(Originally posted on Hallway Access.)

By David Hochheiser


Do you know what these are?  I didn’t until a stranger tossed the red one to me, and my seven-year old lit up with a “That’s the kind I usually use.” The joy in his face and the fun we had after will forever be a perfect example of differentiation’s power to me as an educator.

I’m having an amazing summer. There’s been a bunch of work, some solid reading (Lost at School, Switch, Freakonomics), some personal time, and a lot of fun with my kids and wife. Part of this has been three activities that struck me deeply as an educator who has always been in search of the best ways to help all students.  They hit me immediately as examples of things I believe schools absolutely need to continue improving upon.

Karate: You’ve all most likely heard of the different belts martial arts students earn.  I can’t speak for all styles and all dojos, but the one where my son takes lessons has multiple belts that signify an attained skill level and different age brackets that – more fluidly than the belts – help put students in classes with other students who approximate their ability level.  Mind you, this isn’t “tracking” at all.  There are two or three belts within each class for each age group, each of which covers around 7 or so years.  There’s a definite range in each class.  What are they doing that we should move towards replicating?

  • Multi-age classes work
  • Badges that signify the appropriate time for students to “level up” can be effectively used if each level has a clear set of desired outcomes and students are offered repeated lessons and coaching that include formative assessments and a summative exhibition.
  • Timing must be fluid.  It takes some people longer to become proficient with skills and knowledge than others.  Once a student has been to a required number of classes, he/she becomes eligible to come for testing on that level’s skills.  Attendance is a baseline requirement.
  • The comments given to students by the Sensei at their promotion all have to do with the character they’ve shown and the work that went into the achievement.  It’s never about the height or the force of their kicks or the speed of their punches.  The students there are just that, students.  There will be a time when perfection of form and nuance of movement becomes important, but while these things can be attained by some students at all age groups and level, the ethic is around growth.

Yoga: I spent July really enjoying an unlimited pass to a Yoga studio (via Groupon).  While I certainly believe in the benefits that mindfulness and Yoga practice could have for all adults and students, I’m not going to write about that here, other than to offer you a link to my Diigo library on mindfulness: http://bit.ly/1g3U0Cl .  Instead, I’ll tell you how amazed I was that a single teacher could help a room full of up to forty students greatly benefit and grow from their time during class.  All poses came with options for less stressful and more advanced movements, all of which were discussed under the umbrellas of: “If it feels right for you…” and “If it’s within your practice today…”  The teacher modeled each version as the classes went through them.  What can schools learn?

  • The beginning of each class is spent bringing the students out of the rest of their day and into class, both spiritually and physically.  Music, mannerisms, greetings and time are all used to bring people into their class.
  • Every student is supported in bringing their practice forward.  From wherever they are to whatever’s next.  Using aids such as blocks, straps and blankets, by the way, is encouraged instead of called “cheating.”
  • Moves go through what are called “Vinyasas,” which means that everything is done in a flow, or context of other moves.  Yoga classes don’t just have students do one move, stop, and then do another move.  Things make sense together.
  • At the end of class, students are given time to think about their practice and drift into a bit of meditation in a way that clears their heads and creates space for being successful throughout the day.
  • Teachers always thanked us for coming and sharing our time and practice at the end of class.

Tennis lessons This is the big one, the one that got me writing.  Yet…it’s the shortest, smallest moment I’m explaining in this post.  My son is seven and went to our city’s tennis camp for a few weeks this summer.  A week or so afterwards, I thought it’d be fun for the two of us to hit the ball around for a while.  It’s a twist on the old-school, father-son baseball catch, and we were both psyched.  The problem was that he’s seven, and I’m not at all a tennis player, so enjoyably volleying was proving difficult.  And then, a pro stepped in.

Next to us was a guy giving lessons.  He must’ve overheard me trying to teach Declan to either go towards the ball as it’s going to bounce or back away so that he gets it as it’s falling from its bounce.  We only had three balls with us, so there were a lot of misses and a lot of time spent getting the balls back from out of play.   The instructor tosses me a red-striped tennis ball and put a bucket of them next to our court and says: “Try these, they have less compression.”   One hit, and I was sold as the ball only bounced enough to get up to my son’s racket at a speed that he could manage.  “Daddy,” he says, “that’s much better.  These are the balls we used at camp.”  Volleys came easily.  His face continued to light up.  He loved even showing off his “mad skills” for me with serves and backhands.   What can schools learn?

  • Differentiation comes in many different forms.  It should be – as Universal Design for Learning tells us – all about doing whatever it takes to help students access the lesson we want accessed.  Whether it’s modifying the tools, the context, and/or the assessment, my goal was to play tennis with my son.  My other goal is for him to love playing enough that he’ll keep at it over the years.  Regulation balls would have had us fail at both of those objectives.  “Modified” balls made both possible.
  • Everyone needs a coach.  I wasn’t taking a tennis lesson that day, but that coach gave me a quick hint at an instructional modification that changed the day for us.  How many of us instead ignore and / or even push away help when it’s offered?

I know we don’t have the same conditions in schools as were there for karate, yoga, and tennis, but let’s not forget that we can create a culture in our classrooms that make it a place where all student want to come and learn.  In fact, that’s really the heart of our careers as educators, isn’t it?

David Hochheiser is an Assistant Principal in Newburyport, MA. He shares his insights on his website, Hallway Access. Follow David on Twitter at @DavidHochheiser.