Differentiation in Middle Division

The joy of middle school is the ever-changing landscape of its students.  The adolescent learner is navigating the greatest amount of change since infancy: brain changes, physical changes, and social/emotional changes.  The needs of each learner are unique and on a continual roller coaster of mountains, valleys, twists, and turns.  Middle School teachers, then, must rely on the principles of differentiation to reach each learner and meet them where they are.  Teachers must continually ask themselves, “What does this student need at this moment in order to be able to progress with this key content, and what do I need to do to make that happen?” (Tomlinson). Our advisory program, looked at in last month’s newsletter, lays a solid foundation for teachers and students to form the relationships and understanding of each other that is essential to the success of differentiated instruction, ensuring that teachers know what each student needs to succeed.

Looking at any Marburn Middle Division Classroom, I see differentiation taking place in all facets: Environment, Content, Process, and Product.

In creating a differentiated environment, teachers arrange their rooms with table groups and partner desks. The space is easily shifted for various activities, and does not always conform to the traditional “rows of desks, teacher in the front”. Teacher proximity is used to support students as they work, and the benefit of a second teacher provides additional structure and help for accessing content and assisting students with questioning and analysis.

Content areas frequently front load vocabulary and provide multiple modes for utilizing a Frayer model.  This model provides examples, non-examples, student definitions, and key characteristics – different ways of thinking about the same word – to ensure that all students have a window into understanding. Teachers provide annotated articles as a scaffold for understanding text and often utilize text at a variety of reading levels and ways to hear text read aloud so that all students can comfortably access key information.

In the instructional process, use of Jigsaws, an approach where students are responsible for gathering information and then sharing out in a structured way, gives students multiple ways and chances to internalize information. Opportunities for independent studies when students have a particular interest in a subject or have demonstrated understanding of key concepts in a unit allow chances to extend learning. Student choice in their work environment – choices to work alone, with a partner, or in a small group – are frequent options.  Writer’s Workshop in Language Arts classes gives students the chance to use their time flexibly, allowing them to spend time on projects as needed. Mini-workshops on specific skill concepts are also features of this model.

Students are often given various ways to demonstrate understanding through products. Student choice within projects allows students to demonstrate their understanding utilizing areas of personal strength. Offering portfolio-based assessments, where student skills are demonstrated through a body of work rather than a single assignment, appear in some language arts classes. Teachers and students working together in conferences allow teachers to help students focus on individual areas of strength and challenge and structure scaffolds based on student independence.


Kristen Huenemann
Head of Middle Division