Helping Students Understand Differentiation

Years ago, courtesy of my team-teaching friend, Nicole, at the start of each year I would tell my students a story. The story went something like this: one child goes to the doctor with a stomachache while his sister goes to the doctor with a headache. What is the treatment for each? Is the the same? Is it equal? Is it fair? And thus would be my conversation into differentiation throughout the year. We would discuss how not everything would be the same (homework, reading groups, activities, etc.); not everything would be equal, but everything would be fair.

Enter a few years later when I had the amazing experience of attending a Rick Womeli workshop. He taught his students this same lesson through a different activity which I think is even more visual and easier to understand. He talked about taping a dollar bill (or a five dollar bill) high up on the classroom wall and calling on the tallest student in the room to get it down and keep it. He tapes another one and then calls on the shortest students who usually either asks another student for help or pulls a chair up for assistance, at which time he would stop the student and say that it was not okay to use assistance. Usually, the students come to the rescue saying that it’s not fair. Again, this leads into a wonderful conversation about fair and equal and differentiation in the classroom. Effective for most ages!

If you have never had the opportunity to hear Rick Wormeli speak, I highly recommend reading his book Fair Isn’t Always Equal. He explains standards, differentiation, recovery policies, and practical applications of all of the above. A timely book!

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