Yesterday on Twitter, The Modest Teacher asked: “Veteran teachers, what is something you did your first year of teaching that makes you cringe when you think about it?”

It got me thinking. Well I had already been thinking…but it had me reflecting specifically on the challenges teachers are up against and how the management of those challenges can have unintended, and disastrous results.

Teachers face deadlines, unmanageable amounts of curriculum standards, and overcrowded classrooms with children of varying readiness for the learning targets. Decisions we make are an attempt to cope. But think of the messages we may be sending.

My cringeworthy mistake didn’t happen my first year – I had too many hovering veterans to veer too far off course. It happened maybe my fifth year when it became clear that in my classroom I could not assign the same work to everyone. I had students with big gaps in their prerequisites and others that had mastered the outcomes already. Some students were super strong in math reasoning but struggled with reading, while others were so traumatized by their previous math experiences that getting them to try – to just take a risk – was going to take a lot of encouragement and a focus on building their confidence gradually. My solution: (oh this is hard to write) I gave out folders to all ninety students that I taught, that were colored coded to indicate the “level” of math they contained. (Cringe) The goal: differentiate so that students get the math they need, at that moment, to move their thinking forward. The message received: *You can only do this math. You can’t do what this student can do. This student is smarter or more capable than you.* I had the best intentions but the wrong method. (Cringe)

I knew instantly I had made a mistake. I was ready then for mistake number two. I spent the next weeks and months carefully crafting and editing tasks in an attempt to meet the needs of everyone. I tried to predict the current understanding of all my students, then make all the worksheets I distributed look the same as possible, so that students couldn’t readily decipher where I had ranked them…still cringeworthy but what was the alternative?

Thankfully I attended a professional development session that year that literally changed everything. Thank you Marian Small! Dr Small spoke of opening up questions, allowing students to make choices about what numbers to use and what direction the task might take. She reassured the crowd that students make choices that are appropriate for their current understanding. That if we are confident enough to predict some likely avenues a task might take, we could engage students in new and exciting ways.

I was skeptical. Aren’t we all a little skeptical at professional development sessions? Thoughts creep in when experts try to set you off on a new path. In my head I was thinking, “This would never work with my students.” and “This expert is too far from the classroom to really get what happens here, in the trenches, day-to-day”. But I pushed those thoughts aside knowing that what I was trying was not manageable and more importantly, it was not working. I had a lot of questions for Dr Small, but the main one was, “Could students actually make their own decisions about the math that was right for them?” I was doubtful. But I was willing to try.

One of my first attempts at inclusion and differentiation was a warm-up math routine I called Number of the Day. It is still one of my favourites. I give the answer, the students write the questions. This was a big departure from my previous practice of 10 mental math questions advancing on a timer where only one correct answer was possible. (Cringe) I could say, “The Number of the Day is 5!” Then students had ten minutes or so to craft their own questions. I can hear you skeptics out there! “But students won’t challenge themselves to offer something difficult!” “Students will do the least amount of work possible to just get it done!” Nope. You are incorrect. Students will surprise you with their motivation and creativity. A well placed, “Oh…I see an example with more than one operation!” or “Wow! I see some fractions and decimals in the mix!” will encourage and excite students to extend into avenues they hadn’t previously considered. Everyone can participate. And everyone will have the benefit of hearing and seeing what their classmates offer. I might ask when we start to share, “Tell me something that you think everyone has on their list”. This phrasing helps students that may fear their work is not difficult enough a way to engage and contribute without feeling less capable. Then I might ask for contributions they think no one has – so much fun! Students can and will learn from each other.

My directions during an independent practice day is another success story. You know the struggle. After a few classes of exploring a new concept it’s time for students to do some work on their own. But what do you assign? Some kids are still just scratching the surface. Others might be ready to move on to something new already, having mastered grade level expectations. And of course – many students are somewhere between these two extremes. There is nothing worse than overwhelming a fragile, nervous learner with a mountain of questions to do unless it is giving a stack of repetitive basics to a kid that has mastered the concept already. My solution? Choose your own practice. Now don’t wring your hands worrying, “What if students just do the easiest questions!?!” They don’t. I had the same concern. I tried it. I’m convinced. Here’s an example of what I might post on an independent working day. This one is from our work with the Pythagorean Relationship.

Aside from the obvious benefits of each student getting manageable and appropriate work to complete, there are amazing results that I had not anticipated. Engagement. Conversations. Not compliance which I had mistaken for engagement at the start of my career. Previously I had students sitting quietly, working on the same questions, then correcting them together after an arbitrary amount of time. (Cringe) Now I had engagement. A nice buzz of conversations (and mathematical arguments) as students figure out problems together. Friends separate in favour of finding others working on the same tasks. There is something very powerful about having a choice. Because they chose it – they do it. Sometimes students choose an inappropriate category but quickly adjust. “I chose Practitioner, Mrs Sandford but after a few questions I knew I had to go back to try a few Apprentice questions”. Awesome.

Let the students choose. They can handle it. They know where they are right now in their learning. And they know it is just a snapshot in time. This current condition is not a permanent state – they will keep growing! Make *that* the message they receive.

I am pretty sure that Dr Small offered much more in her two day workshop than I took away. But just like students in the classroom, everyone in attendance was at different stages in their learning journey. I was just a Novice – at the start of my work on differentiation. All I knew was what didn’t work. Her opening remarks gave me enough to think about and act on for a decade. If I had the same talk today, I would take away something new again. Hopefully my students will take away at least one message from my lessons: I trust you as a learner.