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Six Things You Need to Know About Differentiation

A friend in higher education and professor in an art teacher preparation program recently wrote to say, “I have some questions and want your feedback on the topic of differentiation in the art room.” She went on to explain that differentiation has come to the forefront as an issue, not just in preparing art teachers, but in all of the teacher preparation programs at her university. And well it should!

For years I have shared frustrations with, and made efforts to support art teachers in my school division as they have struggled with an annually growing number of students in their classrooms with special needs. I can’t tell you how many of them feel they have just not been sufficiently trained to support the variety of abilities (and disabilities) in their classes. Whenever we are able to offer professional development on the topic, the seats fill quickly, and it is an ongoing effort. As much as we (especially in the arts) would like to think teaching is about our content area, I have come to believe that understanding differentiation is what it means to be a teacher.

So, yes, I had some things to say in response to my friend’s email. Here are six things you need to know about differentiation in art.

1. Differentiation is for all students.

At the core of differentiation is (should be) a mindset that every child can succeed and it is our job, as teachers, to do whatever we need to, for each child to make that happen. The philosophy in my school division, and language often used by our superintendent is “every child, by name and by need.” This means we figure out what each individual child needs to succeed so that we can provide it. While this may not be very difficult to wrap your mind around when you consider an elementary classroom teacher with 24 students, it becomes more challenging for a secondary teacher who likely teaches 150 students each semester, a much more daunting task for an elementary specialist (art, music, or physical education teacher) who may have more than 500.

2. There is a difference between Accommodation and Modification

An important distinction to understand and recognize in the context of differentiation is the difference between accommodations and modifications. Accommodations can include any strategies, scaffolds, or individual differentiation that is provided to students that help them access the grade/course level curriculum. Each course has expected learning outcomes defined by standards or a program of studies. If a teacher takes extra steps to help a student try to achieve those outcomes, she is differentiating instruction by making accommodations. Accommodations include those described in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 plan (and therefore required by law) and those made for any other student. It should be noted that accommodations required by an IEP or 504 cannot count against a student’s grade. If they succeed when the teacher provides those accommodations, then they succeed. In the case of a student without requires supports, a teacher may consider how much support was required when assessing the student, but ideally the differentiation provided helped the student to grasp the content. That end result is what we are looking for and what we should communicate in a progress report.

Modification, on the other hand, is when you adjust the curriculum to meet the needs of the student. Rather than trying to achieve the goals outlined in the standards or program of studies, instruction focuses on achieving goals in the student’s individualized learning plan. These may include anything from fine and gross motor, to communication and executive functioning goals.

3. Teachers must be proactive through planning.

The best way to not be overwhelmed by the individual needs of students is to plan instruction to include a variety of supports and scaffolds for all learners. Providing visual representation of ideas and vocabulary doesn’t only support language learners. Designing artmaking challenges that allow students to find a personally relevant connection to complex ideas does not only support advance learners. And breaking down instruction and process steps into easy to follow chunks doesn’t only support students with processing deficits. All of us in supervision, administration, and higher ed need to help our teachers plan this way, AND understand that when they do, they are planning to support all learners.

In addition to developing this meta cognitive awareness, the most pressing need based on what I have seen in classrooms is understanding how to chunk instruction. There are way too many art teachers who give everything at the beginning of a class session and then let the students work all the way to completion of the project without additional content. This is not a good method for any level. Rather, they should plan to present new content and skills in digestible pieces that all students will be able to manage. This is just one example of how a teachers planning is designed to support all students.

4. There are resources to support differentiation.

Teachers often struggle to find enough time to pull together their lesson plans, but to facilitate the planning recommended above, it is well worth the time and effort to find resources that will support differentiation of instruction at the same time. There are a variety of resource available, from adapted student-facing resources to instructional strategies designed to meet the needs of students with differing abilities. In our division, the electronic curriculum and resource tool includes a wealth of possibilities in addition to those available through books and the web.

A couple of books that may help you get a better handle on these topics are Differentiated Instruction in Art from the Art Education in Practice Series, by Heather L. R. Fountain, and Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Marcia B. Imbeau. The second is not focused on art, but it addresses some important topics like Learning Environment, Classroom Routines, Common Sticking Points about Differentiation, and a Teacher’s Toolkit.

