Meeting the Needs of Gifted Learners: How Does a Differentiated Classroom Actually Work? 3.5/6

How Does a Differentiated Classroom Actually Work? 

If you're like me, you've finished reading another post (or twoor three) about differentiated instruction and you're thinking, "Well, now what? How can I actually put this information to work for me in my classroom?" It takes lots of practice, and I'm positive there are other teachers doing it differently (and well!) in their classroom, but I'll go ahead and write about how I was able to differentiate in my own classroom. And for the record, these ideas worked for my both in general education classrooms when I had only a few GT identified students and in my self-contained gifted classes where all students were identified as either cognitively gifted or gifted in a specific academic area.  

Some Key Ideas

Classroom Management

The most important aspect of being ready and able to accommodate the different learners in your classroom space is really all about how you manage your classroom. I'm not talking about your behavior plan, clip charts, token economy system, etc. I'm talking nuts and bolts--how to you use each and every minute of your school day to maximize the time you have to spend with your students. The thing that made the biggest impact for me was using a guided math and guided reading type schedule for those two blocks. Whether you do legitimate guided reading Fountas and Pinnell-style or the Daily 5 model, or some variation of those, what matters most is building in time to your schedule each day  to be able to meet with students individually, or in small groups. You could also meet this need for content differentiation by holding a whole group mini-lesson and then assigning several different activities, according to readiness, or you can set up different learning centers according to interests and/or readiness as well.  Structuring your day in these ways will allow a few magical things to happen:

  • When you build in time for small groups, you simultaneously build in time for your students to work independently, which means you are FREE! Run while you can! Joking of course, but seriously, once you've trained your students to function without you constantly hovering providing close guidance and support, you are freed up to work with individuals or small groups as needed. 
  • Your students value the time they get to spend with you one-on-one or in small groups. They look forward to this time and you look forward to it, too, because you get to connect on a deeper level with your kids. 
  • You have time to spend meeting the needs of your students--tailoring materials and content to match their needs and push them towards real growth, which is a BIG win for alllll of the stakeholders. 

Time to Plan

Once you've carved out some time in your day, the next step is making sure you have gathered all the necessary information you need. What do you want your students to know? What do they already know? What do they want to know? How to they learn best? And where will you keep all of this information? I used my paper grade book pages to record pre- and post-test results, also noting which standards students still needed to work on. I also gathered some information about students' interests and recorded them on paper as well. All of this helped me in my grouping and planning so I could be sure to pull students back for small group work as they needed it.

After you pre-assess and gather information, it's time to start planning. If you're new to this, I think it's slightly easier to start in a subject area that has really discrete/distinct skills that are easy to separate from one another. Math, grammar, and content areas are a little less complicated to start with. I'm going to use math for my example, but the same general progression will work for most every subject. Here's my general flow:

  • Pretest, sort information--students with the same missing skills get grouped together. You can see an example of this in my grade book checklist picture above. Sometimes I wrote information in there, sometimes I used sticky notes and stuck them in my planning pages. 
  • I also kept notes on each student using a compacting recording sheet (my last post for a free copy), so that I could to it at conferences and around report card time. 
  • Decide what students can be doing in the time that they buy back. I called my time "Choice Time" but you can probably think of something more creative! For student choice time, students were working on a variety of things. In math, sometimes they worked on learning computer coding from or Khan Academy, sometimes they created games for each other to play, and sometimes they worked on strengthening deficit areas. In language arts, my students had lots of choices about what they worked on--vocabulary/word study activities were a choice based on students' interests, independent reading was always a choice, based on interest and readiness as well. 
  • Decide IF and HOW you will evaluate tasks and learning accomplished during choice time. My own opinion is that these alternate activities don't always need "graded," however they still need to be evaluated using a rubric or some other tool so that students can get feedback--even if it's only feedback on independent study behaviors. Students need to know that what they're doing is valued,  but I also hope to instill in them a sense of ownership and pride in learning for learning sake. 
  • A note about interest-based and learning profile content differentiation--these are, in some ways, lower-prep alternatives to differentiating by readiness. Here's why: generally speaking, if you offer children lots of choices in your classroom, they will gravitate toward what they like most, and you don't have to tailor it as much directly toward individuals. And once you get into the habit of giving students choices, you begin to build up your repertoire of materials and options that can be used over and over again, so it's really not as bad as it sounds.  


