Differentiating in the Middle and High School Classroom

7:00 PM Sarah Koves 5 Comments


I purchased this book last spring after hearing this buzz (mostly from my principal).  However, I didn't get to delve into the text until last week.  It is a quick and easy read; although I sometimes got bogged down in the wordiness of some sections.

Even Mr. Wormeli talks about passing fads in education; I have seen a number in my ten years teaching.  While the word differentiation maybe a passing buzz word, the idea isn't, and I have to agree with this.  In fact, most of us are doing this now, but you, like me, may not realize it.

I really get a glazed-over look when I hear about some new thing in education and am very skeptical because so many of them come and go: HSCE, Focus Correction Area, Whole Language, Phonics, etc  The same thing goes for assessments that never seem to stick around long enough for the teachers to understand and get the hang of them.


A couple of major points Mr. Wormeli makes jumped out at me:

  • Most teachers are doing this already, but we don't necessarily call it differentiation. (more examples, drafts, graphic organizers, seating)
  • You cannot realistically differentiate for 150 students every single day.  I was so relieved to finally hear someone speak this thought.  It takes me weeks to get to know all of my students and where they are.  Our building testing doesn't start until October, so I don't get great data on them until November.  I just think differentiation can be overwhelming to someone like me who has six classes with 25-30 kids in a class and 5 preps.  I feel that too often we are expected to do everything every day for every child, and it just isn't realistic.
  • Start small; it can take three years to get comfortable with this on a broad scale.  A great friend once told me to do one awesome lesson each week in each class add next year add one more.  At that rate you would have awesome lessons every day by year five.  I am glad Mr. Wormeli took this idea and has made it okay to start small and take your time.
  • The work load needs to be the same for everyone; change the complexity.  I remember thinking as a new teaching that it didn't seem right that a student who needed to learn a skill was allowed (or requested) to do less than a student who mastered the skill and was reviewing.  This isn't how we learn free-throws.  I also struggle with giving my top end students more work just because they are able to finish early and efficiently. I guess I need to think more about task complexity.



I want to talk a minute about ability grouping.  I thought we were supposed to be going away from this in education?  It seems to make sense to have students at the same levels working together sometimes.  I understand the idea of having mixed-ability groups to help each other, but I was always that high-achieving student having to explain and often do the work for others.  I don't know what to think after this book.  I think grouping based on skills needed might be a better way to go about grouping.  I'm done with that soapbox.


However, I have another one: lesson plans having to be turned in.  We were asked last year at a district improvment meeting what should go.  The staff was quite, but I, with my big mouth and opinions, piped up that turning in lesson plans should go because our administrators don't read them or give us feedback.  I am not saying don't do lesson plans; all good teachers should, but the submitting them is one less thing for us to do since they aren't usually accurate by Friday anyways. Well, this book has given me more fuel for that fire.



Not every student has to do every activity. This was a light bulb moment for me.  I have talked before how I am trying to keep units to 4 weeks or less.  The reason they always run so long is that I have a million ideas for things to try, and I want to do everything.  I supposed my current thought here is to have everything, but not require every student to do every part.  I take some really challenging assignments and group them for my above-grade-level group.  Then I take the on-grade-level group and give them a different smattering of tasks and so on.  I have no idea why I always felt every students should do every task; maybe I was afraid of leavings something out.

Here are some things I am going to work on doing more of next school year:


  • Having the students who 'get it' assist with checking the work of other students; the text calls these GRADUATE ASSISTANTS.
  • First and last experiences in class stick, so I will make them super meaningful.
  • Hydration/Sun and Full Spectrum bulbs: I will explain to students how water and sun affect them.  I will then encourage water....except more water means more bathroom breaks....and the cycle continues.
  • Orally explain to classmate: I love this because then I don't have to read 180 essay answers every day!
  • Dot at end of line with edit/wave editing: I am always looking for ways to help students edit their own work without telling them the problem.  I think I need a special pen for this purpose.
  • Allowing more choice in assignments: I have been working on this somewhat this past year, but I had an epiphany while reading.  In AP Psychology I have tried students taking notes on reading, giving them outlines, and reading packets; I get mixed feedback on all of them.  I think I should use the first three units to sample all of these and model them.  After unit 3, students can choose.  I can do the same thing for vocabulary; make them try all ways (list and define, electronic cards, flash cards) and after that let them pick.  They have to do one, but I don't care which one.
  • Using more stations/centers activities: I use to do this a lot in my middle school social studies classes, but since moving to a high school five years ago not so much.  I want stations at least once a unit if possible.
  • Clock partners; given them a clock to fill in 12 partners.  Then I can use these all year to change things ups.
  • Ask them how they learn best.  By junior year most students know the answer to this questions.  I might even give a Multiple Intelligence survey, but I was reading just last year that the research behind Garner's Theory may not be as sound as once thought....more reading to do.
  • Texts at different levels.  This won't work too well with literature as we have set novels in each grade (unless I can convince the district for more department money), but I do think it will work wonders with informational texts.  I get reading level scores from our district testing, so I can use those to group students and select texts.



This book also has a great references section, so I added some more books to my ever-growing reading list

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