I first met Caren at a Differentiation Workshop I was giving several years ago. She was a fourth-grade teacher who worked hard to ensure that ALL of her students were learning.
So, when she arrived at the workshop, she was not terribly excited to be there. She told me later that she thought she was doing differentiation already.
But it was killing her.
Caren cared deeply about her students. And, because she had students with a range of needs, she tried her best to individualize her instruction to meet each student’s needs.
The problem was, it was a LOT of work. She was becoming burned out spending nights and weekends planning not one, but sometimes 3 or 4 lessons to meet her students’ individual needs.
She was also setting up multiple learning centers, each with its own set of materials and learning activities.
She was creating complicated learning contracts with multiple learning tracks and multiple assignments.
She was designing different assignments for students at different levels.
Not only that, she was creating different rubrics, collecting different reading materials for students at multiple levels, and designing different assessments based on where students were.
It was exhausting.
So, when I started talking about differentiation, Caren sort of tuned me out. She felt that she’d heard it all already and she was already doing a decent job of it. But more important, she didn’t want to hear anything that would create more work for her.
Can you relate?
But about mid-way through the morning, I started sharing how differentiation could be achieved with ONE lesson, and Caren’s ears perked up.
At first, she was skeptical. How on earth could ONE lesson meet the varying needs of her students?
But, once we started looking at a few sample lessons, something clicked for Caren and she got really excited.
Then she started crying.
Now, I am not accustomed to making people in my workshops cry, so I was a little concerned when Caren started to tear up.
I called for a break and then approached Caren.
“Did I say something to upset you,” I asked, concerned.
She shook her head no. “I’m really sorry,” She apologized. “I don’t know what came over me.” She started rifling through her teacher bag looking for a tissue.
“What happened?” I asked.
She blew her nose. “To be honest, I was kinda tuning you out all morning,” She began. “And when you said that you could differentiate using ONE lesson, I thought ‘she’s full of it.’ But then when you showed us those sample lessons and I started to see how it works, I just got so frustrated!”
“Why?” I was confused. “I thought that would be a relief to see how you can accomplish true differentiation with just ONE lesson plan.”
She nodded. “It did. But see, I’m about to start a new science unit,” she explained. “So for the last 3 weeks, I’ve been creating 3 different activities, 3 different sets of materials, and 3 different rubrics for my class. It’s taken me almost 3 weeks to get ready and here you come telling me that I didn’t have to go through all of that. I’m so exhausted and when I thought about all that wasted time and energy, I don’t know. It just made me so mad!”
I nodded sympathetically.
She went on. “I’ve been so tired and overwhelmed lately. And now here you come telling me that I can do everything I was trying to do with just ONE lesson and I think about all the time I’ve wasted.” She shook her head ruefully. “I’m just so mad!” she repeated.
I get it. The way that we are often taught to differentiate instruction actually creates MORE work for us with very little benefit to our students.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Effective differentiation shouldn’t be this huge time and energy suck. When done right, effective differentiation is should free you and your students to teach and learn in a way that works best for both of you.
That’s the message I think gets lost when we are advocating for differentiated instruction. Unfortunately, that means that we talk about all the different techniques and strategies and end up making things more complicated than they have to be.
If you are drowning under the weight of differentiated instruction, I want you to know that it doesn’t have to be that way. You CAN effectively differentiate using ONE lesson plan with multiple access points for students.