Differentiated Instruction: Students Teaching Students

Our campus has been discussing differentiated instruction a lot lately. We are focusing on student needs and effective teaching strategies that help all students. There are multiple ways to look at this concept and it encompasses several ideas.


In my classroom, one way I’ve found that reaches all students is to allow the students to teach each other, not just in small groups or within their table groups, but actually working out problems for the entire class and explaining how they reached their answers.


This week we have been working on combinations. Some of these problems are very easy, and the kids catch on very quickly. Some, however, require some serious thinking skills to figure out all possible answers.


This is where the “student teachers” come into play. I could stand up there and explain how to work these problems until I’m blue in the face and some kids would get it, but others will completely tune out. Put a student up there–automatic engagement for all involved.


Not only are the students happy ecstatic to be called upon to help their peers, they extend their thinking and learning by explaining their strategies to others. It encourages them to work harder and think critically about their work. They are more likely to ask questions and seek help so that they may be called upon to teach others.


At first I thought that the idea of differentiated instruction sounded like a lot more work on me (and it can be at times), but this simple technique actually saves my voice and allows the students to find theirs. 😉


Cooperative Learning + Math = SUCCESS!

I had a not-so-pleasant day on Tuesday watching my students turn in their Math Benchmarks. Failing grade after failing grade made my heart sink. Here I thought my students were right on track, and the reality was–many of them needed lots of help. This test had many of the released questions from our state assessment last year (which is given at the end of April), so I shouldn’t expect them to rock it, but still…heartbreaking.

After crying about it with our instructional coach, I scoured the tests a little closer. As I was looking over the tests, I noticed that several of them were just guessing at answers, not showing any kind of work. This has never been ok in my class, but for some reason I had many students that just went through the test without thinking. Grrrrrr!

That afternoon we had a come to Jesus heart-to-heart talk about what each student’s job is. It is their responsibility as the learner to ask questions and ask for help when they need it….but it’s also my responsibility to find a way to reach them and instill some motivation to want to succeed.

So…I thought about this training I went to on Monday. It was for ELL’s (English Language Learners), but all the strategies they mentioned are good for ALL students. By Wednesday, we were trying them out!

One of the strategies was to have the students stand around the room in a circle at the end of class and use a sentence starter to identify something they learned that day. We were told that when students have to verbalize their thoughts and listen to themselves say it, the learning goes up. I gave them these sentence starters: I learned… I’m surprised that… and I will remember… As I listened to their responses, it made me feel that their learning was already increasing, even the very first time we tried it!

Today I used another strategy called, “Stay and Stray,” where groups of students move around the room and talk. We did this with word problems from our math assessment that have them fits. Of course, some of my students were able to complete their test successfully, so here was already some knowledge of what to do. I put the students into groups, making sure that each group had an expert to start.

I wrote word problems on chart paper and taped them around the room. Each group was to solve the problem on their paper together. Each student had their math journal in hand to take notes. It was their responsibility to really understand the strategy, because they would eventually be sharing out a strategy.

However…the groups would constantly change. Before we started, I gave each student in the group a number. These numbers would determine who stayed at a poster and who would move on to the next group. If I called number 4, then all number 4s would stay at their poster, and the other group members would move on. Number 4 would then explain to their new group how they solved their problem.

Then I called time again. This time, number 2 had to stay, and the rest of the group would move on. This meant that by now, the 2s were explaining a poster that they did not create! It also meant that they really had to pay attention to the previous presenter so that they knew how to teach it to he next group. And so on until each student had stayed at a group to present.

What did this mean? ALL students were participating. ALL students were learning. ALL students were actively engaged. No more sitting on the sidelines, folks! The students were definitely accountable for their own learning!

When we were finished with this activity, I asked them for feedback. They told me that it was fun, they enjoyed teaching other students, they enjoyed learning from other students, and they now understood how to solve problems like he ones we solved. Best of all, they wanted MORE! Big smiles followed this conversation–students and teacher alike!

Part of teaching is understanding that we aren’t perfect. Sometimes we just have to step back and think about what is in the best interests of the kids. Every time my students teach each other, they just seem to “get it.” As long as they have some guidance, they can take off with their learning…even when I’m not in the driver’s seat. What a great feeling!


Color It Up

Once again, my students took on the challenge of an amazing activity created by none other than…Gretchen Bernabei! Color It Up. It’s pretty simple but has incredible power and learning potential for students–and they enjoyed doing it.

In her book, Fun Size Academic Writing, Gretchen uses this technique with the first story, which is a narrative. Well, we are currently working on expository pieces, so I decided to take another of my favorites from that book which is an expository piece, and color that one up instead.

We used the writing about Barbie. It has so much personality, and the kids absolutely LOVED it! I ran copies for each student so that they could keep it in their folder as a mentor text to refer back to when necessary. Before we began highlighting the icons, we made a key at the bottom to remind ourselves of the 4 different writer’s tools we would be finding–actions, dialog, thoughts, and what the author saw. We coded them with the appropriate colors (see picture), and then got started.

At first, I had to explicitly point out each strategy this author used, but as we went on, the students began shouting out the writer’s tools before I could finish the sentence! This showed me that not only were they “getting it,” but they were really thinking. (I feel like so much of the time students want things to be spoon-fed to them, so when they step out if their comfort zone and take risks by thinking for themselves, we celebrate!)

The level of understanding drastically increased. They were making connections about what they saw. They noticed that there was lots of action, even in this expository paper. They noticed that there was a plethora of thinking within the text. They noticed a pattern–that each time there was a thought, there was an example to back it up. They noticed that there was NOT much dialog. They noticed that each paragraph ended with a thought.

