Classroom Management Differentiation in Instruction

What is Differentiated Instruction in Writing? How to Know.

Differentiation in Writing and your Classroom Management Plan

Have you ever heard (or said yourself 😉) “But my students could never work quietly like that!”? Me too!  🥴. As teachers it is often during those times we are learning about the facets of what is differentiated instruction.

And our beliefs in this area can be the roadblock to answering what is differentiated instruction in writing because we believe the suggestions won’t work in our classroom.  

Mary Shea of Canisius College, in her article “Differentiating Writing Instruction: Meeting the Divers Needs of Authors in a Classroom”  in the Journal of Inquiry and Action in Education, 6(2),2015, “Differentiating …. calls for effective classroom management — another topic in itself.”

So, if it is you are struggling with a growth mindset in this area, there may be a few tips in this blog post that will help.  Otherwise . . . 

First, I encourage you to read my original blog post on “What is Classroom Management?” to understand the pillars of classroom management strategies that I share in posts throughout my blog. 

Then  I encourage you to download my FREE “Engage the Energy! 5 Pillars for Calming the Classroom Chaos Checklist”  This checklist will help you to assess what you already have successfully implemented. Additionally, there is room for you to do some goal-setting next steps.  

Effective small-group instruction and student collaboration will depend upon your classroom management plan and effective classroom management techniques.

Next up . . . meaningful work!

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Differentiation in instruction and classroom management techniques are essential to each other.

Authentic opportunities for differentiation in writing are essential. 

I taught one little girl whose writing, reading and spelling all improved drastically just because she regularly created books for her little sister.  The contents were just about what was important to her in her life.  

I know that she entered my class as a poor writer and left at grade level, and all of those books just meant she was writing for fun in her free time.

So, what is differentiated instruction in writing as far as creating engagement?

Children’s writing is a reflection of things that are important to them whether those events are real or imagined.  They can also write about favourite or influential stories they have read or heard. 

Students also write to report what they’ve learned from research, activities, or experience. Nonfiction writing topics tied to your current science theme just makes sense.

Student engagement in writing means we, as teachers, need to understand that writing is about composing first and all of the other stuff ( grammar, handwriting, spelling, sentence structure) second. If students become overwhelmed by the latter, they can lose heart for their message.

When teachers put function (letting students communicate what is on their hearts), ahead of form (grammar etc.) students are more engaged. 

Authentic opportunities to write are essential to create strong writers. So, what is differentiated instruction writing authenticity?

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When looking for the effectiveness of differentiated instruction examples, engaged classrooms are evidence of effectiveness. Join me at Engaging Curiosity to read more, or save now to read later.

Authenticity as a part of what is differentiation in the classroom for writing

  1. Letter writing
    1. Holidays such as Christmas, Valentines, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day 
    2. Different levels of government during Social Studies
    3. Environmental groups during Science
    4. Thank you letters for field trips or to classroom visitors.
  2. Non-fiction
    1. Research writing for Science and Social Studies
    2. Notes for scientific observations
    3. Notes for interviews with classroom visitors
    4. Collaborative class book for  year-end memories
  3. Narrative
    1. Getting to know you topics for beginning of the year
    2. Reflections after every school break
    3. Positive memories
    4. Personal challenges leading to overcoming and success
  4. Poetry
    1. Seasonal changes
    2. Celebrations
    3. Holidays such as Christmas, Valentines, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day
    4. Themes such as camping etc. including shape poems, haikus, acrostic, free verse. Have students choose a different camping topic for each poem (ie. tenting, bonfires, cooking, hiking etc.).  
  5. Descriptive writing
    1. Describe a halloween costume, a gift, book or game without naming it. A partner must be able to guess it in 5 guesses or less.
    2. Go outside on a walk, and describe something they see, hear or smell, and have a partner identify it or draw it.
  6. How-to writing
    1. Do a STEM activity, then have them describe how to build it
    2. Give a simple cooking class (ie. fruit salad, apple sauce, sandwiches, gingerbread cookie decorating), and have them detail the steps.
  7. Fiction
    1. Build a model on a seasonal theme. For example, read Jan Brett’s “Gingerbread Baby”, or “Gingerbread Friends”  to the class. Have them create their own “Gingerbread …” story with Lego or other materials, lastly, give them a real gingerbread cookie in their model, and take a picture for their story.  If you have the patience and time, it is great fun to do a beginning, middle and end picture, which, when combined with the writing make lovely illustrations for a book for the students.  Or you could just have them draw what they have built. 
    2. Writing for a reading genre theme.  Similar to above, but the focus is on what genre you are studying. If you are studying fairy tales, have them create a model for fairy tales. Are you reading them some sci-fi, have them create a sci-fi model. Studying fables, have them create a fable model.
  8. List building
    1. Tie  lists into your SEL instruction by creating a list of self-calming techniques
    2. Have students create personal goals for instructions and prioritize them in a list
    3. Are they struggling with transitions? Have EVERYONE write the steps for transition, compare them, flesh them out, and create one class list for the board.
    4. What will they need to remember from home for their upcoming field trip – rain boots, snack, water bottle, sunscreen, pencil, paper and clipboard.
    5. On a field trip, have them list 5 new things they learned as a reflection.
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I love to incorporate play based learning, and including provocations such as lego into writing time is a great example. By incorporating provocations and model building we touch on multiple parts of the “Process” portion of differentiating.

