by MAGGIE THELEN
Principal, Cannonsburg Elementary
Gifted & Talented Coordinator
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”-Henry David Thoreau
By nature, every student who crosses the classroom threshold requires a distinct and diverse educational plan. While our state sets the outcomes for our children, it’s the teachers alone who create the plan to help students meet those outcomes. Or, for the student who has already learned the content, the onus rests on the teacher to present new opportunities. This process is termed differentiation, and it’s how every teacher, coach and mentor meets the individual needs of pupils.
What is differentiation? It’s a new term for a tried and true educational method. Differentiation is simply meeting the student at their readiness level; in other words, teaching students, not teaching content. “One size fits all” has never been a philosophy to which Rockford teachers have subscribed.
Imagine a piano teacher who planned the same lessons for all first-year piano students, neglecting to acknowledge or plan for those students who have natural talents, previous musical training, or difficulties. It’s not hard to see how ineffective those lessons would be for the majority of the students, because readiness was not considered. While anecdotal evidence abounds regarding the effectiveness of differentiation, research is confirming this premise, as well.
A noted expert in the area of differentiation, Carol Ann Tomlinson, writes: From a very young age, children understand some of us are good with kicking a ball, some with telling funny stories, some with manipulating numbers, and some with making people feel happy. They understand that some of us struggle with reading words from the page, others with keeping tempers in check, still others with arms or legs that are weak. Children seem to accept a world in which we are not alike. They do not quest for sameness, but they search for the sense of triumph that comes when they are respected, valued, nurtured, and even cajoled into accomplishing things they believed beyond their grasp.
The immensity of this task for teachers is considerable. To meet the needs of all Rockford students, teachers meet weekly before school hours in Professional Learning Communities (PLC) to examine teaching practices and how they can be refined to best meet the needs of the struggling and advanced learner. Collaborating with regular education teachers during PLC meetings, special education and gifted education personnel provide additional resources and strategies to address the needs of special populations.
As we witness our state and nation going through economic turmoil, we cannot stand idle as advocates for our children and the children of our community. Celebrate the differentiation you see in your child’s classroom, advocate for differentiation for our community’s children, and convince our legislators of the need for appropriate legislation and adequate funding to meet the needs of kids, both struggling and advanced. We’d never expect every child to have the same batting average, nor would we coach them in exactly the same manner. No less consideration should ever be afforded our children.