5. Differentiation should be built-in to teaching resources.

In our division, we have recently started developing “Teacher Notes” documents for art teachers as a part of planning and pacing guides for our art courses. These articulate one model of how instruction could be delivered to meet the expectations of our local art curriculum. The Teacher Notes are basically a new lesson plan format that includes a number of things our old format never did.  Among these are scaffolds and supports which address supports for four categories of students: All Learners, English Learners, Students with Disabilities, and Advanced Learners. Using these four categories, while still over simplified for the reality of teachers, addresses important variations on what differentiation can look like. It’s not always providing accommodations for a “student with disabilities.”

6. Differentiation is not just for students who are struggling.

You’ll note, among the categories above, are supports for Advanced Learners. This represents another shift in mindset for many. Differentiation is not just for students who are struggling. We also need to differentiate for the students who are ready to move forward. Nevertheless, we need to make sure our thinking about differentiating for advanced learners isn’t keeping others from experiencing the best we have to offer.

Strategies historically reserved for “gifted” learners are strategies that are good for all learners!

In order to be successful, all students should be exposed to rigorous curriculum, be given opportunities to solve difficult challenges, and grapple with complex ideas and concepts! Those latter two phrases (opportunities to solve difficult challenges, and grapple with complex ideas and concepts) are how I would define “rigor.” We need to avoid perpetuating an idea that rigor, or advanced academics means MORE work. It shouldn’t be MORE, it should be RICHER! And RICH curriculum is for all students. How can we expect students not placed into advanced academic programs to succeed if we are not providing them with rich learning experiences?

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Who should make the art?

So, here’s a little quiz: Who should do the art making in the art classroom? The student! Of course! Did anyone at all have a different answer? I doubt it… But do we really mean it? Let’s give this question some thought.

Let me apologize to those who have seen parts of this story already. You see, it started on social media so some of my comments below have seen the light of day already. But this deserves elaboration!

Like many of you, I have made some attempts at connecting with other art educators online. I have followed some blogs and liked some art teacher pages, only occasionally finding some like-minded individuals. More often, I encounter what I would call (at great risk of offending) the unfortunate state of art education in our country. You can recognize posts in this category because they include phrases like…

…so excited to have my kiddos try this new product…

…love these [artist name] paintings by my students…

…found this idea on Pinterest…

…this is what my students will make…

A recent post that suggested something like this last sentiment went past me recently with four variations of the same painting made by the teacher. The text went something like this:

“I’m starting this lesson soon and made several samples to think it through. Which is your favorite?”

The paintings really were nice looking, each a variation of a swimmer’s face under water with a diver’s mask and snorkel. Cute idea, really! (I would show you the images, but it just doesn’t seem fair to use the teacher’s pictures in this post.)

Teacher samples are good, and “thinking it through” is good too, but if this is all that is said about the lesson you will start soon, what are we to believe except that you intend to guide your students to make their own variation of the self-same painting? I just couldn’t ignore it. I had to comment. I wrote:

You’ve worked really hard to design something. You tried some different variations and even gathered input from an authentic audience. All important skills for an artist. Teach the children to be artists. Don’t be the artist for them!

So, let’s go back to my original question. When you answered, were you thinking only about who is pushing the pencil or moving the paint brush? Manipulating media is only a tiny part — albeit the most visible part — of what an artist does.

Fellow art teachers… (No… Let’s make it bigger…) Fellow teachers, if we are to teach our children to thrive in the 21st Century, we cannot go around solving problems for them!

Any artist-educator worth her salt knows deep down that the visual arts are the perfect place for students to learn those skills that, by now, nearly all of our schools and districts have written into their mission statements. If we are to teach our students to be resilient problem solvers and creative and critical thinkers, we must give them problems to solve.

Art education is not what they do at those paint and wine nights! Sorry if I have crushed your dreams, but while I’m at it let’s try to clear up a MAJOR misconception.

(Image borrowed from www.paintandwine.com)

Art education is not about teaching children to create artworks!

(Did I blow your mind?) Honestly, it never has been. Even before all this “21st Century Skills” stuff, art was about teaching things like working with your hands, experimentation, play, communication, self expression, and understanding visual culture. Art students develop their art skills at the same time, and that is also a valued outcome. But, (and I am going to take another risk at offending) any teacher who thought artmaking was the sole or primary purpose was sorely misguided.

