Why do I differentiate? Three demonstrations for students and staff!

Differentiation is something that is so close to my heart.  I can't say that every aspect of my instruction is differentiated, but I do my best to ensure that I am meeting all of my student where they are.  As I was reading "Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom" by Carol Ann Tomlinson this summer, I was inspired to do a few demonstrations for my students at the beginning of the year.  All of these activities are intended to be light-hearted and funny.  Excuse me and my silliness as you read this post.

Everybody Gets an Aspirin!

What would happen if we all went to the doctor complaining of different things, and the doctor gave every single one of us aspirin?  Would that mend a broken bone?  Would that cure a bad case of acne?  Heck no!  Each problem, ailment, and symptom requires a different treatment.  Although I'll be passing out Tic Tacs, this is exactly what I plan to demonstrate to my students.

I will be using the patient cards above to select eight students to play along in my demonstration.  Each student will take turns visiting the doctor.  I'll sympathetically listen to their complaints, and with as much composure as I can muster, I'll give them an "aspirin" to make them feel better.

The eighth and final patient card is for a poor patient complaining of a simple headache.  Then, after seven other silly attempts to solve the problems of my patients, I'll finally be successful in handing out an aspirin!

Just like passing out an aspirin to every person sounds ridiculous, so does instruction that isn't differentiated.

Sharin' Clothing

We all know that instruction isn't one size fits all.  For this demonstration, I am planning to walk in to the classroom wearing my husband's jacket and struggle to put on my seven year old daughter's gloves.  While it might *somewhat* help the situation, neither of these items are tailored to ME!  Just like Goldilocks and The Three Bears, they are either too big or too small.

I can't wait to have a discussion with my students about the things that we do in my classroom to ensure that all of my students have instruction that actually fits.

Brown Paper Bag

I recently posted (and shared a freebie) about my Welcome to Fifth Grade Postcards.  On this postcard, I have asked all of my students to bring in three to five items that describe them!  I've also been collecting a few things about myself.  On our first day of school, we will be sharing their items as a class.

After all of the students have showcased their items, I plan to discuss how many items were the same and how many of our items were unique.  My guess is, we will have many items that are very different from one another.  Most importantly, while we may have some similarities, no one has brought in three identical items!

Just as the items in our bags, we all have different likes and dislikes.  This also applies to our learning.  Maybe I like practicing my spelling words by putting them to music (honestly, that's how I always practiced my spelling words), but someone else really prefers to write them on the chalkboard repeatedly.  Our likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses all impact our learning!

Four Activities for the First Day of School!

Each year, I scour Pinterest trying to find activities for the first day of school that are engaging for upper elementary students.  I want to find activities that will allow me to learn and connect with each student.  After FINALLY nailing down my plans, I wanted to share a few of my ideas for my first day.

Brown Paper Bags

I have wanted to send postcards to my incoming students for years, but I hadn't found anything that I loved.  This year, I created my own and ordered them from VistaPrint.  They were so inexpensive, plus they serve as an activity on the first day of school.  The back of this postcard asks students to bring in a brown paper bag (or something similar) filled with items that tell about themselves.


I can't wait to see what they bring in.  I have an extension to this activity that can be used to demonstrate why teachers differentiate! I plan to give each student time to share their items, as well as share a bag that I've been working on all summer.  :)

First Day of School Task Cards

I played a variation of this game on the last day of school last year. When I was brainstorming ideas for the first day of school of this upcoming year, I wanted to switch it up to make it work as a get to know you activity.

Here's how it works:

1. Gather students in a circle.
2. Have one student draw a card from the bucket in the center of the circle. That student will answer the question on the card.
3. Relax, sit back, and get to know your students.  


I'll be honest.  I don't plan to use these task cards to play a game or stress about writing down answers.  As a matter of fact, there isn't even a recording sheet included.  It is simply to sit around and get to know each other! I have included a few cards that are serious, while others are just silly! 

Cootie Catcher

Who doesn't love making a cootie catcher?! Afterall, it is a childhood requirement, right?  This year, all of my students will have spelling partners.  I am planning to use this activity for them to get to know their new spelling buddy, but it could be utilized for any "Get to Know You" type of activity.

Here's how it works:

1. Students play with the cootie catcher for 5-10 minutes.  Students will take turns answering various questions about themselves.
2. When students are confident that they can answer all questions about their partner, they will give one another a quick assessment.
3. Students independently answer all questions about their partner.
4. Students switch papers and grade their partner's answers! 