Next Up for Differentiating in Writing is Formative Assessment 

So what is differentiated instruction in writing when we come to assessing for the purpose of  planning?

For some reason “assessment” has become synonymous with “data collection” in the form of little numbers in columns on a page.  

Although it is true that assessment is data collection, the type of formative assessment that you get from a writing conference has always felt to me more like having a beautiful quiet moment of connection and celebration with a student about their writing.

My first words are positive feedback on their writing. This can be anything from their effort, creativity or engagement, to their beautiful printing, improvement in spelling, or creative topic. 

Even students who have sat in their seats, stuck, and not writing much, can be congratulated for not being a distraction to others. I wouldn’t say it like that, of course.  

I would say something like, “Wow, I know from how quiet you have been, that you have been trying to focus and do your job, but you seem to be a little stuck. Let’s see if we can get you restarted.”

Of course, they may not have been sitting at their desk and trying to focus and do their job, but assuming the best is always a good strategy.  Assuming the best sets the stage for an open conference and provides the groundwork for a fresh start.

For more information on that see my blog post on positive behavioural reinforcement.

As we work together, I lean into what the student is saying, and we come up with a goal together.  

Once we have come up with a goal together, I put my initials at the end of the last word they have written. I explain that this will help us both to know how effective our work together has been. 

This also prevents disagreement about how much work has been done in the interim and provides a visual reminder of what we need to check in on.

Using Assessments to Decide What is Differentiated Instruction.

Of course, not all writing conferences will be like this one, and that is the purpose of writing conferences. By meeting with students one-on-one we support the students as they create their independent writing goals because choice and goal setting is a part of what is differentiated instruction.

This brief assessment has also left me with more questions than answers. Is the student disengaged? Poorly focused? Disinterested in the topic? Sick? Lacking confidence? Overwhelmed?

However, it is also a starting point.  If this is the first writing conference I will pursue those questions over time. Some of the answers may even become evident over the course of the school day. 

If these questions arise in the middle of the year I may discover this genre is not to their taste, and perhaps I need to find a mentor text that will create engagement.  

Perhaps Mum or Dad is out of town for a few days, so the child just needs a little bit more emotional support overall.

Perhaps cousins were in town and the student is tired. Or their best friend didn’t want to play at recess.

If it turns out that something traumatic has happened, or they are ill, use your discretion, judgement and compassion.  

Is writing still an objective today?  Or do you suggest they rest quietly at their desk and make an appointment for the next day or whenever is most appropriate for you to set a writing goal together?

As a side note, I have taught students who have been significantly traumatised.  Some of them want normalcy, and find relief in their work. Others do not. You will not necessarily get all of that information from your conference, but it will still help you to follow their lead. 

My point is that even when there is no writing on the paper, there is lots of information to be mined from this writing conference.  With the student, you then plan the next step for their writing, together. 

Hence, the value of formative assessment.  Otherwise known as data collection. 😁

Formative assessment is the guiding light to what is differentiated instruction.

And, of course, you will keep anecdotal notes somewhere in an orderly fashion to help you to track your students. 

Anecdotal notes are really outside of the scope of this blog, but this post here from Crafting Comprehension will provide you with some ideas on how to take anecdotal notes.

What Am I Writing Notes About? 

There are a myriad of skills, ways and times to write notes.

First of all, you will also want to be checking their actual writing skills. 

There are many, many places that offer rubrics and checklists for writing. However, I encourage you to check with your administrator or colleagues if you haven’t already done so.  

Consistency of language and expectations is key.  Otherwise it is no wonder parents ask, “Why was my child marked higher by last year’s teacher?” There are very few good answers to that question.

If there is no consistency in your school,  look into local, then provincial or state expectations.

