problem and an exceeds the target (stressful) problem. I always explain to the students that if you are able to complete the happy problem correctly, you are meeting the target. It is even more impressive if you can do the stressful problem, but it’s not necessary.

Here is an example. Today in a second grade classroom the learning target was adding 2 digit numbers mentally (without regrouping).  I put up two problems, the happy one was a check for me to see who had it.  (They worked in their notebooks but it’s also great to use dry erase boards.)  The stressful problem is the one that students who need to stretch their thinking just a bit might try after doing the happy problem.

Using two faces makes it both visual and fun for students. Cut them out and reuse them over and over!

I keep those little face headings handy, they go up on dry erase boards, chalkboards, and easels…wherever we are doing math.  If I forget to put two problems, the students definitely remind me. They love to see the stressful problem face, especially the first time when I draw it in front of them.  You can use this method during quick checks, problem solving, mini lessons, practice, mental math…the possibilities are limitless.  This is something that can be done quickly, and doesn’t require hours and hours of work.

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# 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.

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.