Guest Bloggers

Hi! I’m Jen, the blogger and teacher-author behind the blog and Teachers Pay Teachers store, Soaring with Snyder. My teaching experiences are in kindergarten through fifth grade, both in general education settings, and also as a gifted intervention specialist. I’m excited to be blogging here today, sharing some information with you today about the mystical topic of differentiation!

Differentiation. Heard of it before?

I’m kidding! Of course you have. Probably more times than you can count, right?

It may even be one of those words that makes you roll your eyes a little, as you imagine some idea of a utopian classroom somewhere where every student is fully engaged, self-sufficient, and working on exactly what they need at that moment in time. It can feel like the unicorn of educational strategies, an unobtainable pot of gold at the end of the never-ending rainbow, right?

Here’s the thing: you're right. Kinda.

Total moment of teacher transparency here: differentiating our instruction can be hard.  Like, capital H Hard. It can be scary and overwhelming and frustrating. It can leave you wondering whether teaching is really the right job for you. It can make you question whether the extra work is really worth it.

Here’s the other thing: It can be hard (especially at first), but I can assure you, it IS worth it. It doesn’t have to be a unicorn! With some practice, the right tools, and maayyybe rethinking how you structure your day, it really is obtainable. Really. I promise.

Part of being able to start real, quality differentiation in your classroom is having a really solid understanding of what differentiation really is. Like any other educational term, the perception of what it means to differentiate can vary from person to person, so today’s guest post will focus on helping us come to an understanding of what differentiation really is (and isn’t).

And, if after reading this post you want to learn more, you can hop on over to my blog, and check out the other posts in my series on differentiated instruction. Click here to read the next post in the series focusing on preassessment.

First, the definition. As the term implies, differentiation means different.

Differentiated instruction is meeting students right where they are and giving them the content, tools, and strategies that they need to move forward. For some students, this means working toward meeting grade level standards. For others, it means working on understanding how to apply grade level standards with greater depth or complexity. And for others, it means working on standards outside the grade level.

It’s not a program, or package, or worksheets. It's a philosophy, a way of teaching. It's knowing your students so well that you can provide for them just what they need to continue learning. It's operating your classroom with the understanding that your students are all unique in their needs, and that they all need something different from you in order to have a successful school experience.  

According to Susan Winebrenner, author of one of my favorite books, Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom (2001), there are five ways you can differentiate for students in your classroom. Differentiating through content, process, and product are the three most common ways teachers meet student needs. However, teachers can also differentiate the learning environment and the way student learning is assessed. All are important, and my subsequent posts follow up on these key areas.

Differentiated instruction has a few key components that are important to consider as you get started (or continue) on your journey.

One, the structure of your instructional time is critical to your success in differentiating. If you're providing different activities, content, or processes for learning, you have to allow time to give students different instructions for activities or processes, or you need to carve out time to deliver different content to individuals or groups of students.

One way I provided for the element of time in my classroom was by setting up guided reading and guided math groups, or a Daily 5-esque structure of mini-lessons and independent work time.

Doing something like this allows us to have all students in the classroom engaged in various learning or application opportunities while allowing us to work with individuals or small groups of students. The nice (and research-based) thing about providing students with small bursts of content instruction and then lots of time to apply their learning was that not only did it address students' attention span, it frees us to work with students and support the learning as it is happening.

I could interject help right as mistakes or misunderstandings were occurring, providing on-the-spot scaffolding. I could also provide hard enough content, activities, or experiences for my gifted learners so that they were challenged appropriately.

Second, differentiated instruction must be based on knowing your students. You have to know them really, really, well.  This means you need to spend time getting to know them as people--personality, learning preferences, etc., and also as learners--what skills and strategies do they already know, and what do they need to know next. Learning their previous achievement or IQ scores is helpful, for sure. Finding out this information is necessary so that you can plan for instruction, learning activities, and flexible groups in your classroom.

However, please note: it is important not to group your students ONLY by their ability. Just because two students have an IQ of 130 doesn't mean they have equivalent skills in analyzing nonfiction text. It also doesn't mean that they are better at analyzing nonfiction text than your student with an IQ of 115. IQ is a measure of perceived potential, not of students' previous achievement. Aside from being an attentive teacher, one of the best ways you can get to know your students is by using formative assessment. The information you can glean from a simple pre-test is not only helpful, it is imperative. One of the worst things we can do for any student is to make them "learn" content or skills that they already know.

