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12 Reasons Why I Differentiate

Why should we differentiate?

Beyond the obvious that is we have kids in our room that would not be successful if we did not differentiate then there are many other reason why we should do it too.
1.     Every student is different
2.     Engagement leads to success
3.     Helps our most vulnerable students
4.     Sets students up for the  21st learning environment
5.     Flexiblity is more valuable than rigidity

Here is why I differentiate
Well in all reality I have to.  In the past five years I have yet to have a classroom where the majoirity of my students were working at the same level.  Differentiation does not mean that I only do this for regular stream vs special education stream students. It mean to do it for all students.  

In a combined great classroom that has more than 50% of boys spanning over to grades.   With an average of one third requiring special education needs  not including a variety of mental health issues, differentiation becomes very important.

Why I differentiate

I differentiate  because it makes my life easier.  When I differentiate I have less classroom management issues,  more work is completed,  student like learning,  and I can reach more students easily without planning multiple activities for the same learning task.  

I differentiate because it lets me watch a student who is completely disengaged with writing who refuses to write become one of my most creative writers. 

I differentiate because it allows me to see the student hiding in the corner for who she really is a fun creative and engaging kid who has a lot of value to add but in her own way.

I differentiate because boys learn differently than girls and to not understand this means alienating more than 50% of my class.

I differentiate because I teach two grades at once so I need to understand that all of the students in my class are starting from a different starting point.  Not doing this would mean pulling my hair out.  I don't have time to plan 2-6 different seperate lesson for each period to meet the needs of all my students so instead I plan one and make it open ended with multiple entry points so that it is accessible for all of my students.  Plan once, flexible delivery, multiple entry and exit points, everyone learning.  

I differentiate because when kids are bored they act out. They’re smart, why would they want to do something if it doesn’t somehow connect with what they’re supposed be learning.  They can see through busywork and they need a purpose for learning.

I differentiate because in the world that we are living in collaboration, communication, creativity, problem solving, critical thinking and more are essential skills the students need to develop in order to be successful in their future world

I differentiate because the parents of my lowest achieving students just want what’s best for their kids and they cry when their kids are labeled with special education needs.   By differentiating I can show them the special-education diagnosis is not a life sentence.   Their children can and will achieve when given the correct supports in the classroom.

I differentiate because I like to see students become confident in their ability. And accept that they may learn differently but can still learn.  It is a powerful door that is opened for their potential.  Recognizing that all students can achieve is a core belief that is essential when working with students.  Although I may not be able to breakthrough all barriers that inhibit student success,  and I may not be the person to do this for every student, I try. And with some success I am able to make a difference for those that are ready. 

I differentiate because I want to show students how they can differentiate  for themselves to advocate for their own learning.   When a student understands how they learn, you make it possible to advocate for themselves.  They can then better access what is being presented to them independently.  This makes the student's life the life of their future teachers easier. 

I differentiate because being flexible and accommodating is actually much easier than being rigid and inflexible. The simple act of being flexible in the classroom, although difficult at first to shift to this mindset in the classroom, in practice makes teaching, planning and learning easier.  Inquiry is an amazing approach to teaching and learning and I would encourage you to walk through the fire and see what amazing things can happen when you give it a try.

I differentiate because it makes a difference.  I make a difference.  It helps my students make a difference.  And this is essentially why I became a teacher.  Differentiation makes me a better teacher. 

Join the Conversation

Why do you differentiate.  Hop on over to my Facebook page and join in on the conversation by finishing this sentence.


I differentiate because…


What is Differentiated Instruction?

If you teach in a classroom today than you are familiar with the term Differentiation.  And if you are like me you may have a love hate relationship with this term.

Classrooms today are complex and trying to teach to the individual instead of the group feels overwhelming. One of my of the realities of my teaching job depends on my ability to differentiated instruction.

For the month of March I invite you to join me as I dig deeper into

  1. What differentiation means in the classroom
  2. How to do it effectively without pulling your hair out.

A bit about why

As a classroom teacher of a combined grade class with often a high proportion of students with special education needs I am no stranger to a difficult class that comes to me at all different levels.  Being that it is just me in the classroom with all of my students I have learned some tips and tricks to differentiate and hone my skills in order to survive.

As a result I have become one of those crazy teachers that actually enjoys teaching splits and this is primarily because it helps to support differentiated instruction.

Differentiation and bowling?

In my research into digging deeper into differentiation I discovered a lot of connections between teaching and bowling.  I think when most people go out for a fun night of bowling they try to throw the ball right down the middle.

“Try to roll the ball down the middle and get most of the students.”

