By Joanne Kelleher

Differentiated instruction can be a tough sell in educational circles. Some of the resistance can be attributed to misconceptions about what it is and how to do it. Mike Schmoker’s criticism of differentiated instruction (http://mikeschmoker.com/pedagogic-fads.html) gave a voice and a rationale to those who found it too difficult or confusing to implement.

In some classrooms, students are given a choice in the way they will demonstrate understanding by having them select from among Gardner’s multiple intelligences. But in many classrooms, all students are offered the same experience, despite the fact that there likely will be some students in the room who will need more scaffolding or that other students already will have mastered the concept and would benefit from an enrichment activity.

As a person who requires a gluten-free diet, it occurred to me that the students and I are similar in that we sometimes need something other than what is being offered. When I dine out and a gluten-free meal is not available, my choices are limited to cheese cubes, fruit, and a plate of greens. At school, when there’s a bagel breakfast — and there’s always a bagel breakfast — there might be yogurt for us celiacs but I still get that “left out of the party” feeling, like my meal was an afterthought, or not thought of at all. On the occasions when there is a meal prepared especially for me, I feel like royalty!

A lesson is like a meal that you plan for your class. You decide what you want the outcome of the experience to be. You carefully select the ingredients — the materials and activities — that will support the outcome. And then you serve it. Most of the students will be able to participate fully. For some it will be difficult and for them you might sit beside them and try to serve them a smaller portion of the same meal or maybe even something a little more bland that is easier for them to handle. Others will be finished in no time and still be hungry. So you’ll give them more of the meal that didn’t satisfy them in the first place. But that’s as if they showed up unexpectedly, or you didn’t know that they had particular needs. Or worse, you knew but didn’t plan for them. You kept your menu the same, and had the students adjust to it rather than you adjusting the menu for the students.

I know how it feels to me when I am left out of the party versus when I feel someone has taken the time to plan for me and I imagine how a student must feel always having to pick the croutons off the metaphorical salad or unwrap the wrap to get to the gluten-free ingredients.

Would it be easier if our students were all the same, if they didn’t have special requirements? Or if we could ignore their individual needs? Of course it would. But a considerate hostess would never ignore the needs of her guests, and neither should a teacher.