Finally, differentiation should involve student choice (at least sometimes!). Allowing students to choose what they're reading, what they want to research, or how they'll show their learning are just a few ways we can provide for students learning preferences and interests. And if we do this often, we find that our students are more engaged, more involved, and more receptive to learning new material--even when it's time to learn something they didn't have a choice about.

Differentiation is NOT...

So, just like when we teach our students new vocabulary, we have students think of examples of the word, and we also strengthen their thinking by having them think about the non-examples.  It's important to note a few important things about what differentiation is NOT.

Differentiation is NOT tracking students by broad ability, or even grouping them solely based on ability within the classroom. Like I hinted at above, these models don't allow for enough flexibility in meeting students' needs on a case-by-case or skill-by-skill basis.

Further, tracking often results in children who are in minority populations or who have lower socioeconomic status being placed in lower groups based on teacher bias and then getting stuck there because they receive lower quality teaching (

The alternative to tracking and ability grouping is flexible grouping, particularly in the areas of math and reading instruction. And IF students are grouped flexibly within their classroom, they should be matched to curriculum and instruction that is closely related to their needs (Tieso, 2005).  Cross-grade grouping in reading has also been shown to be successful (Robinson, Shore, and Enerson, 2007).

Differentiation is NOT group work IF each group is doing the SAME thing! I've seen this happen many times. If they're working on different activities at the same time, great. However, if your intention is that they will all still complete the same activities, just at different times, this is NOT differentiation. You might as well just do several whole-group activities and save yourself some trouble because these are essentially the same thing.

Finally, differentiated instruction does NOT mean everyone in your classroom is on an IEP! While goal setting and progress monitoring are valuable tools, and individualization is ideal, it is not realistic to think that you will be able to fully differentiate every subject for every student every day of the year. You just can't. You're only going to frustrate yourself or burn yourself out.

Well, I hope maybe after reading this post, you’ll start to see that unicorn resembling more of a wild horse and less of some mysterious mythical creature!

Interested in reading more? Check out the next post in the series describing how to use pre-assessment to guide differentiating decisions.


Robinson, A., Shore, B. M., & Enersen, D. L. (2007). Best practices in gifted education: An evidence-based guide. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Tiesco, C. L. (2005). The effects of grouping practices and curricular adjustments on achievement. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 29, 60-89.

Not Just Another “Add- On”: Connecting STEM to Your Curriculum  

Guest Bloggers: Wendy Goldfein and Cheryl Nelson from Get Caught Engineering.

Engineering, Maker Spaces, Tinkering Labs, STEM...from coast to coast these are the buzzwords in schools today. And although the concepts have gained great traction and popularity, the reality is that elementary teachers struggle to add one more activity to their already jam-packed plan books filled with other requirements.

Several years ago when we were establishing an engineering program at our school, we realized that the best way to encourage the staff to incorporate STEM into their busy day was to provide ideas for integrating the activities into the lessons they were already doing. STEM stopped being an “add-on” and became a real world hands-on connection that enhanced students’ learning. In addition to the obvious opportunities to link the activities to math and science, we developed engineering lessons for social studies and language arts that provided a foundation for understanding the engineering design process as well as developing group dynamic skills and problem solving tools. 

Oh and …by the way…it was really fun!

 Literature and STEM was our first successful focus. From fairy tales, to picture books to novels, it was easy to see an engineering connection and develop a lesson.
Literature has the potential to present situations that can challenge students' imaginations. Stories can serve to encourage students to begin to problem solve, generate design proposals, and make connections to engineering. So, how do we start?  
We begin with a "what if...?" question.

    What if we create a tool or system to help the characters solve their problems?
    For example help the prince reach the castle to rescue Sleeping Beauty by building

    What if we redesign or improve a tool that is already used in the story? With fiction we are only limited by our own imagination! And remember...engineers often think out of the box to solve problems.

    What if we thought about what happens after the story ends? What future problems might be encountered by the characters? Is there a type of technology or a structure that they might need in the future?

    What if we knew what happened before the story started? Could a problem be avoided by a tool or new invention?

    What if we connect math or science to the story?

Introducing a STEM challenge by first reading a book, creates a legitimate reason to solve problems presented. It sets the purpose for the project and allows students to see beyond projects being built with tape, cardboard and craft sticks. They can create solutions to problems that they can identify with and see its importance. Additionally, the books allow students to see that engineers are people similar to themselves. They too had obstacles to overcome and need the same qualities of patience and perseverance that the students need in their own engineering endeavors.

