The Differentiated Classroom: Doing What’s Fair

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It was my first year of teaching, and I had assigned my 11th-grade history students their first take-home essay. After two weeks and several check-ins, one student (let’s call him John), failed to submit anything. I gave John a “0,” which plummeted his grade along with any sense of hope that he could recover in my class, much less excel.

I had made the real mistake, as Rick Wormeli, one of America’s first Nationally Board Certified Teachers, makes clear in one of the most impactful education books I’ve ever read: Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessing & Grading in the Differentiated Classroom.

“Differentiated instruction teachers do what’s fair and developmentally appropriate for the students they teach, and those students change every year,” he writes. “They respond to the students in front of them rather than generic middle or high school students. Because instruction is inseparable from assessment, differentiating teachers’ grading policies are also responsive to the individuals they teach.”

I failed John. I should have investigated why he didn’t complete the assignment. Was it because he didn’t understand the material? Was it because life got in the way? Whatever the reason, six years later, I refuse to imagine that “laziness” had anything to do with it. I firmly believe that all students want to do well. By giving John no way out, I deprived him of the real learning experience. This is made even clearer when I speak with Wormeli, among our nation’s most revered and accomplished educators:

A kid doesn’t do any assignment, no matter how large, and I just give him a zero? One, he doesn’t get competent. He remains incompetent. Is that really the legacy I want to carry forward? Incompetence, but be able to tell all my colleagues in the larger society, “Oh, I caught him. He couldn’t get past me with missing a deadline, let me tell you.”

Or is it, “Hey, you screwed up, child. Let me walk side by side with you and develop the competence and the wisdom that comes from doing something a second and third time around, where you’ll get your act together.” Both of those are greater gifts in the long run, than simply labeling a child for a failed deadline.

I also failed John by allowing a 16-year-old’s lack of emotional or mature development to hold his learning hostage. Certainly, teachers should always treat students like adults—and grant them equally deserved respect. At the same time, students are still kids, and it’s sometimes illogical and impractical to hold them to adult standards when they lack adult life experience.

As a younger teacher, I would frequently have these discussions with Adrianna Truby, a close friend and colleague in the English department. I couldn’t ask for a better mentor than Truby, one of the most talented, effective and beloved teachers I’ve ever known. She would often caution me against holding students to unrealistic expectations, while always challenging them and striving to help all pupils reach their full potential. Wormeli would no doubt love to observe Truby, a masterful teacher, who epitomizes the ideal of differentiated instruction.

But Truby and I are lucky to work at Palmer Trinity, a wonderful independent school where most teachers teach four sections, and everybody has an average class size of 14. I ask Wormeli how public school teachers, with significantly more students, could possibly manage to practice differentiated instruction.

“I think it’s preposterous to think that you can differentiate all the time with every kid,” Wormeli says. “You really can’t because most schools are set up to be the factory model, but can do you it 51 percent of the time or more? The majority of the time, yes . . . . When people say they don’t have time to differentiate or it’s impractical, they’re really saying, ‘I don’t have time to teach well.’ You probably wouldn’t say that, but you would say, ‘You know what? I’ll do the best we can within the parameters, and once in awhile I’ll deviate from the schemata we set up for ourselves, so I can live up to the promise to really teach everyone. Not just the easiest ones, but everyone who is in our democratic society.’”

In my short career as an education reporter, I have never spoken with somebody as practical and impactful as Wormeli. I can’t recommend his work highly enough, and I wish his books were essential reading for all teachers.

Interview transcript:

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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