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Responding to the Needs of Diverse Learners

by Patricia O'Connor

Diverse Learners
Reading List
Application and Examples
The Differentiated Classroom
Bringing Change to Your Classroom
Honors Students
Conclusion and Last Thoughts


Reading List
General Educational Goals
General Educational Goals Development
Revolution Unit: Objectives
Revolution Unit: Group Instructions
Revolution Unit: Guidelines for Literature and Writing
Revolution Unit: Rubric
Immigration Unit: Objectives
Immigration Unit: Group Instructions
Immigration Unit: Oral History Project
Honors Contract


When I was a little girl, my mother told me stories about when she was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. I was at the time one of the many post-war baby boomers, attending a suburban Detroit elementary school with eight kindergartens in one building. I had little understanding of what it would have been like to attend a one-room school in Kansas.

I was most interested in how my mom walked to school early every morning to stoke up the wood stove before the children arrived. And I also liked hearing about how my four-foot-ten-inch mother managed those big, rough farm boys. I do not remember being terribly interested in how she taught a multi-age, multi-gender, multi-ability, and multi-interest group of very diverse students.

Today, as I begin my 29th year of teaching, my greatest teaching challenge is meeting the needs of my very diverse students, even though I teach in a setting that is far more homogeneous than that of my mother and a whole generation of one-room schoolhouse teachers.

I wonder if they debated whether or not all of their students deserved equal attention, resources, and quality of teaching. I suspect that some of these teachers, educated during the heyday of John Dewey, would have found our debates about homogeneous/ heterogeneous classes silly.

However, it would be only fair to admit that teaching today is a bit more complicated.

We are asked to do everything from educating and getting the nation's children ready for the world of work, higher education, global citizenship, sexual responsibility, intelligent consumerism, to remembering that they come to school hungry, lacking sleep, unfamiliar with functional families, and sometimes even homeless. And now we are faced with the specter of more and more high-stakes state and national standardized testing responsibilities and accountabilities.

What are we and our children supposed to do? I believe those early one-room schoolhouse teachers would tell us to simply to teach the children.

Ah… We can breathe a sigh of relief. All we really have to do is teach our children. All of our children. That is the ethical, and moral, and in some cases legal, imperative. Teach all of our children. How simple.

Well, it is simple, and it isn't. Once the imperative is lodged in your heart, that all children deserve to have a good education, the rest is just logistics, but logistics that are complicated and often difficult to manage. So let's take a look at how and why we should do this in an inclusive, heterogeneous setting. And for efficiency, let's label this kind of teaching differentiating your instruction.


If you teach in a progressive elementary or middle school, it is likely that you already differentiate your instruction—working to teach a heterogeneous mix of students that includes mainstreamed special education students, a mixture of "average" kids, and a sprinkling of what we sometimes refer to as "the gifted."

If you are a high school teacher, it is likely that you are teaching in a school that tracks students into ability levels such as low, medium, high, or basic, general, college prep., honors. And the choice of labels goes on and on.


There are many ways that schools designate what "track" a student should be in while attaining a high school education. But there are some significant basic truths about schools that practice tracking, including the elementary and middle schools or junior highs where this is still practiced.

One basic truth is that once a student is placed in one of the tracks, he or she seldom moves to another one. If movement does occur, it is traditionally down. The highest track of students is often assigned the most adept and experienced teachers. And as a teacher in a complex and often volatile world, I fearfully acknowledge what studies are telling us about our past tracking of our children. Tracking has had a tendency to create alienation, elitism, and intolerance.


Because there is so much evidence and material written to support de-tracking our schools, I am including a very short reading list that can be followed over the course of one school year.

These works are written in a manner that makes them easy to read and refer to. Every one of them raised my pulse rate and made my heart beat faster. What more could you ask for in a good read? They made me excited about teaching and encouraged me to do better.

For me, the practical applications and justification for de-tracking all come from this bibliography, my years of teaching experience, and my mother. It is a very limited bibliography that does not include the many articles that I have read from the professional journals that we all subscribe to. My point is that there is absolutely no shortage of material to support differentiation of instruction, just a shortage of time to read it all.


It's very easy to agree that we should strive to meet each child's individual learning needs. It is far more difficult to say how we will do this.

Elementary teachers often wonder what secondary teachers find so difficult about doing this. From the beginning, they expect wide diversity in their student population. They have been dealing with it forever.

