A few years ago, my sister talked me into going to a yoga class with her. I’d never taken a yoga class before because I didn’t see how stretching equated to a workout. I preferred going to a gym and lifting weights or taking a really rigorous cardio class.
But she insisted that yoga was tougher than it looked and so, after much convincing, I joined her.
We walked into the studio and removed our shoes in the vestibule. Then we stepped quietly into the classroom where soft music was playing. The lights were low and there was the faint smell of incense wafting throughout the room.
I followed my sister and mimicked her as she laid out her yoga mat and sat down cross legged in its center. While we waited for class to begin, I silently watched other students come in.
I don’t know what I was expecting but I was a little surprised to find people or all ages, sizes, and races in our class. And, if I’m being totally honest, I felt a little smug because I was in fairly good shape at the time and I thought, “well if these people can do this, this class will be a piece of cake.”
Boy was I wrong.
At the top of the hour, a petite young woman with a long brown ponytail stepped gracefully into the room. She set up her mat at the front, introduced herself as Christina, and welcomed all of us to the class. She seemed so sweet, so serene, so kind. I liked her immediately.
She asked us sweetly to get into child’s pose. I followed her example and got down on my knees, bent my forehead to the mat, and stretched my arms out in front of me.
So far so good.
Except this sweet, kind yoga teacher made us stay in that position for several minutes.
Soon my knees began to ache and my thighs started to burn. I started to fidget a little and just as I was about to reach my breaking point, she quietly asked us to move to downward facing dog.
Relieved, I lifted my head and followed her movements, inverting my body into a standing V, grateful for the chance to stretch my aching thighs.
From there we progressed to a series of sun salutations which sound way more cheerful than the tortuous movements we repeated.
I used to like Christina but I was starting to suspect she had a mean streak.
For the next hour, she stood in front of the classroom and calmly dreamed up new ways to torture us. She watched while we sweated and strained and just as we were about to reach our breaking point, she would taunt us in our pain by telling us to “just breathe.”
Towards the end of the class, Christina really got sadistic. She gleefully announced that now we would be doing a special pose. She called it something innocuous like lotus pose, but by now I was on to her -- The nicer the name, the greater the torture.
So when she started demonstrating the pose, I thought to myself, there is no way a body was meant to do that.
And then I gave up.
Next to me was a woman who must have been twice my age. I remember smugly thinking that I would crush her in yoga when she walked in (can you tell I’ve got a bit of a competitive streak). I leaned back on my mat and watched as she perfectly executed the pose.
I looked to my other side and watched as a slightly overweight middle-aged man slid easily into the pose. I checked out my sister. She too was doing it.
Oh alright, I huffed as I sat up and attempted the pose.
I told my body exactly what to do but at that moment, my body chose to go on strike.
I couldn’t get it. Every time I tried, I would lose balance and fall over.
It was embarrassing.
Just as I was about to give up, Christina walked over to the side wall and picked up what looked like a purple brick and made her way towards me.
Uh oh, I thought to myself. I’m failing yoga and now she is going to hit me with that brick.
The closer she came to me, the harder I tried to get it right. When she reached my mat, I flinched.
“Just breathe,” she soothed as she gently placed her hand on my waist to steady me.
Breathing was the LAST thing I was able to do. I was too busy eying that brick and bracing myself for whatever yoga punishment she was about to dole out.
Calmly, Christina began to adjust my body into the pose. Even when her help, I still wasn’t getting it.
She reached for the brick and I closed my eyes. This was going to hurt.
But instead of boxing me about the ears, she gently placed the brick on the mat under my knee.
“Let’s try it again,” she offered and then slowly leaned my body into the pose.
But this time with the brick as a support, instead of getting stuck midway and desperately grasping for the mat, I smoothly (dare I say gracefully?) bent into the pose.
That brick made all the difference. Satisfied that I was now successfully doing the pose, Christina began to work with the woman next to me.
From my awkward perch, I watched as she adjusted the woman’s body to make the pose even MORE challenging for her.
One-by-one, Christina moved through the room and worked with each of us. She made an adjustment here, offered a support there, until all of us were not only doing the pose, but with her help, we took our bodies beyond where we thought they could go.
At the end of the class, as I lay there splayed on my mat, (I think the correct term for that particular pose was Shavasana or “
death corpse pose,” which was pretty much how I felt at the moment), I began thinking about Christina’s technique.
It was the best differentiated lesson I’d ever observed.
She designed ONE yoga sequence, ONE rigorous lesson, but she found a way for each of us to complete ALL of the poses no matter how flexible we were.
When I struggled with the last pose, she didn’t let me off the hook or reserve it for the more gifted yogis among us. Instead, she found the right support and offered it at the right time to help me achieve the difficult pose with the rest of the class.
With the woman next to me for whom the pose was almost too easy, she didn’t give an additional pose to try. Instead, Christina made a few quick adjustments so that she too could be challenged.
With her help, each of us had a unique experience, one that was personally challenging and one that allowed each of us to complete the class successfully.
That’s what a successfully differentiated lesson looks like. Every student is working successfully towards a rigorous goal and the teacher is serenely moving through the classroom, making an adjustment here, offering a tool there, to keep each student challenged and to ensure that each student reaches the goal.
When a student struggles, the teacher has a tool at the ready, not to remove the struggle, but to help the student struggle more productively towards the goal.
And when a student needs additional challenge, the teacher knows exactly what adjustments to make so that student can continue to work with the rest of the class, but in a way that is personally more stimulating.
ONE rigorous lesson, multiple access points.
When we teach this way, we not only help every student reach or exceed the standards, we also give a gift to ourselves.
No more stress about pacing, No more staying up nights and weekends designing multiple lessons. No more extra work coming up with multiple assignments just so that we can check off the “Differentiated Instruction” box on our lesson plans. No more searching for the latest differentiation trick of gimmick and making our assignments way more complicated than they need to be.
Instead it’s just you and your students, working together towards big goals. They are stretching beyond their limits and you providing the right supports at the right time then stepping back and watching them soar.