News

2022

  • October

    Brandeis 2023

    Jenny Rinn
    What is Differentiated Instruction at Brandeis? 

    by Jenny Rinn, Director of Lower School

    What do you think about when you hear the term “differentiated instruction”? When I asked this question to a group of prospective parents last year, answers included everything from small groupings, to meeting children where they are to individualized instruction. Differentiated instruction is a teaching approach that adapts instruction to meet students’ learning needs within a range. Imagine a classroom comprised of an array of unique students with distinct differences. Students have varying strengths, growth areas, styles, preferences, and interests, and differentiating instruction is a way of appealing to the diverse learners in a class. It’s not individualization, but rather a strategy for meeting the needs of a collective group of different learners.

    To make this relatable to you as parents, I’ll compare it to making dinner. How many of you have had the pleasure of making a meal for your children only to place it in front of them and have one or more of them respond with, “I don’t like that.”? If your family is like mine, I bet you sometimes struggle to find something you can make that will please everyone and also meet the needs of everyone’s food sensitivities and allergies. The goal is not for you to make individual meals for each member of your family, but to find one meal that everyone can eat. Similarly, teachers can plan lessons that are accessible to all the students in their classroom, and teachers at The Brandeis School of San Franciso do just that.

    So, how do we do it? At Brandeis, we consider two factors: multiple entry points and low-floor/high-ceiling activities. Pay attention because I’m going to make you apply this concept to dinner in a minute. 
    To make this relatable to you as parents, I’ll compare it to making dinner. How many of you have had the pleasure of making a meal for your children only to place it in front of them and have one or more of them respond with, “I don’t like that.”? If your family is like mine, I bet you sometimes struggle to find something you can make that will please everyone and also meet the needs of everyone’s food sensitivities and allergies. The goal is not for you to make individual meals for each member of your family, but to find one meal that everyone can eat. Similarly, teachers can plan lessons that are accessible to all the students in their classroom, and teachers at The Brandeis School of San Franciso do just that.

    What are multiple entry points? Every student who comes into Brandeis has personal experiences, interests, and abilities that they access to make learning seem relevant, purposeful, and engaging. Knowing how a child processes information and makes meaning helps teachers to plan lessons that provide an entry point for each student. For example, some students are more concrete and need to put their hands on materials in order to make sense of what they are learning. Some students are verbal, they need to talk to make sense of the world. Symbolic learners like to sort, categorize, label, and define to create order to understand the relationships between pieces of new information. Visual learners like to see information in order to understand. Contextual learners need a story for learning to be relevant and meaningful. 

    What is a low-floor activity? It’s exactly how it sounds - it’s a way to engage in the lesson that makes it feel easy. Lessons with low floors provide access to all students, engagement, and positive classroom culture because everyone feels successful. Here is a great example of a low-floor activity for building number sense. Look at the number line. 
    Answers will vary (There’s a blue dot in the middle. Odd numbers are red. Even numbers are blue. Zero is black because it’s not even or odd. The half marks are blue, and quarter marks are green.) but there will be many correct answers. We’ll come back to this number line in a minute.

    What is a high-ceiling activity? Lessons with high ceilings add layers of depth and complexity - looking for patterns, thinking across disciplines, considering multiple perspectives, and pondering ethics -  leaving learners with unanswered questions. These lessons provide students with challenge, sophisticated process skills, and a high level of thinking to inspire students to learn. So let’s take another look at dthat number line and compare it to two additional number lines.


    Answers could range from: There is a blue dot in the center of each number line (low floor) to between the 1st and the 2nd number line there is a +10 and between the 2nd and the 3rd number line there is a x 10 (high ceiling).

    Looking for patterns between the number lines adds a layer of complexity to the problem, making it a high-ceiling activity. The wonders leave you with unanswered questions, an invitation to think further.

    So, what does a low floor/high ceiling activity with multiple entry points look like in literacy at Brandeis? Here is a third-grade lit circle, a book club discussing Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell. Lit circles are mixed-ability groups that meet once a week to talk about books with the goal of fostering the love of reading and promoting literary discourse. Lit circles happen in 2nd-4th grades. The entry points into this activity are verbal and contextual. The questions, the first being a low-floor question and the second a high-ceiling question, promote discourse about ethics and multiple perspectives. The readers were left with unanswered questions to ponder.

    Here you see three teachers in one first-grade classroom working with individual students and small groups to develop reading skills. On the top left, Doug is helping students learn sound/symbol correspondence by using picture cards to appeal to their concrete and visual needs. On the bottom left, Mr. Samuels is reading a book one-on-one with a student who processes by talking. Their conversation helps her build meaning without disrupting other students’ thinking. And on the right, Ms. Adler is providing a contextual experience through a reader’s theatre with a group of students who are already reading. While each group has different entry points and levels of reading proficiency, all of the students are being challenged to learn the higher-order rules of phonics and consider multiple perspectives of their fellow students and characters in the stories.
    And what does this look like in math? Here are third-graders playing a game with their teacher in a small group. This is an introduction to probability that requires students to apply multiplication skills. The entry points are verbal and concrete, and low floor is a simple dice game that requires addition up to 12 and multiplication using multiples of 5.

    The high ceiling is searching for patterns. The probability one will roll a 6, 7, or 8 is higher, so students learn to attribute more points to those numbers.
    Fourth grade alternates between inquiry-based math units and self-paced skill building. Here you see students working on multiplication and division skills at their own pace and level through an interactive platform called Zearn, by solving problems using paper and pencil, and working in a small group with teachers. Multiple modalities appeal to visual, verbal, and symbolic thinking, and those ready for a challenge are discovering mathematical patterns and rules, and using language of the mathematical discipline such as “prime and composite numbers.”

    How does differentiation impact the social-emotional needs of our students? By providing accessibility to lessons through multiple entry points and offering low-floor/high-ceiling activities. it eases students’ stress around learning, improves students’ self-concept, fosters a growth mindset, and creates a positive classroom environment where everyone is valued just as they are.

    At Brandeis, we are committed to developing a deep love of learning in every student. This model is designed so that students can thrive in an academically challenging environment.

    Now, back to that dinner preparation…do you have an idea in your head? If not, I suggest pizza. Gluten-free crusts, vegan cheese, and a variety of toppings can help you manage the food sensitivities and allergies in your household. And, with easy low-floor options - just plain cheese - and high-ceiling possibilities - white pizza with shaved vegetables and fennel - you are certain to offer entry points to epicureans of all taste, texture, and aroma predilections.
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