Let me step off my soap box and get back to this teacher that I called out.

I get the teachers inclination. Providing a sequence of steps that results in reliably attractive artworks can have its benefits. Administrators love pretty artwork in the halls. Many of your colleagues and parents who don’t know better will be impressed by you. And some of your students will even feel a sense of pride for making something that still doesn’t look quite as good as the one the teacher made. But how can we reframe the idea to create a foundation for a lesson that allows the children to solve the problem?

As I described above, the painting samples represented a snorkeler. So if the assignment should not be, “make a painting of a snorkeler,” then what should it be? It should, instead, be a challenge that could have many possible solutions. It should be a challenge that allows the students to find a personal connection, and it should expect them to practice specific art skills related to media and/or subject matter. There are several different ways to go with this, but let me suggest just one:

Create a portrait of you doing an activity you hope to do someday.

Do you think this fits the bill?

I invite you to share your thoughts and comments.

A New Teacher Reflects

I was moved by the reflection this new teacher shared on social media, and I am sharing it here with his permission…

As I wrap up my second MONTH of teaching, I’ve come to realize a bunch cliches about teaching are dead on accurate. Starting off with: 

There are good days and bad days.

The same class that is amazing one week could very easily be the worst the next. It’s very annoying and honestly kind of sad when you see great students fall for the traps of the students that are challenging. They fall like dominos. Because quite frankly, it’s fun as hell being the class clown/being a rebel. 

There are days you want to be the best teacher in the world and there are days you want to quit.

Ask me on a Wednesday, when I have my favorite line up of classes and I’ll say I want to stay in elementary art forever. But ask me on a Tuesday after first period and I’ll want to put in my two weeks and leave. But when I’m walking down the hall to make copies and passing by one of my 1st grade classes and having a chorus of “omg Mr. Reinaltt!” Or “that’s our awesome art teacher!,” which leads to each student running out of their line to give you a hug, I literally can’t handle my happiness. When moments like this happen, it makes me want to stay in elementary school for the rest of my teaching years. 

Being a male teacher is going to make a huge difference.

There might be 1 or 2 male classroom teachers and 4 specialists in the entire school. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been called “Mrs. Reinaltt” or when I tell them I’m not married “Miss Reinaltt”. I had a class of boys bully a kid for coloring his shirt pink for his self portrait. So the next week, I wore pink (also because on Wednesday’s we wear pink, duh) and dared those same students to bully me. They didn’t, and now they know there are NO such things as boy or girl colors. 

Being a male teacher AND a minority is going to make a huge difference.

Especially in this politically climate, at my school that is 77% minority (but it seems so much higher) so many students feel unsafe and unfortunately scared to be themselves. I stress in every single class to be proud of who they are. I tell them the world needs us to be the difference. To not allow the world to tell us (mainly them) where we belong or what we should do with our lives. 

Two months of teaching, feels like 2 years. There are many challenges ahead, but my heart and my mind are in this for the long haul.

Thank you, Arthur, for sharing your experience with all of us.

A Simple Reward System

Here’s another quick strategy I saw used with great effect recently… Do you know what that glowing purple object is on the table?


It’s a Bluetooth speaker!

The teacher has a playlist on her own phone and places the speaker, at a low volume, on tables that are showing that everyone is on task. The students really enjoyed having the reward of listening to music while they worked, even if the speaker had to move to another table after a few minutes. 

Thanks again to Bethany for sharing this idea!

It’s Only Fair

Learning can be challenging — frustrating even. With a little experience, an art teacher can predict pretty accurately what the frustration level will be with the new content and skills. So why not warn your students? It’s only fair!

Thanks to art teacher Bethany Mallino who plans to include this and many other gold nuggets in a future publication called SmART StART in ART. (I’ll let you know when it’s available.)

What It Takes

I have been visiting and supporting a number of new art teachers at the start of this school year. This work always seems to shine a light on what is most important. Here’s my most recent conclusion…

There are six things you need to be a successful teacher. These are not the ya-have-em or ya-don’t-have-em sorts of things. These are understandings, abilities, and characteristics of teachers, all of which can be developed and refined. No one starts teaching with even most of these areas well-developed, and some of us who have been teaching a long while may still need to work on one or more of them. (This is what they mean by a lifelong learner, right?) As you read on, think about what areas you have developed well, and which could use some work.

