Decision-Making In My Differentiated Instruction

Tomlinson’s (2001, p. 19) metaphor of teacher as a coach is one that I identify with very well.  I grew up playing sports and have coached many teams at different age and skill levels, so that approach in the classroom resonates for me and probably explains much of my approach to teaching.  Both of my parents are educators and I loved art, reading, and math, learning new things, and just going to school.  I was also impatient and often bored with the traditional classroom setup and that meant I began developing my creativity and problem-solving skills in finding ways to not be bored.  So essentially I was a challenge for my teachers; I did the work they asked, I learned what they taught, and I used all the extra time beyond that entertaining myself and others and occasionally getting in trouble.  Thankfully, I discovered sports and that taught me mental discipline, focus, self-motivation, and eventually helped me to be a better student.  As an educator, I empathize with students and genuinely want them to embrace learning in their own ways.  My own experiences with “one-size-for-all teaching” motivates me to get to know my students and figure out how to make learning fun but also meaningful and rewarding.  If anything, my former teachers deserve a lot of credit for not writing me off; looking back, I think they saw potential in me despite all my shenanigans, and for that, I am grateful.

Coordinating a career exploration program for teenage girls was my focus for the last couple of years.  My typical approach is to organize and plan for a diversity of interests, skills, and needs with a variety of activities, events, and field trips.  I have program goals and participant objectives that guide me but no two program cycles ever go the same way.  Ever teacher experiences that, no two classes are the same and you inevitably make adjustments to accommodate your students.   In many ways, I thrive when things change and I have to figure out how to adjust; I’m always rethinking my process and eager to try new strategies.  I recognize that not everyone feels comfortable in that environment but I enjoy my work when I can be flexible and adapt to changing priorities or goals.

The Learning in Afterschool & Summer Project (LIA) is committed to guiding and supporting learning in afterschool and summer programs in California.  They promote five (5) principles of learning that I model in my program:

  1. Learning that is ACTIVE
  2. Learning that is COLLABORATIVE
  3. Learning that is MEANINGFUL
  4. Learning that SUPPORTS MASTERY
  5. Learning that EXPANDS HORIZONS

As a program coordinator, I try to model a love of learning, transparency, and respect.  I think that stems in part from my educational experiences, including college and professional development trainings or workshops;  I enjoy collaborating with others and being challenged to continuously learn new skills and creatively solve problems.  I make decisions in my program because I try to cultivate a learning environment where students enjoy learning for themselves, support others to learn, and are challenged to try new ideas and ways of learning.

I consider my observations and interactions with students, I am transparent about my process and include students in decision-making when it is appropriate.  It is important for me that students perceive me as fair and flexible in how I organize and structure the program.  I want to model consensus-building and decision-making processes that accommodate their needs but also challenge them to step out of their comfort zone and consider their own responsibility for their learning and the impact they have on the group.

There are many times throughout the program that I disagree with students about their ideas or choices in process or product; I’ve learned that sometimes they need to test their theories and I have to acknowledge that they are taking ownership over their learning.  This is risky and can be messy and confusing for some (and frustrating for me); but it also lets me support students to take risks in learning and trying new ideas.  At the beginning of the program, we create a community or group agreement about how we want to “be” in the program and how we want to interact with others.  I add what is important for me in my role and students add what they want, we continually revisit this agreement to ensure we are each upholding our shared commitment.  More often than not, some of us will disagree about how we interpret the agreement or with how I choose to implement or enforce the agreement, and we usually have to discuss what this means for us moving forward and how we want to revise it.  I usually tell students that I intervene in my role as program coordinator if physical, intellectual, or emotional safety is threatened in any way for an individual or the group.  Giving and receiving constructive feedback is also an important part of our learning in the program and we try to get comfortable with making mistakes and not letting those mistakes define us or our learning experience.  This is certainly not easy for teenage girls (or adults), so I have learned to be transparent about my decision-making and planning process, and to expect more from students then they expect of themselves.

I found myself watching a lot of videos on the Teaching Channel, but this one I shared in our twitter session, was inspiring for me: Differentiation in Math Using Computer Games.  This teacher probably didn’t instantly have it all figured out how to differentiate or be able to integrate technology overnight, but his persistence and commitment to his students’ learning helped him to advocate for technology that enables him to differentiate instruction for his students.  As teachers, we need to be brave and step out of our comfort zone to integrate new ideas, strategies, and tools into our practice, so students can be better prepared to innovate, creatively solve-problems, and direct their own learning as they figure out who and how they want to be in society.

I also stumbled upon this google site:  STEM Curriculum Resources by Dr. Wesley Fryer because I wanted to find more examples of teachers using MinecraftEdu.  This teacher compiles lessons and resources on various STEM tools that can be used in the classroom, an awesome resource!

I made my concept map using the program, of a teacher’s tools in differentiated instruction – methods, best practices, and how to learn more about DI:

DI Concept Map by @rockislandgirl8 Jan 2015

References and Resources:

Bubbl – concept mapping software (

Fryer, W.  STEM Curriculum Resources by Dr. Wesley.  Google Site:

Learning in Afterschool & Summer Project (LIA)  Retrieved from:

McCarthy, J.  (July 23, 2014).  3 Ways to Plan for Diverse Learners:  What Teachers Do.  Retrieved from:

Methods of Differentiation in the Classroom.  2010.  BBC Active, Educational Publishers.  Retrieved from:

Pronovost, R.  Video:  Differentiating in Math using Computer Games.  Teaching Channel.  Retrieved on January 25, 2015 from

Tomlinson, C.A.  (2001).  How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, 2nd Ed.  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD):  Alexandria.

2 thoughts on “Decision-Making In My Differentiated Instruction

  1. Mia! Nice post! I also had my share of shenanigans growing up…. go figure. I like your concept map. There is a lot of great stuff on there. I agree that it is important for students to take ownership of their learning and that can be messy especially in 4th grade. I find that a lot of students a purely motivated by grades, which is a bummer because grades, as they are now, don’t say much about progress or specific learning. I think the most important thing for me growing up was the realization that taking pride in what you do is important. If you aren’t going to do it right, don’t bother because when you aren’t physically present it is your work stepping in on your behalf.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mia,
    It’s always great hearing when a teacher was a difficult student as a child. You have so much to offer students that struggle, you can relate to their situations. I agree with the sport aspect, I was the same way. I loved to play volleyball, and would do anything to continue to do so. As a teacher, I think that we should all thrive in change. We are constant learners, so we should be constantly changing the way we teach, view/approach things as time progresses forward. Great blog this week Mia! Loved your concept map!

    Liked by 1 person

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