Building a Supportive Environment for a Differentiated Classroom
How do you start making your classroom super supportive for differentiation?
Before you can begin to build support for a classroom where customized assignments are the norm instead of the exception, you must learn all that you can about differentiation. Develop your own professional knowledge. There are numerous resources available such as books that offer support and information on the topic and workshops like the Learning-Focused Differentiated Assignments training. However, you must understand the “why” before you can begin to make the transition from a traditional classroom approach to one that supports the uniqueness of every student. By understanding the value of having a differentiated or customized classroom, you will be better equipped to communicate with administrators, parents, and students.
In her book, Differentiating Instruction in the Regular Classroom, Diane Heacox identified 15 Qualities of a Supportive Environment for Differentiation:
- Promotes acceptance of differences
- Affirms that all students have learning strengths
- Acknowledges that students learn at different rates and in different ways
- Recognizes that for work to be fair, it must sometimes be different
- Acknowledges that success means different things to different people
- Allows students to work with various people for various purposes
- Recognizes that the key to motivation is interest, and that all students have different interests
- Promotes personal responsibility for learning
- Builds feelings of personal competence and confidence in learning
- Values effort and “personal best”
- Nurtures skills of independence
- Supports and celebrates student success in challenging work
- Encourages exploration of each student’s interests, strengths, and learning preferences
- Nurtures the creative spirit in all students
- Honors everyone’s work
When considering these qualities, we must prepare both students and parents for the transition.
How can you prepare your students?
Begin on the first day of school. Share your goals and purposes with the students.
- Read the picture book People by Peter Spier to open the discussion about how we are all different.
- Give students an interest or learning styles survey and share the class results
- Have students do a line up survey – Put the numbers 1-10 on the wall and have students rank themselves based on their strengths. As the teacher you will design a series of statements such as: I am a good basketball player, I am good at math, I sing well, etc. – This type of activity will allow students to see that they each have their own strengths.
- Have students participate in a few team building activities – Carefully select activities that will highlight different skills.
- Explain to students that throughout the year, they will often be working on different types of assignments and with different groups of students.
- Encourage your students to develop and share their own perspectives.
There are numerous ways to collect data on your students. Don’t forget that you will also need to access any type of academic data that’s available. If you have inclusion students, you will want to make sure that you are communicating with an inclusion teacher. The key to making the transition successful is to know your students.
How do you prepare parents?
Communicate and educate! It may be necessary to explain to parents what is meant by differentiation. Forget the educationese/edspeak and just put it in clear terms that are easy to understand. Let them know that you recognize the uniqueness of each student in your classroom and that your goal is to create an environment that builds upon student differences while challenging each and every child. You may need to reassure parents that by customizing assignments for your students they can rest assured that the assignments will be both challenging and engaging. Also, you may need to emphasize that often times groups will change based on interests, learning preferences, and skill levels. This is why it’s critical that you have a clear understanding of the “Why.”
Laying the foundation and keeping the lines of communication open will help ease the transition from the traditional to the differentiated classroom.
Ideas for keeping parents informed:
- Letter to the parent – Write a letter to parents at the beginning of the school year outlining how you intend to meet the needs of their child and emphasizing that you will always be available to answer their questions.
- Share projects and plans on your webpage.
- Create a class newspaper that highlights work from students.
- Explain your goals during open house
- Have parents participate in a quick survey that will share their individual differences and follow up with a discussion about individual differences.
How do you make differentiation “respectful?”
- Change the groupings often – Sometimes you will want to create assignments based on interest and sometimes on readiness. Start slowly and design short assignments of both types. Give students the opportunity to practice.
- For readiness assignments, use colored folders or envelopes for each level or tier. Distribute these in what appears to be random order.
- By customizing assignments, every level of student in your classroom receives assignments that are appropriately challenging.
Kuzmich stated, “Don’t change the bar, provide all the ropes, ladders, scaffolds, and safety nets to get every student over the bar.” Providing a safe environment where students can be successful builds competence and gives them the confidence in their ability to learn.