History and Social Studies also provides a great platform for integrating STEM. As students explore various time periods or cultures, one can integrate engineering challenges to supplement the lesson. Students may forget exact dates, but they will always remember when they created a water wheel during a study of colonial times.

    Recreate an invention or technology that was created long ago.
Begin with a discussion of why the technology was needed. What were their lives like before the new invention? How was it improved? What science and math principals did they already need to know? Our students will not only learn which science and math principals are behind the particular invention, but will also gain an appreciation for the struggles and hardships the people of a particular time period faced.

For Example: Ancient Greece – Engineer columns out of paper and test their strength. The activity uses simple materials and is easy to integrate. Download it for free at :

2   Solve some of the everyday problems faced by a culture. Although history is filled with people that are recognized as the engineers and scientists of their times, ordinary people solved their technological problems every day. For any time period have the students identify some of the technological needs: How did they get water? How did they keep food from spoiling? What kind of shelter did they live in? How did they transport food or goods across land or water? What kinds of tools did they need to farm? How did they cook? Don’t be afraid to try to have the students use some of the same materials such as twigs and leaves to build prototypes. One example is to have your students solve a food storage problem by engineering a container that will keep an ice cube frozen for the longest time.

3   Improve or modify an invention previously made. Conestoga wagons journeyed across America’s prairies – how would the student improve the design? Ancient civilizations had irrigation systems -how would they design them if they had lived in that time? Although ultimately each invention was either improved upon or eliminated when it was replaced by something else, it is valuable for students to consider how they would have created something. This allows the students to further consider what life was like in a by-gone time. For example, if studying the Western Movement focus on covered wagons and storage and have them design a trunk for a covered wagon using cardboard and tape. We adapted this lesson when we were studying space history and had students create a collapsible storage system for a space lab.

4   Take a particular theme across time. For example, everyone throughout history has had a need to procure water for themselves, livestock and crops. The students could immerse themselves in looking at how individual groups met that need throughout history. One way to accomplish this is to assign different time periods or civilizations to different groups of students. Their challenge could be to either recreate the technology used or improve upon it. This adapts well to water access, structures, or roads as each topic has been impacted by engineering improvements over time.

5   Investigate individual inventors. History is full of amazing people who laid the foundations for inventions of a more modern day. Leonardo di Vinci and Benjamin Franklin are just two obvious individuals who spring to mind. But encourage student to explore other less familiar names such as Grace Hopper or J. Robert Oppenheimer.How did their inventions and ideas change history?

In addition to the daily curriculum, we also have seen opportunities to integrate STEM activities into holiday celebrations and seasonal events. From Halloween to Valentines Day and St. Patrick’s Day, from 100th Day Celebrations to End of the Year events, adding some STEM lessons to the festivities adds a great educational focus to the day. We have added catapult building with candy pumpkins and peeps, structural challenges with gummy hearts and gumdrops, and leprechaun trap designs to our holiday parties. Our end of the year celebrations have included egg drop challenges, paper airplane competitions, and contraption contests. Even our evening family gatherings have now become hands-on engineering and STEM celebrations that the community looks forward to attending. The opportunities for adding a STEM or STEAM lens to a school’s program are everywhere.

STEM does not have to be an “add-on” or “one more thing” to squeeze into the day. Integrating STEM connections into a classroom’s curriculum or happenings can add a unique and memorable experience that will add new learning dimensions to a planned lesson. We hope you and your students “Get Caught Engineering” through out the school year. 

Wendy Goldfein and Cheryl Nelson together have over 50 years of classroom experience. They are eager to help spread the word on children’s engineering. They have trained teachers, administrators, and families throughout the United States and have a website and blog at them at


Try ABCYa's Animate to Integrate Science and Technology  My all-time favorite technology tool to use is ABCYa's Animate. It is open ended so it can be used for nearly any topic and subject area.

Try ABCYa's Animate to Integrate Science and Technology

My all-time favorite technology tool to use is ABCYa's Animate. It is open ended so it can be used for nearly any topic and subject area. I'm going to focus on science in this post because that is how I use this tool with my students. If you're working on laptop or desktop computers, the main ABCYa website has this tool for free, but if you're on an iPad, they have an app that costs $4.99 (affiliate link from iTunes: click on the picture below to be taken to the download page).  In my opinion it is totally worth 5 bucks to have this multi-purpose tool. 