But if we bowl or teach like this then we are missing the point of differentiation.  Shelley Moore has looked into this further and when talking to pro bowlers she found that they don’t aim for the middle but aim for the pins that are hardest to knock down.  She has helped me to instead look at this comparison to bowling differently.

“Teaching is like bowling because in order to knock down all the pins you need try to knock down the hardest to hit pins first.”  – Adapted from Shelley Moore

So what does it mean?

Differentiation is good for all but necessary for some and this is why when planning you should plan with the hardest to reach students first and understand that some of the things you might do to teach these hard to reach students will work for all kids even the ones in the middle.

Ways to differentiate

According to Carol Ann Tomlinson. There are four ways that you can differentiate a learning task for your students.  You can differentiate
o the product
o the process
o the content
o the environment

Learn more

In my first video in my differentiated instruction series I outline what differentiation is and what key values are important for teacher to begin to differentiate.  We dig deeper into ways lessons or projects can be differentiated and factors that are important to consider when differentiation.  Also in this video series I have included a complimentary companion guide which gives a page overview of the four components to differentiate and a differentiated weekly planning page to help you keep your differentiation strategies in the front and center when you plan.


If you like this video please like it and share it with others via facebook, twitter, or pinterest.

Sign Up for More

Stay tuned for more differentiated instruction videos and blog posts all month here on my blog.  If you want to subscribe to get these great ideas delivered right to your email inbox please fill out your info below so I can send it to you.

Planning for Inquiry Based Learning


If you are getting started with inquiry you may wonder where to start and how to prepare for something that is student led. Although using an inquiry approach removes you, the teacher, from the absolute power position you,  still have plenty to do to prepare yourself to get ready for inquiry.  I wanted to share a few of the steps that I take to plan my inquiry units.

Planning for inquiry is different.  There is more to do ahead of time.  You have to be purposeful and knowledgable.  However, once this is planned the day to day planning is so much less as you work with students day to day to direct the learning together.

Here are a few of my steps for planning inquiry.


Look at Your Standards / Curriculum

What are you expected to teach?  Get familiar with the contents of the learning expectations.  Where does the expected learning start and stop?  

Pull it apart

Start to take the expectations apart.  Put them in your own language.  In the Ontario curriculum, it is often structured in a similar fashion.  Big idea expectations are first, skills are second and basic knowledge is third. Knowing this will help you to decode the and order the curriculum in an easier way.  It is also important to differentiate between knowing the difference between the expectation and the examples.  The examples are just that, examples they are not the learning outcomes.  This will help you to know that following different lines and topics within the larger theme will be okay to do so.  I will often re-word the expectations at this point into meaningful language so that it is easier to understand. 

Put it in order

Once I have pulled the curriculum expectations apart I then begin to put them into order.  In a split grade classroom, this is especially important because you will need to order the learning in a way that makes sense. But remember that you are going to approach this with an inquiry perspective so you are looking at the knowledge that students will need to have first, second and third, in order to meet the expectations of the big ideas for inquiry.  Doing this will help you to guide students where they need to go. 

For example, in the matter and materials unit, students will need to know what matter is and the vocabulary.  The best part is that students will naturally ask these questions when presented with the answers. Show them a vocab card with the word sublimation and they will naturally ask what does that mean and try to guess by using their background knowledge. 

If you know where they need to go you can plant the clues to get them there.  But by doing it this way you spark curiosity and interest as people naturally try to solve problems and look for answers.  This is why putting the learning in order is important.  You are not necessarily planning the lessons but planning the trajectory and logical progression of the learning. 

Find common ground

If you are like me you might be teaching a combined class.  At the very least you will have students in your classroom that require accommodations and modifications beyond the grade level you have been assigned.  So this is where you need to find common ground and activities where there is common ground.  


Sometimes the content is so different that you can't and you need to look for similar tasks with different subjects like experiments or research opportunities to align together so that the instructions are the same but the learning is different.  
To differentiate the learning for different abilities you need to plan some tasks that have multiple entry points so that the output of students can be adjusted to meet individualized learning needs. 


Begin to Research

I cannot stress this enough, if the teacher doesn't understand the content then the students

won't either.  If you are conducting inquiry you need to know your stuff.  You can't always rely on textbooks.


Hop on google, ask your own questions and know the content.  I often have to do this when creating my units.  Learning the content at a more in depth level than your students is important.  


Do you understand how a catalyst is used to speed up the polymerization process to make plastic? This was one of the many topics I explored when creating my unit on matter.  