At the secondary level, once we could say that students "should know how to read and write by now;" we often shifted the responsibility to the student. We believed that some would just need to work harder than others. We were seeing our curriculum as knowledge acquisition, not as developmental skill acquisition. We also tried to help the process by grouping together kids who were, we thought, more alike than unlike. That lessened some of the diversity.

Today, we know that such groupings created only a facade of homogeneity.

The tracked groups still included students with wide ranges of abilities, interests, past educational experiences, and curriculums.

So it is wrong to suggest that we NOW have to differentiate our instruction. Good teachers have always been doing this to some degree. Secondary teachers have been attempting to do it with class loads of up to 180 students a day. It sounds like an impossible task, but since many are successfully teaching in this manner, it must not be.


Let's examine what a differentiated classroom looks like.

  • Assessment is constant and is useful to the student and the instructor. It tells them both what is needed to make the next instruction meaningful and responsive to the learner's needs.
  • Students are assessed in multiple ways.
  • Student achievement is defined by individual growth rather reliance on a single, pre-determined goal.
  • Curriculum is developed around skill mastery and thoughtful, authentic problems to solve.
  • Multiple resources are used in addition to textbooks. When texts are selected, teachers attempt to acquire multiple sets written at different levels, rather than just one universal text.
  • There is a focus on instruction that is guided by an understanding of multiple forms of intelligence.
  • Attempts are made to direct classroom time to be used as needed, rather than marching to an arbitrary bell.
  • The teacher works to show that process is equally as important as product.
  • The students are active, not passive. They are equally responsible for acquiring their education.
  • Students share in the classroom and school decision-making process. They have voice and choice in their educational environment.
  • Students help to establish grading rubrics for general and specific assessments.
  • The teacher's role is one of coach, mentor, facilitator, and fellow learner. The classroom is student centered.
  • Students regularly have the option of moving into areas of study that are of individual interest.
  • Student interests are encouraged and are used to direct development of lesson plans.
  • All students are encouraged to see themselves as capable learners and are held accountable to that belief and responsibility. This will be done in a climate that values learning diversity, while continuing to improve each individual's ability to learn.
  • Instruction is only occasionally teacher active/student passive. Teachers should not use lecture as their primary method of instruction.
  • Students should be given a lot of opportunity to use metacognition as a tool to improve their ability to learn.


As a classroom teacher, what is the fastest way to begin to bring change to your classroom and work towards regular and consistent differentiating? I would begin with three steps.

  1. Know your students' skills, interests, strengths, and weaknesses.

    There are several ways to quickly take stock of your students even when you might have up to 180 of them each day. One of the best is the use of skill and interest inventories.

    In the first few days of school, I suggest giving several of these inventories and then cataloging the results using the computer and a good spreadsheet. The Internet is rich with examples of cognitive and affective inventories, but I've found that each teacher knows best what they need to know about their individual students.

    WRITING INVENTORIES: I first want a sample of my students' writing just to get a quick skill level. I use an inventory that includes criteria such as use of mechanics (punctuation, paragraph formation, verb tense, and agreement), statement of thesis or purpose, adequacy of support or defense, and level of voice found in the writing.

    As I quickly read through the writing samples, I can check off columns on the inventory sheet labeled "skills mastered" and "need to work on." This sheet will be individual and collective with the rest of the class. I can then place the individual sheet in a student's portfolio, so that the student and I can refer to it as instruction and practice continue.

    The collective classroom information can be used to direct instruction, design reteaching groups of students, and suggest individual requirements or group requirement for the next writing assignment. The appropriate educational jargon for this type of writing would be "focus corrections."

    Classroom Examples: For instance, after my first writing survey, I see that most of my students understand the concept of thesis or purpose in a writing assignment. The next time I give an assignment like that, I will quickly review the concept of thesis and then move on. For the smaller group of students who have not mastered the concept, I will provide extra instruction; review; offer after-school, before-school, and lunch tutorial; do some pair/share checking of thesis with study partners the next day; or even have them turn in their first-step work to me before they proceed.

    I can also quickly meet with students who need comma instruction, paragraph formation, etc. These can become their "focus corrections," and their assessment and grade can be determined by how well they work to correct these specific writing weaknesses. Students who have mastered rudimentary skills can have as their focus such corrections as "rich in detail" or "more use of outside defense."

    The writing inventory process sounds much more complicated than it is. It is, in fact, one of the quickest skill inventories and individual interventions to do and probably one of the most important.

