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Diving into Differentiation


In a lounge chair by the pool the other day I was browsing Chip Wood’s Yardsticks, our school’s summer read for staff and parents. With more than three decades as an educator under his belt, this New England-based elementary principal knows a thing or two about kids between the ages of 4-14. He not only makes a compelling case for developmentalism in schools, he provides a manual for each age covering growth patterns (physical to cognitive), in-classroom concerns (fine and gross motor ability, social-emotional behavior), and thoughts on curriculum (the three R’s plus age-appropriate themes).

Of course, one size never fits all. Looking up your child in Yardsticks might result in a few “Aha’s” and also a couple, “Ehh, not really’s.” The power in a developmental approach is recognizing that a kid can be younger or older than his chronological age in various categories, spot on in others. Real kids are messy, and I don’t just mean when they eat. That's challenging for parents, and sometimes downright confounding for classroom teachers.

"What if my 8th graders are all over the map this year," I wondered. "How am I supposed to teach the same accelerated curriculum to a bunch of kids with different aptitudes and abilities?" My thoughts were interupted as my two sons dragged me into the pool.

With a season under his belt as a Bluefish (the same swim team I grew up on) my 7-year old has learned his strokes pretty well. He went from being scared to attend practice at the start of the season to swimming lengths of the pool in freestyle and breaststroke in meets by the end. The one thing he never quite learned to do, like a lot of the kids in his age group, was dive.

Watching 8-and-unders start a race brings a collective wince to the crowd. The rail-thin boys freeze in their stances before the electronic beep, goggled up like beetles. Then with a surge they fling themselves forward into perfect belly-flops before madly starting to paddle towards the other end, lifting their heads every couple strokes to look around at the kids in adjacent lanes as the cheers of the crowd wash over them.

My 4-year old, on the other hand, picked the last day of the season to finally let go of the lip of the pool to which he’d clung all summer. Now he can do a couple strokes of doggy paddle. I wouldn’t throw him into the deep end yet, but he's definitely crossed a threshold. (It’s true there are kids younger than he who can swim a crawl stroke; they don’t all seem to get it at the same time.)

What Will lacks in water confidence, he makes up for in brio. His favorite pool game with dad is to leap off the wall into my outstretched arms, dunking under the water for just a second and coming up spluttering, “Again!” He can do this about as many times as a young black lab will fetch a tennis ball chucked into a river.

So, there I was with both boys, Yardsticks set aside safely out of the splash zone. Each vied for my attention; each wanted to do, and was capable of doing, different things in the water. Because Will’s range was limited, we were stuck on the steps. A noodle floated nearby and without thinking, I grabbed it and held it on the surface of the water a few feet away.

"Hey Jack," I called to my diving-challenged son, "Grab this!" Extending his body in a near perfect dive, he lunged.

“I got it!” he yelled. He got it four more times in a row, laughing and fearless, before I told him that what he was doing looked a lot like diving. He glowed from the sense of accomplishment and the praise.

Meanwhile, Will was getting antsy. “My turn, my turn!” he yelled, assuming his position like a paratrooper on the edge of the pool. “Closer, closer,” he squealed, as I tried to inch away. When I was in the right spot, he leapt, with the usual abandon. We touched hands as he went under, and by the time he popped up, I’d moved back a few feet further away from the steps.

“Push me, push me!” he squealed, and I sent him towards the steps with a whoosh. He paddled madly in a pantomime of swimming, going down quicker than forward but nevertheless gaining the steps. (Reread the last couple paragraphs four more times then move on).

While Will was jumping and sort of swimming, Jack had been patiently practicing his new technique. “Okay, five turns for Jack now,” I said to Will. He didn't want to stop the game. “Then you get five more," I bargained. "And, you can help Jack-- you be the starter.”

Excited, Will took over the job of reciting the mantra: “Swimmers, take your mark…go.” With each try, I gave Jack a little feedback: “Great job—tuck your chin a little more when you throw your arms up. Like this. Let me see you do it.”

With direct, specific coaching, his dive got neater almost every time. Before we knew it, it was Will’s turn again (do “Will was getting antsy” five more times, then proceed).

The next time Jack dived and popped up asking, “How was that one?”
I replied without thinking, “8.8.”
“Out of 10?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, “you lifted your head at the end.”
“I know,” he said. A new wrinkle to the game was born. An Olympic rating system appealed to Jack's 7-year old sense of competition, especially as his scores kept climbing.

During Will's next turn, Jack went back to practicing.
"What was that one?" he asked once.
"I don't rate practice dives," I said.