Planting the Evidence

Starting your learning off with a provocation and beginning to build your WonderWall is animportant step to begin your inquiry.  This is where your selection of materials will help you to set the stage for your inquiry and to help you to guide the students to focus on the questions that relate to what they MUST learn.  If you put at word card with the word Sublimation then usually at least one student will ask the question "What is sublimation?" By setting up your WonderWall discussion with activities and questions such as


  • Look at the artifacts and cards, one at a time share what you notice about something you see
  • How could you sort these artifacts
  • What questions do you have or what do you wonder about what you see?
In my human body unit choosing a picture of a microscopic image of the air sacs in the lungs inevitably leads to the questions "why do we have grapes in our body?" or "What are the grapes used for?" This opens the door to a lesson or activity about the parts of the lungs.  

You Don't Need All of the Answers

Yes you need to be prepared and yes you need the knowledge of you subject content but there will come a time where you simply just don't know the answers to your student's questions.  Sooo... it's okay, you don't have to know and you can admit it.  Simply say "wow that is such an amazing question we really should look into that further.  Let's look it up!" In inquiry, you are the guide not the giver and constructor of knowledge.  Allow your students to see and watch what you do when you don't know the answer.  Being a model will show them what to do when they encounter a question or problem.  

But this is inquiry, sometimes the learning happens in finding the answer themselves and their ability to retain this information is dependent on their ability to find their own answers. 

In fact, one of the most amazing lessons I learned through my inquiry journey was to stop answering their questions (even when I did know the answers).  

I had one moment of 'out of body' (not really...but for some reason I was super reflective that day) where I realized that the students were simply just looking to me to answer everything for them.  Learning and struggling to stop myself from answering their questions was hard, but watching them learn to solve their own problems and find answers to their own questions was very rewarding.  

Final Thoughts

Inquiry is different from traditional teaching.  This is not traditional unit planning or the backwards design model.  You do not plan the activity that students will complete at the end.  If you are looking for an activity that everyone will do you are in the wrong place.  

Inquiry means the students help to guide their learning.  There are still teacher directed lessons, there are still key concepts they NEED to learn and be assessed on.  

However, you can guide and lead the student there in authentic ways.


Save a few steps...

Need a break and want to skip a few steps?  Since I have done this already why reinvent the wheel.  I may not be able to help you teach it day to day, but you might as well benefit from the time I have already put into planning for inquiry lessons.  Check out some of the grade 4 and 5 inquiry science and social study lessons in my TPT store





Top 5 Tips That Will Transform Your INQUIRY Projects


Whenever I check the teacher message boards that I am a part of, I always see many requests for ideas for culminating tasks for the various units that a teacher teaches throughout the year.  This stems, I believe, from the backward design process where teachers begin to plan their new unit of study by first planning the culminating activity.  However, if you follow this blog, you may have realized that I am moving away from the teacher-directed model of instruction and moving towards an inquiry approach where the students and teachers authentically develop the culminating task within some standard parameters.

The problem, as I see it, is not in having a culminating task but in planning an event or task that limits a student's creativity or expression in order to do what the teacher tells them.  Placing restrictions on what students do to show you what they learned is where you are restricting student creativity.  I know that there is a lot of anxiety as teachers when we don't have complete and total control.  I get it, I myself am a recovering control freak (ok maybe not so much recovering), but I have changed the aspects that I control within the classroom.  At the end of the unit, if every student's product looks the same then how creative and differentiated is that really.

1. Plan the criteria, not the product

It is possible for students to design a variety ways to show their learning that respects their interests and individuality while all still meeting the same expectations.  These little projects are called "show what you know" projects.  With these we make a list of concepts that student need to know about these are generally derived from our learning throughout the unit.  It is then the student's responsibility to design a project that meets these criteria.  How they present it is not as important as what they present.

2. Fun means differentiated

Many times as teachers are requesting help to find project ideas, they are also requesting fun and engaging activities for their students.  Generally, as teachers, we are not interested in boring our students and making learning disengaging.  However, we teach individuals, not robots and their interests are their own.  If you want them engaged, let them choose the format.  At first, many students will probably pick traditional presentation strategies.  However, throughout the year as one or two students begin to push the traditional boundaries other students will start to take more risks in their style to pursue their own interests that reflect their skills.  We have to remember that in our classrooms there are many students who have strengths in different areas and those that do not fit well in a traditional classroom will struggle with traditional tasks but can and will amaze you with their ability to show you what they know in alternate ways such as using Minecraft, designing a song or dance, or creating a website.