Here in British Columbia, Canada we have provincially created rubrics to guide us.I love these because they also provide student writing samples that I can use to compare to my students’ writing.

 I typically printed out the rubrics, and used a different colour highlighter each semester to identify what I had seen over the course of time in the student’s writing.

Of course, in addition to assessing skills you are assessing other aspects of the student’s work in the writing workshop as discussed above in formative assessments. 

What is the Purpose of Your Note for a Differentiation in Classroom Strategy?

  • Are you making a public note, something that you tell the student you are writing down that encourages them as well as documenting that moment in time for you?
  • Is it a private note in which you express a question or concern you want to follow up on later?
  • Are you documenting an idea that the conference brought to mind that would enhance writing workshop?

From time-to-time I have reviewed notes, and from my notes over time  I get a picture of student growth. 

Perhaps the student writes better when responding to a prompt.  Writing prompts can be very effective for a lot of students.

Other students may be more engaged and productive  when told to write a story within a genre.  For instance, if you are doing a unit on Fairy Tales.

An essential part of what is differentiated instruction is knowing your students and including their interests and their choices.  Your observations will help to compile these ideas.

Applying your notes to what is differentiating in writing

This is actually the fun part!  However, it sounds dry to start. If you haven’t already started to implement the essentials of differentiation as laid out by the four pillars of differentiation. 

These have been determined by Carol Tomlinson, a leader in the concept of differentiation in instruction. Carol is a  professor of educational leadership, foundations, and policy at the University of Virginia. 

The pillars are: 

  1. Content
  2. Process
  3. Product
  4. Learning Environment

I write in greater detail about these in the blog post that I wrote on differentiation.  And more specifically to what is differentiation in teaching writing on this blog post.

I say this is the fun part, because I found a lot of freedom to create a vibrant class as I grew to understand differentiation. For me it meant that I had the freedom, and responsibility, to incorporate play based learning into writing workshop. 

By incorporating provocations into my class my students understood writing to be about sharing their excitement about their imagination with the people around them.

By incorporating peer editing, writing became a social activity and community building. There ain’t nuthin’ better than sharing our story with a friend.  

And, with proper instruction and support, there ain’t nuthin’ better for social emotional learning than teaching children to give and receive appropriate feedback to and from others. 💚

By providing  tools such as anchor charts, andr personal dictionaries I extended the Zone of Proximal Development for some. 

Do they work better at a desk facing a wall to help them focus? 

As mentioned above, I have written more extensively on this on this blog post, and I encourage you to check that out.

Six step  summary of what is differentiated instruction In writing.

The steps are simple:

  1. Jump in with two feet.  
  2. You, and your students, can do this.  If you are not sure about that, tweak your classroom management.  Differentiation of instruction and your classroom management techniques go hand-in-hand. If you aren’t sure what to tweak, download my checklist.
  3. Provide engaging and authentic opportunities for writing. If you are struggling with “all the things” I suggest writing prompts. I have created Monthy Journal Writing Prompts which you can find in my store .They support differentiation by:
  • by offering the same prompt to each student for inclusiveness.
  • supporting authentic writing opportunities by:
    • allowing them to choose their writing prompt
    • providing open-ended writing prompts 
  • including a small image included to provide a simple, on-the-page provocation.
  • partnering very well with lego or other modelling materials to support the hands on learners.
  • coming with a separate editing checklist with visual cues to support your students without cluttering the page.
  • backsides for each level of writing paper to encourage more writing.
  • 4 different developmental levels of writing paper per prompt to allow for different levels of challenge:
    • Level one – for students who are only yet able to draw, or perhaps draw and label.
    • Level two – wide interlined paper for students who need support with their letter formation. Not too many lines though to prevent the overwhelm.
    • Level three – the lines are closer together for more writing space, but there is still an interline to support letter formation. 
    • Level four – the lines are the same width as level three but without the interline. These students are transitioning to fluent.
  1. Complete your formative assessments 
  2. Use your notes and get to know your students!
  3. Apply what you have learned, but not all at once because that is overwhelming. 

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and, because you are a phenomenal teacher, you already know you will be growing and learning throughout your career.  Take this one step at a time.

The first 5 years of teaching are a LOT.  But every step you take makes it easier.  

You’ve got this!

Ready, set, . . .  go! 🫶

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Providing differentiated writing prompts to your students can support students at their different developmental writing levels. They are not the whole answer, but they can significantly contribute towards student improvement. Find the Writing Prompts Bundle here. Or find a writing prompts sample here.

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