Post-It Note Questions

This isn't my original idea, but I love it! I found this idea last year from Middle School Math Rules's blog.  My teaching partner and I did this last year.  We had our students complete their Post-Its before the morning bell rang on the first day.  It sparked great conversation later in our morning meeting.

4 Ways to EASILY Integrate Subjects!

Each school year, I set a goal for myself.  This past year, my goal was to do a better job of integrating science and social studies into my reading and writing curriculum.  Although I'm pleased with my progress, I can't wait to make a few more changes to make this upcoming year even better!  Below are four things that tremendously helped when integrating science and social studies easily.  

1. Align Science and Social Studies with your Basal
Regardless of what your feelings are about your basal series, some schools are required to follow it.  Meaning, whether you like it or not, you'll be utilizing it.  Why not align your weekly basal stories to match the time periods and topics in your science and social studies curriculum?  This was also perfect for sharing with my specials teachers, special education staff, and our reading intervention teacher.  I'm making a few changes this upcoming year to this spreadsheet, but I really loved having our reading stories match our science and social studies material.

2. Graphic Organizers
Graphic organizers give my students a purpose for reading and allow them to remember important details.  As you have probably noticed, each chapter of most science and social studies curriculum has a targetted reading skill.  I take a look at my textbook ahead of time and create graphic organizers to align with the subheadings throughout the chapter.  Then, as we read, my students are intentionally seeking information.  It gives them a purpose for reading, and requires them to record key ideas from the text.  I also love to use graphic organizers to differentiate.
3. Ditch Your Schedule
Maybe it is because I have worked in a departmentalized setting for too long, but I find myself a slave to the schedule all too often.  From time to time this past year, my teaching partner and I decided to choose a topic of the week and ditch our typical schedule!  We would focus on a science or social studies topic that needed to be addressed and spent our time reading news articles, picture books, or watching short videos.  This was a perfect way to spice up test prep season!  One of my goals this upcoming school year is to ditch my typical schedule more often.  Why can't we be working on reading while doing a science lesson?  Why can't we be writing an informative piece about a social studies objective? 

4. Fall in Love with Close Reading
Close reading is a great way to allow your students to dive deeper into a text while focusing on a specific science or social studies topic. These passages from The Sweetest Thing are the PERFECT way to do just that.  I am amazed at the deep conversations that take place while doing a close reading of these passages.  My students are analyzing text, comprehending difficult material, and conversing over excellent fifth grade content.  Plus, they really seem to enjoy it!

Bring Writing into Math?! 6 Ways It Will Benefit Your Students!

Math Journals are an excellent way to bring writing into math instruction. These Math Journals are an excellent way to reinforce fourth and fifth grade common core standards. They are great for centers, assessments, or whole group discussions.
Two years ago, I transitioned from special education to general education.  One of my main goals was to not just shove content and procedures down their throats, but to help them truly understand math.  Math Journals were one of the first things that I implemented to help accomplish this goal.  After two years of tweaking, revamping, and organizing the Math Journal process, I am pleased to say that my students have flourished in their ability to not only complete mathematical concepts, but explain and truly understand what they are doing.  Want to know how I believe it has benefitted my students?

1. Math Journals require students to dive deep.

Do you know how many kids just follow a list of steps that you teach them without knowing why?  I was always so surprised to hear students' responses when I would ask them why they were putting a zero placeholder when they were multiplying.  They honestly didn't know.  They were just doing what they were told.  While that might be ok on standardized testing, I wanted my students to be able to do more than just pass a test.  I wanted them to dive deep and discover why we put that darn zero there.

2. Math Journals serve as a resource for later.

One reason that I LOVE about using Math Journals is that I now have the ultimate way of requiring independence in my classroom. At our school, we use Accelerated Math and IXL to continually review skills throughout the year.  If a student comes to me in January to ask about a skill that we covered in September, I can send them to their journal.  Typically, once they refer to their journal entry, they are quickly reminded of the steps or process, and are able to continue the problem on their own.  I seriously love watching them flip through old entries and see the look on their faces when they are thinking, "Duh!  How did I forget that?!"

3. Math Journals reinforce comprehension and writing skills.

I love the first time that I ask students to compare and contrast adding whole numbers and adding decimals.  They are instantly saying, "Comparing and contrasting is for reading!" (They do this to me in science and social studies too!)  My response is usually something like this, "Actually, comparing and contrasting are just real life skills.  Don't you ever compare yourself to another student? Or Justin Bieber and One Direction?"  Over time, students are easily able to compare and contrast, write how-tos, or explain the sequence of mathematical procedures.

