Hey, Ashley!

Thanks for sharing those links, and I’m sorry it took so long for me to get around to reading them. I’m somewhere over Phoenix on my way to Detroit, so I have some down time. And Southwest Airlines internet is just fast enough to load those pages and write this back to you.

a cartoon person scowls at the laptop screen.

“No, it’s fine. I’m not in a hurry.”

I’m so glad that — even sequestered on a remote island in the Pacific — you’re able to make time to develop yourself professionally. Those two articles pair very well together and tackle a tough issue in education. No doubt, you have some strong feelings on Differentiation after your years teaching on a military base in Guam.

Yours is the extreme case, where students are several grade levels behind in basic skills, but are sitting next to students who’ve attended private school and are test-hungry. Even with less than 30 kids in a class, your scenario was destined to be a challenge that only the most-experienced and most-supported teachers should tackle.

And you’re in Guam in a department by yourself.

A person standing on a beach by themselves

This is how I imagine your staff meetings look.

So… you and I have both been in departments at public schools, so I think you’ll get my meaning here: EdWeek’s first editorial — Differentiation Doesn’t Work — reads like the grumpy teacher in the department who’s complaining about “these kids.” Sure, her concerns are real and her experience is valuable and it’s fine to vent sometimes, but come on. Grump, grump, grump, then no suggestions for an alternative or improvement?

Ugh. That’s draining.

a PASS stamp

The response from Carol Ann Tomlinson (who I think I’ve seen present at some conference somewhere or I’ve read her book or something) resonates with me far more. Even the title — Differentiation Does, in Fact, Work — was kindly redirecting negativity toward action, which I’ve done in my department meetings about a million times.

And here’s my favorite part:

For many reasons, students in lower-track classes don’t achieve as well as they do in heterogeneous settings. Those classes tend to be taught by newer or less engaged teachers. The quality of curriculum and instruction is less robust than in most heterogeneous settings. The intellectual climate in tracked classes is further damped by students who know they are siloed because adults consider them to be less able than many of their peers—and they respond accordingly.


Yep; that’s exactly my experience teaching GATE, General, and Concepts classes. Notably, the years where I worked hardest on including all students were the years I taught Concepts; I knew that these students were already grouped in what Tomlinson calls a “pedagogy of poverty,” and if I wanted to change their situation, I first had to change their attitude about math class.

Even the images for each article are perfect:

left image: teacher seated at a desk, behind her reads "Now Serving Number 15". Right: students at desks, but with ladders connecting them. A dark-skinned student is climbing the ladder to a higher desk. Both images by Chris Wetzel

Ashley, you’ve read my book, so you won’t be surprised by my interest in grabbing students’ attention and attitude with interesting, low-risk stuff first, then leveling up the rigor until we’re at (or close to) grade level. And that can only happen if your students like you and want to please you.

The Math Intervention teacher at one of my schools had this exact concern yesterday, as we met to plan my class takeover on Tuesday. “The fourth grade teachers want me to teach the standards, not just basic skills.” Thankfully, she saw what Tomlinson believes:

Second, a related but separate body of research indicates that teachers who believe firmly in the untapped capacity of each learner, and thus set out to demonstrate to students that by working hard and working smart they can achieve impressive goals, get far better results than teachers who believe some students are smart, others are not, and little can be done to change that. It’s difficult to grow brains and help students develop growth mindsets in remedial contexts.

Oh, baby. The phrase “teachers who believe firmly in the untapped capacity of each learner” gets me so excited. I may have to jog around Midway Airport during my layover.

Ashley, keep it up. It’s hard, but worth it.

~Matt “Brain-crush on Carol Ann” Vaudrey