Here is what my math block often looked like: (P.S., I say often because there were days where we did lessons and activities as a whole group. #reallife P.P.S. I was BLESSED to have 60-90 minute blocks of time for my instruction, so yes, it did make it easier to structure my time, but it is totally possible to do this in less time--you just have to be a little more judicious with how you build in your choice time--maybe it's every other day, or every third day instead of every single day, but I promise--it CAN be done!

  • 10-15 minutes-Problem Solving in math journals (sometimes differentiated, often not because they were challenging problems on which I allowed students to choose to work collaboratively)
  • 15-20 minutes (sometimes)--Whole group mini-lesson or explanation of math stations/choices
  • 30-60 minutes--Guided math (small group) lessons and choice time. This is either self-directed or done in a rotation style. We changed it up, depending on what we were working on. If children had a big project they were working on, they often just worked on the project the whole time while I met with small groups. In small group time, students learned the skill and practiced it. They had some independent work to complete on their own in class as well. 
  • 5-10 minutes--Exit ticket/show what you learned/Q&A time


Below are two versions of what the ELA block looked like in my classroom  (again, I had 90 minutes in upper elementary and more like 150 minutes in lower elementary to work with but it can be modified to work in less time):

Version One
  • 5-10 minutes --Independent reading time or Picture of The Day as children trickled in from different classes
  • 5 minutes-- Status of the Class (click the picture to the right if you're interested in downloading one for yourself from my free resource library). *Just to be clear, by clicking to get the freebie (and instant access to the growing collection of free resources in my library of subscriber exclusives), you're also agreeing to be added to my email list, where I'll send occasional messages with fresh ideas, tips, and other resources straight to your inbox. You can unsubscribe at any time.* 
  • 15-20 minutes --Whole-group reading mini-lesson based on a skill that students will be applying during independent reading time 
  • 20 minutes--Choice time--students work on word work, independent reading, or other projects 
  • 15 minutes--Whole Group OR Small group mini-lesson
  • 20-30 minutes--Choice time
Version Two
  • 20 minutes: Whole-group standards-based reading mini-lesson based on comprehension, decoding, fluency, or vocabulary skills that could be applied to any book
  • 45 minutes: Guided reading groups, individual conferences, and Independent Work--students apply the mini-lesson skills or concepts to books on their reading level and then work on word work, vocabulary, and/or other literacy-based centers 
  • 20 minutes: Whole-group standards-based writing mini-lesson
  • 45 minutes: Guided writing groups and/or individual writing conferences
  • 10-20 minutes-Rotation between exit slips, fluency practice, sight word practice, Author's Chair, etc. 

Some Final Notes 

Of course, these general plans worked for ME in my classroom, but you may need to modify them to work for YOU in your classroom. They are intentionally very general. When I taught kindergarten, having students sit and attend to a 20-minute mini-lesson was pushing it for their attention span. Working independently for 45 minutes was also a lofty goal, especially at the beginning of the year. To accommodate students' needs, I broke lessons down into smaller chunks, allowed for shorter spurts of independent work, etc. I worked together with the class for weeks modeling what our classroom looked like, sounded like, and felt like during each stage of our language arts and math blocks. The time spent at the beginning of the year paid off very well in the middle and end of the year when we were truly able to maximize our learning time and minimize distractions and time during transitions. 

If you're ready to read more about differentiating, check out this post on how to differentiate the learning process. 

I hope you found this information helpful! Got more ideas about how to make differentiation work in your classroom? Leave a comment below or send me an email ( I love hearing from my readers!

Thank you,


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