4. Math Journals are naturally differentiated.

Although there are requirements for my students when working on their Math Journals, the process is also just naturally differentiated.  They are always able to reference their math notes, seek help from classmates, ask the teacher, or have things read aloud to them.  They are able to answer the prompt in only words, only illustrations, or a combination of both.  My students have complete freedom to answer the prompt in whatever mode works for them.  By giving this freedom, it allows my students to each work at their own level and learning style, and receive help as needed throughout the process.

5. Math Journals allow teachers to easily assess understanding.

After reading (or let's be honest, skimming) a response from a student, you can EASILY tell their mathematical abilities.  With a quick glance, you can also tell who truly understands the concept that you are covering.  After all, teaching and explaining a concept is one of the best ways to demonstrate your knowledge.  If they don't know or understand a concept well enough to write about it, it requires them to seek help, or gives you the opportunity to pull a small group and reteach!

6. Math Journals don't feel like math!

We all have "that" kid, who just HATES math.  Well, this doesn't feel like math.  It could play to other strengths that they have in language arts.  On the flipside, we all have those students who EXCEL at mathematics, but dread writing.  I have never had a kid who can't complete these Math Journals, and this is my theory: Regardless of their strengths, they have enough to get these thoughts on paper.  Maybe they are phenomenal writers, but poor in math.  That's ok!  They have the writing skills to carry them through.  Maybe there are terrible writers, but kick butt in math.  Again, that's ok!  They have the math knowledge to be able to outshine their writing weaknesses.  At the end of the day, although this incorporates math and writing, I don't think it feels like either!

If you're thinking about implementing Math Journals in your classroom, here is my rubric that I use for assessing my students' responses!

Dear General Education Teacher...

As teachers, I feel like we all have topics or subjects that are near and dear to our hearts. For me, that topic is special education.  Specifically, the way students with disabilities survive in an inclusive classroom.
I was once told that working as the special education teacher in an inclusive setting is one of the trickiest jobs around.  You are walking into someone else's classroom, and attempting to serve the students that are often the most difficult for them to reach.  I try my best to always respect the classroom teacher, but I am also an advocate for that child.

Over the years, I've always had a list of things that I wish my fellow general education teachers knew.  Today, I'm sharing my list.  Your special education teacher *may* be thinking the same things.


I'm not there to judge you.
Of all people in this building, I understand that not everyone is the same.  Just like kids have learning styles, teachers have teaching styles.  I respect that, and I rarely ever compare one teacher to another.  While I may be offering suggestions or helping to brainstorm strategies, that is in NO way a judgment of your teaching, your ability to handle the student, or you as a person.  Please know, that I am only trying to help make your day easier.


Your students don't learn like you do.
Duh, right?  That's why they have identified disabilities, right?  But what does that mean to you as the general education teacher?  I think the best way to understand what students are going through is to experience it yourself.  The website Misunderstood Minds has multiple ways to experience common struggles that our students are going through.  My favorite is the auditory activity that proves how hard it is for some students to follow directions.  For many of us, school was easy.  We loved it, but we likely loved it because it was easy for us.  Not all kids fit that mold. 


She’s not brain dead.
Whoa!  I seriously didn't mean for that to sound so negative.  Let me tell you what I mean.  By upper elementary, many kids with disabilities are YEARS behind.  As a general education teacher, I want you to have high expectations for all students, including your kids with disabilities.  Learning disabilities tend to effect only a small portion of their learning (example: decoding or fluency), but they don't typically impact every. single. aspect. of their academics.  So, yes, she has a learning disability.  But, she is NOT brain dead.  It's seriously ok to push them.  It is seriously ok to have high expectations.  But please, don't treat her like she's the classroom pet, where her classmates hold her hand and teach her to rely on others.  Work hard to discover her areas of strength and MAXIMIZE them!


Your identified kids aren't lazy.
Often times, your students with learning disabilities are actually some of your hardest working kids.  These are the kids that have to work their tails off to reach each and every milestone.  Sometimes hard work reaps different rewards and rates of growth. And, I'm ok with that.  Try to recognize the work rather than the gaps.


If they could control their behavior, they would.
Now, some kids are truly smart enough to manipulate situations, and they ARE in control.  However, many of the students sitting in our classrooms, cannot control their impulses, emotions, or reactions to peer situations.  I always try to explain this in relation to my energy level.  I don't know about you, but I'm ready to crash by 7:00 on a Friday night.  I WISH I had the energy level of my four year old.  But, I don't.  There isn't anything I can do to change that.