We jumped and dived until the boys lips turned blue, then returned to our towels. "You guys did great, today," I said. And I meant it. Through engaging challenges targeted to each kid's age, coupled with timely specific feedback and low-stakes practice, each had made real strides.

I guess they do come with directions after all, I thought, slipping the half-read volume into the pool bag. If I keep reading Yardsticks, I bet I can figure out how to do the same thing in the classroom this year with my 8th graders.


We do indeed sometimes in fact all the times fail notice the potential that our kids arev trying to develop once they realise they have it. One common factor that is and I think universally accepted is the problems that a kid faces when writing the answers. The handwriting is the main agenda for today's average students which does reflect the students' lack of mental organisation. Coming to the intelligence level, they are able to articulate burt when given to writing penning down the exact answer is absolutely a no no. I have this 3rd grader who rememberswell, does pay attention in his own way, sometimes by drawing, sometimes by moving around, by fiddling with his coloer pencils but then I felt that writing with a pencil may be troublesome. Then to my great surprise I observed one day that his handwriting is good....... which shows his sense of proportion and organisation but he got the spelling in his mother tongue. What I deduced is that he goes more by the sound, that he is lazy to follow figures denoting that sound. Can I have take this as an opportunity to ask you whether any exercise regarding the samr can help. I really want his child to come up.

AMEN!! This diving in (pun intended) where they are, getting them to incrementally improve , see the improvement and experience the joy of succeeding is the essence of teaching. However (you saw this coming) you were split into two and kept very busy. Now split this into 25!? That's why I quit teaching classes and now tutor - - and love it! How does one achieve this in a classroom??

Hi Mr. R
It was really awesome to read about how you could encourage your kids to improve their swimming so quickly.
Now you can do the same for the kids you'll be teaching next year! I'm sure you won't have a problem, since you're so good at motivating people to do better.
I hope you've been having a great summer, I just got out of summer chem yesterday so I've finally had a chance to relax.

You sound like an awesome dad! ...As well as a great teacher!
I loved your story and felt very inspired by it. You hit the nail right on the head.
HOWEVER... your were only dealing with TWO individuals. I, on the other hand, will have a whopping THIRTY SIX (possibly 38!!) very diverse students!
As much as I try to differentiate and teach to each individual's needs, I can sometimes (OFTEN times) feel overwhelmed by the task at hand.
Thank you for your valuable input though... definitely something I will reflect on again and again!

Great use of story to illustrate your point. One of those aha moments that teach us valuable lessons. Thanks for sharing.

It is a challenge to differentiate instruction in a large class. That's for sure.

Differentiating instruction is also an excellent classroom management tool.

I've found ways to make differentiating instruction a bit easier using strategies like peer teaching, anchor activities, independent study and interest survey.

I have explained this in more detail in my aticle "Maintaining a safe, positive classroom climate through differentiated instruction" at http://tinyurl.com/5duh4h. I invite you to take a look if your interested. There's also a video demonstrating the strategies.

Hello, Emmet, A colleague noticed your mention in edweek. I enjoyed your blog column especially since i spent time with my 4 year old granddaughter and nine year old grandson at swimming lessons this summer too! Your blog readers might find the Birthday Exercise in Yardsticks a helpful way to get started with large numbers and thinking about differentiation from a developmental point of view. Kind regards, Chip

I always see your blog.
I am looking forward to renewal of your blog.
Please take a look my site, if it's possible.

Excellent observations! Feeling inadequate, it was all so inspiring and uplifting to know of the successes of others. I teach in a system that is disadvantaged in many areas. My students do not have resources to experience a wide variety of cultural learning experiences. I am a special education teacher and you well know of the challenges that alone can present; especially when a child with disabilities watches other children running and playing, if only vicariously. I am deligently seeking out information on how to teach successfully, (but when you learn that a seven year old has died), makes things though! Or perhaps I just get tougher and even more determined to make and improve my teaching for the future. It has been a GodSend of inspiration to read of others experiences, as I enjoy my morning java! Have a great holiday week-end!

Susan Moore

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Recent Comments

  • Susan Moore: Excellent observations! Feeling inadequate, it was all so inspiring and read more
  • 派遣 口コミ: I always see your blog. I am looking forward to read more
  • Chip Wood: Hello, Emmet, A colleague noticed your mention in edweek. I read more
  • Anonymous: Great use of story to illustrate your point. One of read more
  • Lynn: You sound like an awesome dad! ...As well as a read more




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