Let me start with a set of three that are a little more concrete than the next: Content Knowledge, Pedagogy, and Classroom Management. Perhaps because they are more concrete, these three are often addressed to a fair degree in teacher preparation programs.

Content Knowledge is knowing your subject. In the art world, content knowledge and skills are infinite and ever changing. Few of us are truly proficient in a full range of media, and even those who graduate with advanced studies in Art History can very quickly become out of touch with trends in contemporary art. New teachers are often faced with a harsh reality when they realize they are expected to teach content and processes that they, themselves, don’t yet know.

Pedagogy is about having a tool kit of strategies for HOW to teach content, and knowing which of these are highly effective methods. I consider pedagogy to include a full cycle of planning, teaching, and assessing practices, as well as an ongoing reflective practice which includes the teacher as researcher. Like content knowledge, pedagogy is a constantly changing field with a regular influx of new studies. Teachers should take every advantage of professional development opportunities to continue learning about best practices in teaching. New teachers often have a few tools, and must work to develop and refine their practices through experience and continuous learning.

Classroom Management is frequently a barrier to being able to even consider content knowledge and pedagogy, and despite the best efforts of our friends in higher-education, there will always be a need for more practice and more experience managing student behavior. As much as I would like to meet with new teachers and talk about the content and pedagogy in their classroom, there is often an urgent need to develop classroom management skills first. Only after some semblance of order and routine is established do I start to focus attention on what is being taught and how.

The next three are a bit more abstract and a bit “deeper,” if  you will. To be a successful teacher Passion, Philosophy, and Mindset are every bit as necessary as the concrete classroom skills we have already discussed.

Passion can come in a variety of forms, but without it, you won’t last long as a teacher. Some are deeply passionate about their subject area (common in art), others for children, or for teaching itself. No matter what passion brought you to  teaching, one is a must. You must love children. I give props to Dr. Brabrand, our superintendent, for reminding us all of this regularly.   New teachers rarely lack passion, but we need to support them in other areas so this passion does not suffer.

By Philosophy, I mean to suggest that a successful teacher must have a philosophy of teaching. An idea of what is truly important to them in the classroom, what they really want their students to learn, and how these ideas come together to form instruction that aligns with that philosophy. Many teacher preparation programs address philosophy or at least encourage their graduates to write one. Many schools and divisions promote a philosophy of their own. It’s not important where the philosophy came from. What’s important is that the teacher knows what it is.

Mindset refers, here, to the teacher’s mindset about teaching and learning. How can a teacher possibly be successful if he does not believe that his students can learn? How can a teacher possibly be successful if she does not believe that her actions are what makes that happen? A teacher must believe BOTH that ALL students are able to learn, and that the teacher’s planning and implementation are what allow the learning to happen. That’s how this works.

There you have it folks. My take on what it takes to be successful, after spending time with a number teachers helping each make progress in one area or another.

Which do you need to work on?

What’s Your Perspective?

Thanks to my colleague, Jean-Marie Galing, for contributing these important insights!

Which of these images reveals the thinking of a second grade student about their neighborhood?

Pre-instructional drawing
Drawing in response to instruction.

Let’s not lose the meaning in wonderful narrative drawings by expecting students to use compositional techniques that they are not yet ready for.  Western art places value on depicting space in three dimensions, and we want students to understand how to use perspective.  But we need to consider what students can understand at different ages, and introduce perspective techniques in baby steps.

Pre-instructional drawing
Drawing in response to instruction

Early elementary students can organize objects along a ground line. By first grade we can add a horizon line and talk about near/far and big/little. Second graders can place near things at the bottom of the page and far things higher up, and attempt to show objects overlapping. Third graders can learn about and apply the use of foreground, middle ground, and background.  Upper elementary students may play with atmospheric perspective using light and darker colors, and by fifth or sixth grade they like to experiment with linear perspective.  At the secondary level, they start to pull it all together to support what they want to say.

So my perspective on “perspective” is to teach it a little at a time, and don’t let the execution of a technique suck the joy out of personal expression.