Sunday, March 9, 2014

Differentiation Made Easy. . . Or Just Not That Hard

I LOVE first grade. But let's face it, it isn't easy. . . especially with the wide range of abilities! To meet the needs of all of my students, I try to differentiate as much as I can. Here,  I'll give you some ideas for differentiation, with a focus on homework.

For my first 8 years of teaching, I used to make 3 homework packets! That's right-

Three. Homework. Packets!

Yup! Or as Sweet Brown would say, "Ain't nobody got time fo' dat!"

Really, like you have extra time to type 3 different packets, copy them separately, and make sure you place the right ones in the corresponding mailboxes (If I had a dollar for every time a kid came in with the wrong homework packet. . . ). Can you say exhausting?

Well, hopefully this post will help save you some time while still making homework meaningful for your students.

A few years ago, our district provided us with professional development from Judy Dodge, who wrote Differentiation in Action. She helped us think of ways to make differentiation easy. She made me realize that differentiation doesn't have to be as intimidating as it sounds. You don't have to recreate everything in order to do it. I'll add some differentiation tips at the end of the post, but for now I'll focus on using a choice format for homework. 
I use weekly homework packets, which get tucked into homework notebooks. All the students get the same spelling and sight words (in extreme cases, I do modify words). But, they get to pick from a choice menu each night.
The choices for each menu vary in difficulty. For example, the writing menu (if we're studying dinosaurs) may look like this:
Here's a sample from my reading menu, which is based on the skills we are currently working on- compare/contrast, identify story elements, etc.:
As you can see, differentiating doesn't mean making completely different activities! It also doesn't necessarily mean more work (as in number of sentences, math problems, etc.) or a different output. Students work on achieving the same skill and maybe the same product, but the method of getting there is what's different. In the reading choices above, the students are all retelling a story! The first group does it orally, the second group has the scaffold of breaking it down into parts, and the third group is expected to use organization independently to summarize.

OK, enough about homework- here are some ways to differentiate throughout your day:

Vary your methods of teaching- incorporate movement, song, let some kids listen to a book while others read it, use flexible grouping, etc.

Center time: I have 3 different levels for most of my centers. I use a 3-drawer bin for each center and put stickers on the drawers that correspond to the groups. Since I am on maternity leave, I don't have actual pictures, but I used an online pic to show you here. So the green and yellow groups (my most advanced students) would take their materials from the top drawer here, the purple and blue groups from the middle drawer, and the red group from the bottom drawer.
Use choice whenever you can! For my reading response center, I have a choice poster and students pick a book from the library and choose which activity to do. I also have an ‘I’m finished’ center, with many different activities to do when they finish their center work.

When differentiating, think of your target goal and start with what you expect the average (on-level) student to do. Then, scaffold for students who will need support, and challenge for more advanced students. So, for example:

Here's a chart with some ideas on how to differentiate for three different levels. Again, note that the support group doesn't have less work in quantity, nor does the challenge group have more.  What is differentiated is the complexity of the activity and support given.

Just for you, I have made this differentiated pack a freebie for today. Go grab your copy! =)

Thanks for stopping by! I'd love to hear how you differentiate in your classroom!

Minion image from Despicable Me movie by Pixar
Borders and frames by Scrappin' Doodles, Graphics From the Pond, and Lovin' Lit
Fonts in graphics by Hello Fonts, KG Fonts and Kevin and Amanda


  1. I must admit that I am guilty of giving students different homework resources to deal with differentiation. Separate math/literacy and spelling and children are in various levels for each so it can be an organisation nightmare putting it all together! I LOVE the idea of making it simple by offering choice AND the fact that it lets the parents see the range and where their child fits in. Do you always organise it so that the choices progress in difficulty with 1 being easiest and 3 being the most challenging? I was thinking there were both pros and possible cons of doing it that way.

    Thanks for posting!

    OkinawanGirl Lisa

  2. It IS a nightmare to organize different levels of homework, so I feel your pain! That's a great question and I do see pros and cons of both ways. I always do list the choices in progression of difficulty for two reasons: it's easier for parents to clearly know which choices are more difficult, and it's easier for me to keep track of each child's picks. Since the children write their choice number in their homework notebooks, I can easily tell if a child always picks the easy options or challenges him/herself enough. Hope this helps!

    1. Thanks for clarifying - that makes perfect sense! I shall definitely be implementing this new system with my next class. Thank you so much for sharing!

  3. So smart! You are right, you can make yourself crazy trying to differentiate in first grade. I like how you are working smarter, not harder. :) Thanks for the great tips.

    1. Thanks! With everything else we have to do, have to think of some ways to save time! =)