This allowed us to go into some deep discussion of why authors use specific writer’s tools for specific purposes. Some of them wondered why this author kept saying that she loves her Barbie at the end of each paragraph, which led us to the realization that she was connecting back to the prompt each time and letting us know that this possession was extremely important to her.

We did a lot of noticing about writer’s craft. Did I mention that this was awesome?

Kids can and will notice things like this when given the opportunity. In fact, one of my students who usually “sits on the sidelines” during class was so engaged in this activity that I had to think of some sort of reward for such effort and participation. It totally blew me away.

Part of what made this so powerful was that the students began making their own connections and noticed things for themselves, without me having to tell them. It increased the rigor of our conversations and the learning skyrocketed! It made my day! 😉

We are now working on our own pieces for our most prized possession. I’ve included a few pics of their planning pages for you. Some of them have been revised a bit to make sure that the students are getting to the deep meaning and not repeating themselves, but these are the raw products. I will definitely post some samples when they are finished, so keep checking back for those!




Oh yeah, when I get a few more seconds to spare, I’ll be uploading some expository samples from our first attempt. I just have to get them typed up so that you can print them off and use them if you’d like. :)

Happy Tuesday!


Peek At My Week

Last week was an awesome week!  If you’ve been following along, you know that my students just really learned a lot last week.  Those light bulbs were going off and my students were actually THINKING!  Ya gotta love that! :)

Peek at My Week

My week this coming week is going to be another great week!  Here’s what we have on the agenda:

In Writing:  Monday we will write letters to veterans, thanking them for their service and time spent away from friends and family.  After that, it’s back to the grind with a new expository piece.  We are writing about our most prized possessions this time around.  We have already planned it out and written our kernel essays, so the next steps are putting it into a flipbook, choosing icons, and then drafting our piece.  Oh, and at the end of the week we will be discussing schesis onomaton (a big fancy word for renaming).  Come back to see some final copies!  (I’ll be posting some expository pieces from our first attempt pretty soon)

In Math: This week is a time to put our skills to the test with related data sets (aka: tables).  Since we have our first district benchmark next week, the end of this week will succumb to review of all that the students have learned this year, with a focus on multiplication and division with word problems.  Another week requiring loads of thinking!

In Social Studies: We will be discussing the impacts of Stephen F. Austin and Martin DeLeon on the settlement of Texas.

It’s another jam-packed week, and I’m praying that we have time to squish it all in!  I’m excited for what this week has in store for us!


Lightbulb Moments

Today was one of those days where everything went right.  I don’t have many of them, but today was exceptional.  I love those days!

In writing, we once again used Gretchen Bernabei’s resources to look at a mentor text, and light bulbs started going off across my room.  The students were really connecting to the text and noticing many patterns and the craft of the writer.  Brilliant!  I plan on devoting a post to this activity soon to share what we did and how incredibly powerful it was…so stay tuned!

photo 1(24)In math, I ran only small groups today.  Since there isphoto 4(14) one of me and about four groups that need different skills, I chose to have students run the other groups.  Wow!  They did an amazing job!  While I worked with students on subtraction, other students led the rest of the small groups and shared their knowledge of the skill that the others needed.  This not only allowed me some time to work with the students who really needed my help, but it also extended the knowledge of my student helpers.   Most importantly: ALL students were learning at an appropriate level.

photo 3(22)

What’s that saying?  Students learn better from their peers than they do from adults?  I definitely think that’s true…most of the time, anyway.  Today was a fine example of that.

I’m so glad that I am surrounded by such awesome students.  Do they drive me nuts some days?  Of course.  But I love each and every one of them for who they are.  Their willingness to learn and the smiles on their faces are what I look forward to every day.  They are the reason I do what I do.

Today was awesome.  I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!  :)



Expository Writing: Gretchen Bernabei Style

My class has officially started their expository writing pieces. This is very new to them, so we are taking it slowly. Thank goodness for Gretchen Bernabei! She makes it so much more fun, interesting, and easier for these little people to understand!

We began by brainstorming people we admire. I told my students that this person could be a friend, family member, singer, entertainer, sports star, or anyone they like or look up to. They had to understand that admire doesn’t mean that you like them in a romantic way because they automatically think of a secret admirer. Haha.

Then I gave them a planning sheet from Gretchen’s resources. Hers was just drawn out on paper, but my OCD wanted needed it to be typed up, so I spent about 45 minutes perfecting it (to my standards) on the computer. I handed them out, and we filled in our topic and text structure. Before I knew about this amazing woman, my explanation if expository writing was pretty lame…and the students’ writing showed it. That’s not to say it was bad, but it definitely was NOT to the level it is now. The text structures she has developed has raised the level of their writing tremendously!

After that, we came up with our kernel essay about our peeps. When you see the text structure we used, you’ll see that it wasn’t easy, but it made them really think! And that’s what we’re going for, right? 😉

From that kernel essay, I told them to find at least three people who would listen to them read their kernel essay. The listeners were required to ask two questions about their kernel essay. They wrote the questions down in the box, and tomorrow they will use sticky notes to answer those questions. These sticky notes will go in the flip books they have created. This will help them fill out their paragraphs with valuable information that readers want to know.

When we finished the questions, we thought about where that information should appear within the writing. We put paragraph numbers beside each question to be sure the information arrives at the correct destination. Again–extending their thinking.

This is as far as we have gotten. I’m looking forward to reading what they write. I have a training tomorrow, but I know they will be in good hands with my student teacher. I can’t wait to read them on Wednesday!

Below you will find pictures of two planning pages and two kernel essays written on their flip books.





I have uploaded the planning page to the Writer’s Workshop page here on my blog. It’s the last resource listed under Gretchen’s resources.

What do you do to help your students understand expository writing?