If your little guy with ADHD could control those his impulses in your classroom, trust me, he would.  But he can't, just like I can't will myself to have the energy level of a toddler.  Help him to find ways to work off a little energy AND complete classroom assignments.


Why do we care about grades so much?!
Wouldn't it be perfect if every single kid in your classroom was a straight A student?! Last time I checked, that isn't realistic.  Like, not even a little bit realistic.  So why do we always put so much emphasis on grades?  Why can't we celebrate a hard earned C-?  When I sit in parent-teacher conferences with the parents of students with disabilities, I always encourage them to focus on their IEP progress monitoring or other area of growth rather than the letter sitting next to their reading or writing grade on their report card.


The IEP isn't optional.
Many teachers want to be choosy in regards to accommodations.  An IEP is a legal document, in which the general education teacher(s), special education teacher(s), principal, and parents have the ability to write, change, and adapt the services and supports for the student.  If there is an accommodation that you don't agree with, see a need for, or simply want to adjust, ask the special education teacher for a meeting.  You are legally obligated to provide the services, supports, and accommodations that are outlined.  Make sure that you understand them and that they are fitting for the student.  If those accommodations were written, then at one point in time, a team of people met, discussed, and agreed that those accommodations were necessary.  It's not your job to pick and choose based on what works for you.


An IEP is NOT an excuse.
Have a student with a reading disability, but they're doing horrible with basic computation? Oh, it must be the disability.  Ummm, no?!  And shut up, you've heard it at some point in your career.  Some parents, students, and teachers see an IEP as the ultimate excuse.  Math homework taking too long at night?  Let's pull the IEP card to reduce the amount of homework.  Didn't pass statewide testing?  That's ok!  They have an IEP!  

Well, I disagree.  A student with a disability might do poorly in one area of statewide testing, and homework might take a bit longer.  But each time we use this as the ultimate "Get Out of Jail FREE" card, we devalue that IEP a little more.  It is there as a support, not as a crutch.

I am NOT perfect, and I'm usually the first to admit that.  I also hate confrontation with parents, other teachers, and administrations.  So, if I'm being real with you, students with disabilities in a general education classroom is HARD.  But I also believe that putting them in a self contained, special education classroom is not the ideal placement for them.

Now that I am in the role of a general education teacher, I constantly have an internal struggle between the general ed and special ed parts of my heart.  It is never easy.  Just remember, EVERY teacher wants is to look back on a school year, and know that they did everything possible to ensure the success of all students in their classroom.

Last Day of School Circles!

I always dread the last day of school for some reason.  I want my students to remember more than just the academics that we covered throughout the school year.  I want them to remember that I have a sense of humor, the laughter that we shared together, and the sense of community that we had in my classroom.  So today, I had them gather around the room in a small circle.  

And one by one, they took turns drawing a card from the basket.  

Then, they completed the action that was given on the card.  These tasks ranged from captioning a meme, describing a classmate using three adjectives, or creating a "Would You Rather..." using activities that we did throughout the school year.  

 If this looks like something fun you would like to do in your classroom, click the image above to grab it from my TpT store!

Totally Random!

Over Christmas Break, I was searching Pinterest for a few ways to really spice up my test prep.  While searching, I found this crazy, silly game called Stinky Feet from Teaching in the Fast Lane.  I absolutely loved the concept, and I knew that I had to use it in my classroom.

I really loved the idea, but I had a few twists to keep things totally random!  When my students walked in from recess, they found THIS, and they were ready to play!

During the week before state testing, we were reviewing decimal computation.  I split my class into teams of four.  Then, I would display a problem and give them a minute or so to complete it as a team.  

When their time was up, one student from each team would come up to my iPad to place a finger on the screen.  Using the app Chwazi, my students would be randomly selected to share their answer.  My students really loved this app.  They insisted that there was a pattern to its selections, but they sure couldn't figure out how to cheat it!

After the Chwazi app randomly selected a team, the team would share their answer.  If their answer was correct, they would get to choose a Post-It note from the board.  Written in pencil (because markers bled through) on the back of the Post-It note, they found a point value.  Some of the point values were positive while others were negative.  This added another random element to the game!

We had a BLAST playing this game!  It was extremely fun to play because correct answers and being selected by the Chwazi app were not always good things.  It was a game of pure luck and was TOTALLY RANDOM! :)

If you would like to play this game with your students, you can grab a Power Point template by clicking the image above.  You'll need this, the Chwazi app, and a few Post-It Notes! :)