PS/IS 686 | Brooklyn, NY

Differentiation differs


Dear Families,

I think we have all been in a learning situation where you have thought, “I already know this…..What, huh I don’t get it……I can’t focus when the teacher just talks at me.  I need a picture that symbolizes the idea…..Wait- I am not done thinking and you called on her….This is just too hard.  I give up……I am bored…….I need to talk about my ideas, before I have formed exactly what I want to write…….This task is sooooo daunting……I have to write another essay…….I can’t focus in a huge lecture hall.  Too many people…… I learn by doing…… etc.”


Learning becomes a headache.  School becomes torture.

But….there is a sweet spot where learning happens.  Learning happens for me at the cross section of “flow,” engagement and personal meaning and significance.

Differentiation is the ability to meet a child where they are at, at a particular moment in time.  The choices a teacher makes either inspires or short circuits the learning process.

I like to think of myself as a highly skilled doctor.  What exactly does this patient need?  What am I able to do to remedy this situation.  We all know how frustrating it is learning something that is just beyond your grasp.  Kind of like when I pick up a Scientific America article and really believe that I will understand gravitational waves.

“….massive accelerating objects (such as neutron stars or black holes orbiting each other) would disrupt space-time in such a way that ‘waves’ of distorted space would radiate from the source (like the movement of waves away from a stone thrown into a pond). Furthermore, these ripples would travel at the speed of light through the Universe, carrying with them information about their cataclysmic origins, as well as invaluable clues to the nature of gravity itself….”

Um, no way.  I just don’t get it.

So, the most important thing a doctor or rather a teacher does is assess the situation. What is wrong with the patient?  Why are they not following the exercise plan?  What remedy can I give them to “get better.”  Giving the wrong medicine could be deadly.

According to Todd Finley, a writer for the Edutopia blog,

Differentiation is a method of instruction designed to meet the needs of all students by changing what students learn (content), how they accumulate information (process), how they demonstrate knowledge or skills (product), and with whom and where learning happens (learning environment).

“Teaching a Class With a Big Ability Differences.”

The first step in differentiation is assessment.  I use many tools for this purpose.  In spelling we give a spelling inventory.  In writing we have an open genre publish and I confer with the students. In reading we give individual reading assessments and I listen in to their comprehension as they read.  Students are thus “diagnosed” and then a “remedy” is applied.

I am playing around with the structure of the class this year, to that end.  4 days a week students are grouped by ability.  They are flexible and everyone is in a group.  Everyone at some point receives targeted, “remedial” instruction.

Maybe one day they are on the computer practices homophones, or another student needs work on reading comprehension or another student needs better phonemic and decoding skills.  This is not a competition, but simply a way to meet the basic needs of the students.  Looking forward, there will additionally be multiple ways throughout the year to show competency.

Lastly, the maybe your child needs more support and could use a graphic organizer or a check off list or the directions written on the board.  All of these things maximize the “flow” a child has.  This flow happens when the child has reached the “zone of proximal development.”

Making learning personally engaging helps.  Learning happens when you attach meaning or significance to something new you learned.  I tell a lot of personal stories and ask them to share many of theirs.  The topics I choose, I choose because I know they care about them.  For example, today’s lesson was on what UNICEF does.  I included information about Ukraine on purpose.  Here is the powerpoint I used. 

Choice is also important for differentiating.  Given the choice, students usual pick something that is meaningful to them and they can show off their talents.

Homework from ReadWorks is differentiated.  I am able to choose a passage and change the lexile level that matches approximately their reading level. (* I am going to begin communicating the correct answers for the ReadWorks assignment when I post the grades for HW on School Loop.)

The class is really loving it!  They have been extremely engaged this week.  (Phew I was working hard up to this point!)  I am very pleased with how well they are responding to differentiation.

I know when there is a state of “flow,” in my class.

when the assistant Principal walks in and nobody notices.





  • Field Trip is on Thursday, November 2nd.  Both classes are going.  We will eat lunch if the weather is nice, but will return to school if it is not.  We will go even if it is lightly raining.  We will be walking quite a bit, so have your child wear comfortable clothes.
  • The next spelling quiz will be on Friday November 3rd and then again November 22, and December 22
  • The next writing unit will be essay writing.  We are writing commentaries.  It will be published on December 8th.
  • We will wrap up our work on making inferences in literature and start nonfiction on November 13th.
  • Scholastic Book orders are due Monday, October 30th.
  • I am really pleased how nicely the students have been completing their homework!