Demystifying Strategies for Differentiated Instruction: An Interview with Newsela Partnerships Manager Liz Crowley
Liz Crowley manages partnerships at Newsela. In her five years as an educator and English Department Chair at the New York City Department of Education, she coached teachers on differentiated instruction, incorporating her own classroom experience and input from other teachers at every step of the way. For Liz, empathy and meaningful relationships with students are the keys to creating the kind of welcoming classroom environment where differentiated instruction can succeed. Note: Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
What’s unique about differentiating in English/literacy contexts?
In the ELA classroom, there’s a unique flexibility and subjectivity in what students take away from the text. You can leverage that to differentiate effectively in a way that teachers of other subjects may not. Non-ELA classes rely so heavily on vocabulary, and if you’re an eighth grader reading an eighth grade text at a first-grade level, and you’ve never been exposed to the vocabulary of the American Revolution, decoding that content is impossible.
In the ELA classroom, students can understand fiction without understanding every word of the text, and that’s a great opportunity for differentiated instruction. Educators can group. They can scaffold by looking at words that might be tricky and defining them for lower-level readers, while at the same time challenging more advanced readers with thought-provoking questions. By promoting that core understanding that allows students to access the text, teachers can engage students in those thought-provoking questions that are expected in English classes.
What are some key takeaways that could help new or pre-service teachers?
If you’re thinking of a classroom having advanced, on target, and less than proficient students, you always need three special access points to a particular lesson. If you just teach to the middle, advanced students are bored, and lower performing ones can’t feel successful. To me, there was no choice but to differentiate.
Teaching a lesson on Romeo and Juliet symbolism for an 8th-grade classroom, where some are reading on a third-grade level and some on a twelfth-grade level, requires a lot of planning, pre-assessment, grouping, and more. The more prior planning I did, the more I was able to formatively assess in the classroom, re-plan my lesson on the fly, and refocus and regroup them.
The physical and social environment is so essential for differentiated instruction. A healthy classroom is one where students are asking a lot of questions and feel safe doing so. That doesn’t happen in a vacuum. That happens over time when teachers really get to know students and there’s a level of trust built. Grouping students by skill and interest can help with that critical process of understanding them as people.
What resources helped you succeed with differentiation?
I found the more I could group based on data, the more I could differentiate successfully. And not being afraid to shake those groups up on a daily basis based on how they performed yesterday is really important. I ran into times when my highest level readers weren’t able to perform a certain task, and they might need more attention the subsequent day based on data I collected. Flexibility, looking at different data points, looking at different types of assessments and having all the info in one place to to quickly glance at outcomes and make groups based on that. It helps to have a tracking system for yourself. I used Google Classroom to aggregate data, and sometimes Newsela to aggregate as well.
In a very general sense, reading is such an emotional experience for children. The shame associated with not being able to read is a serious epidemic in schools and can be so disengaging and demotivating. Overcoming that using differentiated instruction was a big win. The students who came in feeling they couldn’t read or contribute, now feeling like they can contribute in a meaningful way that they had not previously had access to, was incredibly gratifying.
Any parting words of wisdom for our readers?
Teachers’ time is so precious. Not only are we planning lessons - we are also collaborating with peers, worrying about state tests, parent communication, the emotional health of students, reporting data, and showing growth. The more tools we can give teachers to save time and take some things off their plate, the more they can use their minds and creativity to know their students’ needs. That’s a great gift.
Looking for resources to support differentiated instruction? Learn about Newsela PRO.