Sunday, February 8, 2015

The 21st Friday: My Dad, The Differentiator

“Moving students is not and will not be the solution to creating schools that work for all comers. The solution lies in finding the will to support teacher expertise in creating classrooms where ‘high-end’ curriculum is the standard and differentiation is the mechanism for helping a broad range of students to achieve or even exceed the standards for that level of rigor.” 
Carol Ann Tomlinson

My quest to learn more about differentiation by reading Carol Ann Tomlinson’s second edition of The Differentiated Classroom continues, as does my desire to share just a bit of my learning. Chapter three is titled, “Rethinking How We Do School--and for Whom.” A highlight of this chapter is a chart listing 9 statements under the heading “What We Know,” juxtaposed with 9 statements under the heading, “What We Often Do.” Although each is worthy of reflection, two jumped out at me as particularly  important when thinking about differentiated classrooms:

What We Know: Students are more diverse today than at any time in our history. Diversity is normal and beneficial. What We Often Do: We tend to see student variance as problematic.

What We Know: Labeling and sorting students has not proven effective in raising student achievement and carries a significant price in terms of student perception of their own ability and that of others. What We Often Do: We tend to prefer labeling and sorting rather than creating inclusive classrooms designed to ensure that a broad range of students learn and work well together.

There is good news about most educators reading this post: Our philosophies and actions align more with the “What We Know” statements than with the “What We Often Do Statements” above. Regarding the first point, I firmly believe that the vast majority of educators I know welcome and embrace the idea that the kids we serve are diverse learners with varying strengths and needs. As for the second statement, the push to “sift and sort” kids often comes more from the parent community than it does from those of us working in schools. In short, most educators with whom I have served know and do what is best for students. Still, doing what is best for kids in the area of creating differentiated learning environments is no easy task. Although I have known scores of educators who I consider masters in differentiation, the other day it dawned on me that I actually was raised by a master differentiator: my dad. I suspect many of you can relate to his skills in this area:

As a lifelong businessman, my dad knew nothing about the education profession; in fact, I secretly think he looked down on the field to some extent. To his credit, he never uttered a word to me that suggested this and supported my unexpected foray into this noble profession with 100% of his energy and resources. Although he may not have been a staunch supporter of public education or known a whole lot about the art and science of teaching, he definitely valued learning and instilled that love of learning within each of his children--three kids who simply could not have been more different. My brother, two years older, was (let us hope he never reads this!) not popular socially and very uncoordinated physically. He rarely caused trouble at home or school. I, on the other hand, lived for one thing only: sports. I had many friends growing up and enjoyed getting into mischief with them whenever such opportunities arose. Our sister is nine years younger than I; we adopted her when she was six weeks old. She was/is very different than either my brother or me in every way, including her physical appearance, since she is adopted.

So how was my dad--who I am confident never heard the word “differentiation” (at least as it applied to teaching and learning)--a master “differentiator?” For those of you who are children of loving parents yourselves or raising children you love as much as my dad loved the three of us, you already know the answers:

  • He knew that we were all similar in many ways, yet all very different. 

  • He accepted our differences unconditionally and did not try to force us into a single mold. 

  • He believed each of us could grow, learn, and get better every day. 

  • He encouraged us to dream big and supported our differing dreams. 

  • He knew that each of us needed his support and help and he provided that while at the same time challenging each of us to become independent. 

  • He had high--albeit differing--expectations for each of us and insisted we each meet them. 

  • And, importantly, he played to our strengths, identifying what it was about which we were passionate and encouraging continued exploration of that source of passion.

In other words, he did what so many teachers I admire do for their students every day: “What we know” is right, according to Tomlinson. He embraced our differences, accepting that as normal, and refused to label us in any way, never letting on, for instance, that one of us was smarter, better-looking, and more charming than the others (despite overwhelming evidence that I was this sibling!).

When it comes to differentiating for your students, thank you for treating them like loving parents treat their children. Respecting--and responding to--the differences of our students is another way we Teach with Passion!


  1. Jeff,

    What an enjoyable read! You had a terrific mix of educational and personal in this post. You pulled me in with the, "What We Know" and "What We Often Do" section. This is both compelling and frustrating.

    As I continued through the post I wondered about differentiation. You as an educator realize the importance of connecting with students on a personal level. That's why I also know you to believe whole heartedly in the power of building relationships. My question is, If you entered a classroom where you did not see differentiation, how would you engage the teacher in a forward moving discussion?

    I loved the personal touch Jeff! You gave me the feeling that I was sitting down to dinner with you, rather than reading this on my computer. Thanks for pushing my thinking and making me smile.


    1. Ben,
      Thank you for reading and commenting! Good question you pose; to be honest, much would depend on who the teacher was and what may have already transpired in previous observations/convos. Generally speaking, though, I would simply bring it up when appropriate as a point of reflection/discussion to listen, learn, and see if I could support in this area in any way. Appreciate your kind comments, my friend!