Creating a Culture of Understanding With Differentiated Instruction: An Interview with Newsela Product Manager Christina Pirzada
Before joining Newsela in 2017, Senior Product Manager Christina Pirzada taught English Language Arts to 5th and 6th grade classes in Nashville, Tennessee, and San Jose, California. In addition, she was also an English Language Learning instructor and instructional coach who developed character education and Social Emotional Learning curriculums for her schools. Differentiated instruction was central to her approach in the classroom, and the lessons she shares below include day-to-day strategies as well as deeper insights about student mindset, classroom culture, and common misconceptions about differentiation she encountered as a new teacher. Note: Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
What were some of the most helpful things you learned when using differentiated instruction in the classroom?
Differentiated instruction, both in planning and in the classroom, is not just a prescribed set of strategies that you can implement. It’s about constantly responding to student needs and helping them get from where they’re at to their goal.
For all students, I would start by figuring out What do they already know about this? In the day-to-day, that’s where differentiation should start; that’s the very first thing you’re investigating.
One favorite strategy I employed was asking students to hold their fist under their chin and show me “Fist to Five,” where “Fist” is “I’ve never heard of this before!” and “Five” is “I could teach this to a friend.” The "under their chin" component of this activity allows students a small measure of privacy and prevents biasing based on what other students hands are showing. And based on that, I could immediately adjust my instruction because I knew who was ready to get started independently, and which students needed extra context, perhaps in the form of small group instruction.
Another strategy I employed when differentiating my instruction was intentionally organizing my classroom library. I started with genre and made sure I had books at different reading levels, and then I’d help students figure out what their “just right” book was. Then I’d make sure they were interested in their pick taking into account student preference and what works for them is a key component of differentiating content to support student learning. Student choice is a huge component to create a multitude of pathways from where a student is starting to where they have to get to. We were all working towards the same standards, but I adjusted my support to fit each students’ needs.
In what ways did you see differentiated instruction change your classroom culture?
I think a big component of differentiated instruction is mindset. I would spend the first week of the school year talking with students about how everyone is unique, and everyone has different previous experiences. I’d explain that my job as their teacher was to hold everyone to the same high expectations and help them learn all that year’s material, but the way that we each get there is going to look a little different. And I kept talking about this - weekly, if not daily.
One bright memory I have is from when I taught 6th grade in San Jose. There was one student, Arthur, who was pretty far behind in everything, but he had a positive and tenacious attitude—he never missed a homework assignment or a day of school. We had a new student join, and she would get really anxious when students were sorted into different groups, or if students were asked to meet me at the back table to go over something. And I remember Arthur going over to her and saying to me, “Ms. Pirzada, I’m going to sit with Hannah for this. I have to explain to her that she’s not in trouble, and she didn’t do anything wrong, you just help everybody differently!”
So I think it really shows that when students have internalized this, they celebrate it—they actually feel successful and supported. And true evidence of that is when they volunteer that information front of friends or parents.
What are some common misconceptions about differentiated instruction?
I think a common misconception is that differentiation is just about helping the students who struggle. Differentiation is all about meeting every child where they’re at and making sure that they’re appropriately supported and challenged. And that also applies to students who are at an advanced level—it was still my job as a teacher to challenge them.
I think I associated differentiation with supporting students who struggle when I was a new teacher, and I realized how limited that perspective was. I felt like I really became a better teacher when I understood that it was all about planning for and responding to every student.
We also need to dedicate more time training teachers how to be adaptive in the classroom. If you think you know exactly how every minute in your class is going to go, you have a lot of learning to do as a teacher! Unexpected turns should come up because you’re constantly reevaluating where your students are at, and it’s about having the confidence and capability to respond in the moment. Learning isn’t a linear or predictable path, so as much as we can make data informed groupings and lesson plans, it is most effective to respond to the students in real time to find new ways to guide them from where they’re at to where they need to get to, and beyond.
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