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Providing Differentiated Instruction for Students With Special Needs - Martha's Story

written by: Barbara • edited by: Amanda Grove • updated: 6/11/2012

Ms. Clemens has worked diligently in her Algebra classroom to incorporate differentiated instructional strategies for her students that include cooperative learning, readiness assessments and interesting math projects. For Martha, math has become a class of access and success, her favorite class.

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    We'll take a look at a couple of different scenarios demonstrating Mrs. Clemen's successful approach to teaching Martha using differentiated instruction. You can take these examples and try them with your own students.

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    Scenario 1) Charting For Success

    When Ms. Clemens proposed to her 9th grade Algebra class that each student would take responsibility for charting their academic progress in her class, the students were a mixture of emotions and verbal outbursts. For some, the thought of connecting their academic learning with charting their academic grades was a foreign concept.

    “Wasn’t that the teacher’s job?” a few students asked in the beginning.

    For others, the idea that their work wasn’t a constant comparison with their peers was just plain weird.

    “But Ms. Clemens how will everyone know that I’m the smartest student in this class if you don’t make everyone share their math grades,” Laney said holding up her notebook that said “Superior Student” on the front cover.

    For Timothy, the idea that he could work on a challenge math project in addition to his classroom work made him feel like he was finally being provided the opportunity to incorporate interest of math into an interesting math project.

    “I love my math project on cubes and squares in problem-solving algebra expressions,” Timothy said working on another cube problem that he created to show how the application of a carefully constructed algebraic expression could provide the perfect solution for any problem involving cubes and squares.

    For Martha, the ability to work on improving her math skills from a 7th grade level to her current 9th grade level by focusing on closing defined mathematical gaps from her IEP was the highlight of her 5 week progress report. The “B” grade was merely icing on the cake.

    Ms. Clemens has incorporated a variety of instructional strategies in her Algebra classroom. By looking at the readiness of her students and aligning student interest with math content and providing cooperative learning experiences in her classroom, Ms. Clemens has created a differentiated learning environment for all of her Algebra math students. For Martha, Laney and Timothy, differentiated instruction in their learning rocks and is quickly closing the achievement gap in math for each of them.

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    Scenario 2) A Math Learning Example

    Ms. Clemens shows students what differentiated instruction looks like in the math classroom and in her instruction.

    “Okay class, we will start this year by becoming partners as you learn about Algebra and its real life applications. Each of you learns differently and will process your newly acquired math concepts at different academic rates. You are individuals in your own learning and academically you will perform according to your individual abilities to apply and analyze the new math concepts you will learn during the school year,” Ms. Clemens said addressing her 9 grade students.

    “Well, if it’s alright with you Ms. Clemens, I don’t want to be psycho-analyzed this year. I just want to get an A in Algebra I so that I can take AP Calculus when I’m a senior,” Laney, an APP (Advance Placement Program) student from middle school said in a teenage huff.

    “Oh, be quiet, Ms. Brainiac,” Marvin teased her from across the classroom.

    “Could everyone just chill out,” Martha said from her seat near the window. “I want to…I need to hear what Ms. Clemens is saying, I’m no good at math and I need all the help I can get.”

    Ms. Clemens waited at the front of the classroom for the conversation to cease before she continued. Thirty seconds later, she spoke to the students who had expressed concerns and to the entire class.

    “Laney, Marvin and Martha, you and your classmates will enjoy your classroom experience this year. You will become your own psychoanalysts in reflecting on your academic performance and actually charting your work.”

    “How?” Clancy asked from the back row.

    “Let’s start with your first assignment,” Ms. Clemens said handing out a pre-assessment basic math quiz. “You have 20 minutes to complete this quiz and then as a class we will correct the quiz and that will be your first score for your notebook.”

    "But Ms. Clemens, I need more than 20 minutes. I'm going to fail my first test. It's just not fair," Martha yelled out into the classroom.

    "Martha, it's okay. With differentiated instruction, you and your classmates who need extra time can have extra time to complete the quiz," Ms. Clemens said as the class started their first assessment.

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    Results - Student/Teacher Conference

    Martha is excelling in Ms. Clemen's math class because of differentiated instruction that Ms. Clemens has individualized to meet Martha's learning needs. Join Martha and Ms. Clemens for a special student/teacher conference.

    “Ms. Clemens, it’s time for our conference,” Martha said tentatively as she approached the desk.

    “Do you have your notebook with your academic graphs,” Ms. Clemens asked pointing to the chair next to her desk.

    “Yes, ma’am, it’s right here.” Martha put the notebook on the corner of the desk and two sheets of graph paper dropped to the floor.

    “These are perfect, Martha,” Ms. Clemens said looking at her differently colored bar graphs that charted 5 weeks of grades that included weekly mastery tests, two group projects and 3x weekly homework assignments. It was clear from Martha’s graphs and her meticulous pages of grades with reflection notes that she had surpassed her IEP (Individual Education Plan) diagnostic math testing of 7th grade math skills. Martha was excelling in Algebra on the 9th grade level.

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    What Does Differentiated Instruction Look Like?

    “Okay class, we will start this year by becoming partners as you learn about Algebra and its real life applications. Each of you learns differently and will process your newly acquired math concepts at different academic rates. You are individuals in your own learning and academically you will perform according to your individual abilities to apply and analyze the new math concepts you will learn during the school year,” Ms. Clemens said addressing her 9 grade students.

    “Well, if it’s alright with you Ms. Clemens, I don’t want to be psycho-analyzed this year. I just want to get an A in Algebra I so that I can take AP Calculus when I’m a senior,” Laney, an APP (Advance Placement Program) student from middle school said in a teenage huff.

    “Oh, be quiet, Ms. Brainiac,” Marvin teased her from across the classroom.

    “Could everyone just chill out,” Martha said from her seat near the window. “I want to…I need to hear what Ms. Clemens is saying, I’m no good at math and I need all the help I can get.”

    Ms. Clemens waited at the front of the classroom for the conversation to cease before she continued. Thirty seconds later, she spoke to the students who had expressed concerns and to the entire class.

    “Laney, Marvin and Martha, you and your classmates will enjoy your classroom experience this year. You will become your own psychoanalysts in reflecting on your academic performance and actually charting your work.”

    “How?” Clancy asked from the back row.

    “Let’s start with your first assignment,” Ms. Clemens said handing out a pre-assessment basic math quiz. “You have 20 minutes to complete this quiz and then as a class we will correct the quiz and that will be your first score for your notebook.”

    "But Ms. Clemens, I need more than 20 minutes. I'm going to fail my first test. It's just not fair," Martha yelled out into the classroom.

    "Martha, it's okay. With differentiated instruction, you and your classmates who need extra time can have extra time to complete the quiz," Ms. Clemens said as the class started their first assessment.