3. Student-led inquiry

Inquiry means that students are helping to lead and own learning.  They are not leading their learning if where they are going and what they are doing is already mapped out.  This does not mean that we don't have to plan because we do.  There will be certain concepts that are essential to building their knowledge and understanding that they can learn what it is that they are supposed to learn.  However, these are general.  If you have ever seen my units on TPT you will know that they generally follow the same format.  Provocation/Wonderwall-> Big Idea / Questions -> Building Background Knowledge and Understanding Lessons-> Knowledge Building Circles -> Reflecting Activities -> General Research Project -> Open Ended Sharing of Knowledge.  You will also notice that the pages are general enough that there are very few question and answer rote learning pages.  Students are generating their own knowledge and reflecting on this.  However, the focus and scope of these lessons allow a variety of different avenues and flexibility for the teacher so that each year your focus could be a little different.  The shift relies on the teacher understanding that they are guiding the learning not giving the learning.

4. Share the workload

there is a quote that is often used with inquiry that talks about the work load.  The teacher should not be working harder than the students.  In reality, this is true.  If you are working so hard to plan every little detail then simply just giving the students work.  This is not inquiry.  Inquiry involves students and teachers working together.  If you want an engaging activity for your students ask them to tell you what they should do.  Plan it together.  Instead of taking hours and hours at home planning a lesson for students.  Stop planning at home and plan with them during knowledge builiding circles.  Even if that means that you pull out the curriculum document and list the things that they need to know about and asking questions about these things and then going from there.  Let them help you plan it.  Do it with them, and save yourself some time.

5. Learn the content, deeply

This has to be the biggest advantage for me in planning detailed units for TPT.  It has forced me to really learn the content.  Stop spending your time planning the unit and the lessons and learn the content and not at an elementary level but at a high school level.  Read the Wikipedia page on tension and compression and challenge yourself to be able to understand it.  This will help you when you go off script in class.  If all you know is what is on the lesson plan then it will be that much harder to teach this using an inquiry perspective.  You need to know your content at a much more complex level.  This is why it takes me so much longer to create a complete unit and why I include teacher background notes for you so that you can understand the concepts that you teach.


Ignite Student's Passion for Writing!!

Writing is a challenge to teach.  It is more than simply just teaching students how to write.  There is an underlying challenge that can predict a student's success and this is often dependent on the messaging that students tell themselves about their ability to write.  A student's attitude towards their skills as a writer are very important to ensure their success in their ability to write.  Writing was the last subject that I taught as a teacher where I felt like I was doing a great job at getting students to write.  Many times I felt that my writing program was sucking the fun out of writing and making the task feel so foreign and unrelatable to the real world of writing.  This change coincided with my also beginning this blog.  Through blogging, I felt that I reconnected to my enjoyment of writing that perhaps had been sucked out of me.  Understanding that sometimes just the act of getting your ideas out of your head and on 'paper' is a great feeling.  I needed a way to translate that into my own teaching.  Writing needed to be connected, the act of writing needed to be just as important as the conventions and style elements of writing.  Student engagement needed to increase and a fire and passion for writing needed to be ignited within my students.  Even with the most reluctant writers.  

This need for a change also aligned with using inquiry in science and social studies.  The power of student conferences, guided instruction and increasing a student's voice and choice in the classroom were powerful tools to get students hooked.  

I changed my approach to how I teach writing and now use a cyclical/spiraling method of teaching writing instruction which is tied very closely to reading instruction as well.  Allowing students the ability to choose what they want to write about, how they want to write it and when has changed by teaching of writing and completely transformed the level of engagement and excitement in writing within my classroom.  The progress I see with students in their ability to write is amazing.  

However it is more than just giving them less structure and rules to follow in their writing.  This would lead to chaos and triple your work load as you had each student doing whatever they want. There are systems and guides and a great deal of structure that goes into preparing your students to write in this manner.  

To get this started there are three things that I use to help me get started to establish writing in my classroom.  


Students will still need a place to put their writing.  These writing folders will help you to support students as they work through the writing process.  Within the pockets of these folders students are given anchors that will help them brainstorm ideas, plan, draft, edit and revise their work.  Each anchor can be taught separately and added to the folder in a purposeful way. 



Writing Anchor Board
This is displayed on a bulletin board for your students.  This support will be a reference for students to remind them of the different writing forms they identified as being interested in as well as provide them with success criteria charts and exemplars as students write them, and any anchor charts that you create with students throughout your responsive lessons. 


Story Wheels
These story wheels will help students to generate ideas.  If you have students that struggle with generating ideas for writing different types of stories then these wheels will help you to support these students.  Students will either create personal wheels or you can support them to create class wheels in small groups or as a whole group depending on need.  

Want more information about how I implement my writing program in my classroom sign up now to join the waiting list for my upcoming ebook - Ignited Writing: a Differentiated Cyclical Approach to Writing. 






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