    CHECK-SHEETS AND PORTFOLIOS: Depending on what you are teaching and what grade(s) level you are teaching, you can design a skill and knowledge and concept check-sheet that is far more informative than a grade book with grades. This information should be kept in a portfolio that is accessible to both the student and the teacher. This is the beginning of individual and differential teaching.

    Information that is more effective in nature would also be in the student's learning portfolio. We know that children learn best when they have a familiar framework upon which to place new learning. Sometimes what we want to teach them is so far removed from anything that they are familiar with that we have to work to find a connection.

    Classroom Examples: If I know that I have a reluctant learner in my Western Civilization class, I know that it's going to be difficult to make the study of ancient Rome pertinent and relevant. If in his learning portfolio I discover that he's really into dirt-bike riding and motocross racing, I will probably try to get him into some research on Roman roads. Why are they still in existence? What vehicles would have been seen riding around on those roads? What was the significance of Roman roads? Plan a motocross race on one of the ancient Roman highways. What would you have needed to take on the trip? What kind of geography would you have had to maneuver around? How long would the trip have taken? How much distance could you have traveled in one day? Compare your movement with a Roman merchant and a Roman military. What would you have seen? If dirt bikes could be transported back in time, how might Roman history have been changed? And on and on. … What would be essential to know here is what exactly are the expected course outcomes and then recognize that it is easier to get a student to master them if you start where they are and not where you are…in skills and interests.

  2. Define course outcomes.

    When a student leaves your classroom, what skills, knowledge, and so forth would you want the student to leave with? Once you answer this question, develop the individual units of study, always keeping in mind the outcomes.

    When I develop the outcomes for a course, I begin with broad goals that suggest the kind of Social Studies learner whom I hope to facilitate. These goals are therefore more generic than specific to Social Studies.

    In the General Educational Goals handout, you will see that the first goal could be placed in any Social Studies course: "Students will communicate orally and in writing in a clear, concise manner, demonstrating the ability to state position with logical and justifiable defense." That is an achievable goal for every child whom I teach. For some students, the final product will be a simply stated opinion with a reasonable sentence of defense. For others, it will be a sophisticated introductory paragraph with a complex thesis, followed by 2–7 paragraphs of reasonable defense. I will be looking for all of them, however, to become more developed and thoughtful thinkers and writers than they were when they started.

    As you move down the list of expected outcomes, they should make sense. In other words, wouldn't we all just be thrilled to have students leave us having mastered these outcomes? These should be the guiding focus for all of our work—our mission. You should also notice how easy it would be to modify these for other areas of study. The development of these outcomes is essential to team teaching and interdisciplinary teaching. Most importantly, they are absolutely attainable, at different levels of sophistication, for all of our students.

  3. Design multiple forms of assessment (periodic and conclusionary) that truly correspond to the unit objectives.

    How we assess is truly how we differentiate our teaching.

    The sample units provided with this essay were developed for a course that is called Integrated American Studies. It is a two-hour block that is taught to approximately 66 tenth graders, including mainstreamed special education students as well as students who are working to receive an Honors designation on their transcript. (More about how they do that later.) The course satisfies the syllabus of tenth-grade English and U.S. History. It is team taught by a history teacher, an English teacher, and a special education teacher.

    DEMONSTRATING UNDERSTANDING: You can see in the sample units that care is taken to ask that students "demonstrate their understanding." This provides great flexibility when the assessments are being created. How we assess is truly how we differentiate our teaching.

    During the lessons, of course, we keep in mind the many ways that children learn. So our presentations and daily activities give all children opportunities to receive instruction in different modalities. All children are given opportunities to demonstrate their understanding in ways that allow them to use their strengths while working to improve their weaknesses.

    Classroom Examples: There are also times when the objective is simply to recall some facts. In a differentiated classroom, the assessment for this objective could range from an oral quiz, to a traditional paper-and-pencil objective quiz, to a speech made by someone living during that time, to a bulletin board that is created during a class, to such items as charts, displays, and study tools, or an allowed hint sheet.

    Multiple assessments can be designed fairly quickly and then assigned to students based on their interests and skill levels or areas in which they need improvement. Again, this is where student portfolios or the class spreadsheet would be especially helpful. But let's make this easy. You don't have time to be too terribly creative and yet you know that you should provide assessment differentiation.