How does Animate work? VIS- Very Important Stuff

Luckily, the user interface is something that should make your students very comfortable, but there are a few things that I will point out that will make their final products awesome. ABCYa did make a tutorial for the program so I recommend starting there. 

Try ABCYa's Animate to Integrate Science and Technology  My all-time favorite technology tool to use is ABCYa's Animate. It is open ended so it can be used for nearly any topic and subject area.

 Make all the backgrounds the same

To make a fantastic looking animation, make all of the backgrounds the same. There is a button that says "edit background" for this. The cool thing is that you can draw, import, or choose from one of the options provided. For this particular tutorial I am doing the phases of the moon, so the "starry night" background is perfect. I chose to apply it to all frames. 
Try ABCYa's Animate to Integrate Science and Technology  My all-time favorite technology tool to use is ABCYa's Animate. It is open ended so it can be used for nearly any topic and subject area.

 Use text, shapes, drawings, and images

The more of the tool bar that is used, the better that the slides will come out. That being said, including too much can definitely be overkill. Instruct students to consider their audience when choosing how much stuff to include on each slide. It needs to be readable. 
The tool bar should be familiar enough to students. On the left side they choose the tool (pencil, paint, text, shapes) and then options will appear to the right for the size and color. There is an eraser tool as well as a delete button for deleting whole shapes, drawings, text, etc. 

Try ABCYa's Animate to Integrate Science and Technology  My all-time favorite technology tool to use is ABCYa's Animate. It is open ended so it can be used for nearly any topic and subject area.

 Copy Frame is your new best friend

That is what I tell my students, anyway. Show them this button and tell them how important it is to save time. Oh, I should mention that there is no way to save one of these and keep working on it later. It is a one-sitting tool so efficiency is important. 
When you copy a frame the entire thing is then available on the next frame. I used this to help me draw out the moon. I didn't have to make a new circle each time. 
Try ABCYa's Animate to Integrate Science and Technology  My all-time favorite technology tool to use is ABCYa's Animate. It is open ended so it can be used for nearly any topic and subject area.

Preview your work with the play button

 As students work through their animation, it is helpful to be able to see the progress. At any time, they can press the play button to preview the animation. There is also the ability to choose the speed (slow, medium, fast) and whether or not to play the animation over and over in a loop.
Try ABCYa's Animate to Integrate Science and Technology  My all-time favorite technology tool to use is ABCYa's Animate. It is open ended so it can be used for nearly any topic and subject area.

 When the animation is finished look for the orange circle

I'm so grateful that they made the save button a different color. Direct students to click "export as .gif" and choose a size compatible with your wifi connection. I usually choose the smallest possible version. 
Try ABCYa's Animate to Integrate Science and Technology  My all-time favorite technology tool to use is ABCYa's Animate. It is open ended so it can be used for nearly any topic and subject area.
Now what? I have my students upload their .gif files onto a padlet, which is my favorite free tool for publishing and turning in work. If you have access to Edmodo, Google Classroom, or some other education management system that should be the one you use, but padlet is a great option for everyone else. Padlet allows comments so I have my students leave feedback for each other's animations.

Science ideas for animations

Is your mind spinning with the possibilities yet? This tool is awesome for any processes, which is why I nearly always use it at the end of science units as a way for students to show me what they know. 

I'm going off of the NC science units for these topics, so if you follow a different set of standards just look for the topics your students learn. 
Try ABCYa's Animate to Integrate Science and Technology  My all-time favorite technology tool to use is ABCYa's Animate. It is open ended so it can be used for nearly any topic and subject area.
Sometimes I also use this tool for vocabulary. If a term has a process or would work particularly well to explain across multiple frames then I have students animate it and share it with me. I consider this "hands on" even though it is technology based because it really helps my students develop a deeper understanding of the processes. I would also consider this a STEM activity because it is open ended and cross-cutting the subject areas. 

We are a standards based grading school, so the scale is 1-4 with 4 being above and beyond and 1 being unable to understand/complete. 

Thanks for reading this post. If you're interested in using technology tools like this more in your classroom, check out my Digital STEM Challenges resource. 

Try ABCYa's Animate to Integrate Science and Technology  My all-time favorite technology tool to use is ABCYa's Animate. It is open ended so it can be used for nearly any topic and subject area.

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