What My Favorite Math Routine Taught Me About Differentiation

100 - 90 - 2 + 7 - 7 + 0 = 8

When I taught a K/1 combination class, every year prospective parents would come to tour the school. Their number one most popular question for me was “How do you teach both kindergarten and first grade at once?” I would explain the concept of differentiation, giving examples of students working on similar-but-different tasks and talking about how I used flexible groupings throughout the day. Truthfully, differentiation was hard to explain, but even harder to do. But there was no alternative. In order to meet the needs of my diverse multi-grade class in just one school year, I needed to differentiate constantly.


When I first started teaching, I went overboard with differentiation. Quickly realizing the uniqueness of every student in my class, I started creating individualized homework packets and personalized assignments. Instead of ending up with high-performing students, I ended up with a perpetual stomachache. Figuring out how to differentiate without killing yourself can be perplexing.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how assessment can set the stage for differentiation — without knowing where your kids are at, it’s impossible to get them where they need to go. But when the needs of your class seem so vast, where do you start?

differentiating instruction lessonIn this video, differentiation expert Rick Wormerli helps a beginning science teacher figure out how to tackle differentiation. I love the how Mr. Wormerli communicates realistic expectations and breaks down three essential components of differentiation: tiering, scaffolding and grouping. This video is a great primer for new teachers, but also contains concrete advice that can help even the most seasoned teacher.

Listening to Mr. Wormerli talk about tiering made me think of my favorite math routine, “Number of the Week.” Every Friday, I would give my class one number and ask students to come up with ways to make that number. Some students would use the snap cubes on their tables and the number chart on the wall, while others would begin computing in their heads. If students were finding ways to make 8, one student might write “1 + 7 = 8”, another might write “100 – 90 – 2 + 7 – 7 + 0  = 8”, and another might write “4 x 4 – 8 = 8.”

Students were able to adapt this activity to their own abilities, in essence independently “tiering” the lesson. After each student had come up with multiple ways of making the number of the week, we would share our ideas and make a chart to post in our classroom.

The next week, students would be using each other’s strategies and putting what they learned the previous week into action. The excitement and motivation to share math strategies was unbelievable; students would often go home clutching their “Number of the Week” papers, anxious to add more to them at home. This was hands-down the most successful differentiation routine that I implemented, and it was incredibly easy.

Though my students were able to adapt “Number of the Week” to their own abilities, they sometimes needed a little help doing so. Some students were more apt to challenge themselves while some students had difficulty coming up with multiple ways of making a number. By providing manipulatives and one-on-one support, I was able to scaffold learning and help students try new approaches.

Most of my time during “Number of the Week” would be spent circulating around the classroom and conferencing with individual students. But sometimes I would recognize that a group of students wasn’t understanding how to use snap cubes, or that another group needed help writing numbers greater than 10. When this happened, I would convene a group to teach or re-teach an important skill. The structure of “Number of the Week” was fluid and provided much-needed flexibility to help my students however they needed help.

“Number of the Week” taught me that differentiation doesn’t have to be difficult. Sometimes the key is finding material that can naturally be adapted for multiple levels. Having all 22 kindergarten and first graders read the same book would be impossible, but having them find ways to make the same number was doable (because they were making the number in vastly different ways). To me, differentiation is about doing similar things in different ways.

Just as “Number of the Week” taught me about successful differentiation, our Tchers have as well. Our Tch differentiation library has some great examples of teachers getting creative to meet the needs of their class. Here are two of my favorite videos, both showcasing impressive structures and routines that make differentiation possible:

math differentiating lessonDifferentiating in Math Using Computer Games: I love how Robert Pronovost uses technology and grouping strategies to teach addition and subtraction to his diverse class. Using computers not only guides students through individualized math activities, but also allows Mr. Pronovost to meet with small groups.

guided reading lessonGuided Reading With Jenna: Overview: Guided Reading is a hugely successful way to differentiate reading instruction. Jenna Ogier has designed a wonderful guided reading program that supports all of her students. I’m inspired by how smoothly and effectively her whole program runs!

I’d love to hear how you’ve made differentiation doable. Comment below to share your differentiation tips!

Lily Jones taught K/1 for seven years in Northern California. She is passionate about making learning fun for both teachers and students. Lily has experience as a curriculum developer, instructional coach, and teacher trainer. Lily is excited to join the Tch team as a writer and hopes to help teachers learn from seeing each other in action!

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