    ASSESSMENT OPTIONS: If the objective that you are assessing is "Students will recall various facts about the settlement of North America from 1607 to 1787," then a traditional multiple-choice quiz could work. Alternatively, you could have students choose an assessment method from a list of options for demonstrating their ability to recall facts. The list of recall assessment options could be used whenever recall is the objective. This process makes assessment more accountable for both the instructor and the student. It is important to keep the goal in mind, and stop demanding that the only way to reach the end is for all of us to be in the same car on the same road at the same time.

    ASSESSING UNDERSTANDING: When it is time to assess objectives that demand a demonstration of understanding, the assessment tool becomes more complex. However, I believe that instruction and assessment become even easier to differentiate. Each sample unit includes an example of an assessment tool that can be used to measure student competency for one or more of the objectives. When assigning the projects, assessment rubrics should be given at the same time. Opportunities for adjusting the basic requirements are easy to imagine and to add to the rubrics as they are distributed.

    Flexibility is key here. As often as possible, students should be given the opportunity to suggest how they might better demonstrate an understanding of the material. For each sample unit, I have also provided an option for accommodating students in a classroom who at one time would have been pulled and put into a gifted or honors program.

    For more information, see the March 2001 essay on Alternative Assessment.


One of the biggest problems that de-tracking a school or a particular program can face is the opposition of the parents and sometimes even the teachers of the highest tracked group. The reasons behind this opposition are numerous, value laden, and often very political. I will not use this opportunity to defend the inclusion of all levels in one learning community, but will remind those of you who are unsure or unconvinced to take the opportunity to read from the reading list that has been provided. At this point, I will assume that you have a heartfelt commitment to include and teach all learners.

How can you still provide a vigorous educational experience to all students without putting any arbitrary ceilings on how far they are able and encouraged to go?


One way is for you to allow interested students the opportunity to contract for an honors designation in the course. I have included an honors contract that we have used for the tenth grade Integrated American Studies class mentioned above. You will notice that it is a brief document without much detail. The lack of detail is intentional. It has been our experience that the more detailed the contract becomes, the less likely the students will be to take responsibility for their education and honors commitment.

Student responsibility is the key to honors designation. The individual students, with teacher support, encouragement, and guidance, are responsible for pushing themselves farther than they would normally be expected to go.

As each unit is introduced, a list of enrichment activities is also provided. For every major assignment, there is an enrichment element. Everyone is invited to do the enrichment for extra points–all students. But students working toward honors must do a number of the enrichment opportunities.


Honors students keep track of their own enrichment activities in a student–produced portfolio. At the end of the semester, they must present their portfolio to a board that includes an administrator, a teacher, and a student, explaining how they went beyond the course requirements and why they deserve the honors designation. This means that a teacher has to prepare each unit well in advance and has to be watching all the time for opportunities to create enrichment activities. In Social Studies this is rarely difficult to do because we always seem to have more material than we have time to teach.

Classroom Examples:

Opportunities can include such activities as movies with reviews; television series (The Learning Channel, The Discovery Channel, The History Channel); articles; field trips; books that support themes and concepts being studied; essay and poster contests; and arranging for speakers to come to the classroom. The textbooks that you are using will also provide far more material than can be used in a normal course, so enrichment activities can easily be pulled from this source as well.


In a good school today, a strong curriculum should provide all students the opportunity to go as far as they possibly can go. They also need to learn to value each other and be prepared to live in a world of diversity. This is a complicated debate and a demanding challenge.

I go back to how I began and wonder how incredulous those earlier teachers would have been if they had known that we are even debating whether or not we should be differentiating our instruction in order to provide the best opportunity for all students.

To say that differentiated instruction is morally and ethically the right thing to do is easy. To do it well, teachers must first believe that it's the right thing to do, and then begin the search for all the tools necessary to do it well. This should be just a beginning.

As I write this essay, it's August again. Every year at this time I pledge to do it better, to meet more of my students' learning needs, to help more of them see how satisfying learning can be, and to inspire them to be better than they were.

I want to show my students that I value learning, too. I can't wait to work harder at differentiating. I can't wait to try some new management tools so that I can have more time to spend individually with each of my kids and create new units that offer all of them opportunities for success.

The point here is that learning to teach in this manner is a process. I believe mastery is always just out of reach. The quest is just to keep reaching. I hope that you find this a good beginning and continue to work along with me, trying to master our craft.