What is “Differentiation” at Roycemore?

One of the hallmarks of Roycemore is our ability to differentiate for our students.  Our commitment to differentiation is to foster an environment where students are engaged with their learning.  We know when they are more engaged, their learning and understanding of subject matter is not only deeper, it is longer lasting.  There is nothing worse than for a student to be under-challenged—it can foster boredom and (potentially) behavior problems.  Conversely, there is nothing worse than being over-challenged, as it can result in reduced self-confidence and low self-esteem.  Roycemore teachers emphasize providing the right amount of challenge to each student to enhance the learning environment and to help each child reach his or her full potential.  They do this in a variety of ways, from how they group students, to their assignments and assessments, to the method of teaching and even how they organize their classrooms. Whether in early childhood where you will see children using the same materials but completing activities at different levels, or in the Upper School where students are given various options to present what they have learned, Roycemore’s commitment to differentiation provides for a student-centered environment where children thrive.

Math is a subject where differentiation tends to be a little more apparent. In the Lower School there is a single math period, or math “block,” where first through fourth grade students are assigned to a class based on their readiness rather than their grade level.  Math is taught traditionally for four days, and on the fifth day the students apply the skills they have learned to real life math, such as baking and STEM projects.  Some Lower School students take math class in the Middle School, some Middle School students take math class in the Upper School, and some Upper School students advance to take math classes at Northwestern University; there is no ceiling to students’ learning.  Even within classes, teachers differentiate.  This differentiation begins in the Early Childhood program where you might witness children at a math center using teddy bear counters with a teacher.  Some students will be holding a bear and saying “one bear,” picking up another bear and saying “two bears.”  Others will be picking up “two bears,” then three bears and saying “I have five bears” (as the students add bears). Still others will be pointing to the bears and writing the algorithm 3 + 2 = 5 on a whiteboard.

Reading and writing are complex skills that benefit significantly from differentiated instruction. In first and second grades, the children are divided among four teachers for reading on different levels. Children who have challenges with decoding read with our learning assistance teacher, others read with our first grade teacher, some read with our second grade teacher and those reading above level, read with our Gifted Coordinator.  Students are assessed regularly and move into different groups when they are ready for the next challenge; they do not have to wait until the end of the year to move.  Even within reading groups, students are assigned different books to read, different phonics and spelling lists and different listening apps.  They also receive different suggestions for writing and journaling to support their progress.  As students move into the Middle and Upper divisions of the school, some forms of differentiation are more subtle than others.  There are standard strategies such as opportunities for choice, journaling, pre-reading and writing. Teachers also use a variety of activities and resources including reading, speaking, drawing, acting, digital media and short videos that they might consume or create to support language composition and comprehension.  Students are challenged with probing questions during discussions and assigned roles in the classroom that honor their strengths and push them to address some of their weaknesses.  For example, in a recent Middle School humanities class, students were engaged in a heated debate about characterization.  The teacher noticed one student who was not very engaged that struggles with such assignments.  When the student was asked to take charge of the class and stand in the front of the classroom and guide the discussion, the student went from being checked out to being an active participant.  The tone of the debate improved as well.  In an Upper School class, the teacher gives each student a set of specific assignments to work on his or her writing, from working on comma splices, to grammar, to expanding ideas with relevant and specific examples, to integrating quotations into examples to support their ideas.  Peer review is also often utilized to help students reflect on what they learn from one another.

Students also benefit from differentiation in art class.  In a recent Upper School class, for example, a “rubber band drawing” assignment was organized to meet different experience levels in drawing class.  An advanced student used line variation (dark to light lines) to make the overlapping rubber bands have contrast and depth.  Another student decided to progress beyond the required five rubber bands to make the composition more lively and exciting.  Still a third student focused on drawing the rubber band in three different positions.  In a Middle School art class, students were working on a grid drawing requiring many steps and multiple class periods to complete.  The process was abbreviated for one student who missed some of the class, allowing the student to get to the last step more quickly while still experiencing some of the drawing techniques and joining the group in having a finished drawing.  The fifth and sixth grade immersive french art class, arc-en-ciel, utilizes a variety of differentiation techniques. Nearly every Arc class begins with a focus on speaking, a time called “Cercle Francais.”  A call and response is used to warm up.  If students appear comfortable with whole group call and response, they move to smaller circles or paired activities.  When material is more familiar, student-led Cercle is added.  Students pose questions to their peers, allowing those who are more fluent/less inhibited to lead the speaking activity.  Various writing techniques are also utilized including spelling “in the air” on dry erase boards or even verbally. Conjugation of verbs is done kinesthetically with chanting, clapping, gestures and moving bodies and verb endings to appropriate places.

In both Middle and Upper School classes, teachers embrace a variety of differentiation from designing lessons based on students’ learning styles; to grouping students by shared interests, topics and abilities; to utilizing formative assessment to adjust lesson content to meet students’ needs.  The learning environment is also modified at times to support differentiation, from changing the arrangement of desks in the classrooms, to allowing students to read in quiet spaces or move within the classroom, to creating a variety of classroom seating arrangements such as pillows, couches, and “spinny” or bouncy chairs.

Roycemore is able to differentiate better than many schools because of our small size.  Due to our low student-teacher ratio, teachers know students very well and can differentiate to meet the individual learning needs of our students.  We believe this differentiation is an approach that helps students to engage MORE.  Because of their higher engagement, they achieve MORE.  And with that achievement, they become MORE.  This is the MORE of Roycemore.

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