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readiness levels). At its very core, though, differentiation is a philosophy about teaching and learning where teachers discover and respond to student differences.

The first piece of advice I always tell teachers when working with them on differentiation of instruction is to start small. Perhaps they begin by simply picturing some of the strengths and weaknesses of their students. The next step would be to document these differences us- ing formative assessments. This can be as simple as discovering the learning profiles or inter- ests of their students. The key is for educators to become aware that their classes are much more than simply the sum of their parts (or students). The obvious final piece to differentia- tion is for teachers to begin making instructional adjustments and accommodations for the needs they discovered. Without the initial step of indentifying student differences, however, differentiation would be like throwing darts blindfolded, just hoping to hit the right targets. Thus, starting small can provide a sturdy foundation for creating a differentiated classroom, without the overwhelming feeling that can accompany a switch in teaching philosophy and practice. As teachers begin to notice student differences and reap the benefits of individu- alized instruction, they will become more and more comfortable adjusting to the needs of their students. During this process, and with proper collegial, administrative, and profes- sional development support, they begin to see that planning quality instruction for students doesn’t have to be difficult, but it should be purposeful and responsive to student needs.

Conclusion

As with any fulfilling job, working with schools on differentiation of instruction has moments of challenge. Not everyone automatically believes that students learn differently. Further, some simply don’t see how it is possible to make differentiation a reality in their own class- rooms. Many, however, desire guidance to truly understand and implement differentiation. It is an example from the latter group of teachers that gave me goose bumps. I was working with a math teacher in a rural school with high levels of poverty. This math teacher was in- terested in grouping strategies that she could use with her class. After spending some time working on a lesson with her, I then went and observed the class in action. The students were engaged, grouped appropriately based on readiness, and amazingly enough appeared to ac- tually enjoy learning! When this teacher saw me in the hallway later in the day, she beamed with satisfaction and pride. She wasn’t happy because she felt like students were more likely to correctly answer enough test questions to be labeled “proficient.” She wasn’t smiling because she thought her school would make Adequate Yearly Progress in accordance with No Child Left Behind. She was delighted because her students actually cared about learn- ing. She invited them to participate in an engaging activity based on an appropriate level of challenge and they responded with enthusiasm and success. That kind of excitement is con- tagious. Just ask my goose bumps.

Virginia Educational Leadership

Vol. 7 No. 1

Spring 2010

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