Upper School Notes from Evan Robb ’80 – Differentiate: Meeting All Students’ Needs (Part I)

Published On: December 5th, 2022 | Categories: Food for Thought |


Differentiate: Meeting All Students’ Needs

by Evan Robb ’80
Over the course of my career, I have seen students struggle to meet teacher and curriculum expectations. I recall many years ago I knew a student named Janelle. Janelle was a sixth grader, whose reading was two years below her grade level. She didn’t read at home and often said that reading is boring. Her days at school became stressful and frustrating. Janelle couldn’t read her math, history, or science textbooks, and she struggled to achieve in these classes. Her English teacher helped Janelle find books she could read on topics that interested her. However, Janelle, still did not read much, and she avoided participating in class. The pattern of her scores in comprehension and vocabulary on standardized tests for the past three years have steadily moved downward. There is a way her teachers can support Janelle: differentiate instruction so Janelle reads and participates in every subject every day.

I have coached and counseled teachers who have students like Janelle in their classes. By differentiating instruction in all subjects, it’s possible to meet all students’ needs, whether they read below, at, or above their grade level. It’s my belief that teachers have a responsibility to continually grow professionally by keeping abreast of research-tested teaching and learning practices to ensure that each child can grow and make solid progress throughout the school year. That’s why differentiation is a teaching and learning practice that Upper School teachers will study on a journey to best meet the unique needs of each student.

Differentiation Defined

Carol Ann Tomlinson is regarded as an expert on differentiation. Dr. Tomlinson is a renowned professor of education at the University of Virginia and author of books and professional articles on differentiation. Her goal is to help teachers understand how differentiation works for a wide range of students in classes, so that everyone learns, improves, and progresses. My goal for differentiation aligns with Tomlinson’s goal, and teachers, with my guidance and support, will take a deep dive into this teaching and learning practice to improve students’ learning. It’s possible to differentiate instruction in four ways:

1. Content: Including materials on a topic that are on a range of reading
levels, so the learning needs of all students are met.\
2. Process. This is the steps students move through as they read to think
and analyze, to learn new information, to write, and to prepare for
quizzes and tests. Differentiation can mean adjusting the steps and/or
offering support.
3. Product. Can be a written or oral presentation, a project, a unit test, and
4. Learning environment. Includes the culture and tone of the classroom
and can be teacher-controlled or student-centered.


Closing Thoughts

Differentiated instruction thrives in a student-centered, responsive classroom. Students use diverse materials related to a unit or topic—materials each group member can learn from and improve. Teachers support students by scaffolding lessons that use challenging texts, ensuring that all students learn and grow. The goal of differentiating learning at Powhatan should be to meet each student where they can experience success and grow as reader, learners, critical thinkers, and problem solvers.

NEXT: What does differentiation look like at Powhatan School?