Instructional Practices with Huge Impact

So, you've done some formative assessment, and the results show you that the route you had planned to take with your instruction actually needs to adapt to where the students are at.

Lesson planning and formative assessment remind me of planning a day trip. When I prepare for a trip, I like to have a plan or a route for where I'll go, where I'll park once I'm there, and what I'll do. Sometimes I need to make adjustments along the way, such as taking an alternative route when the street has construction work or is too congested. Other times, when I get there, the parking lot might be full, or I might find a more cost effective lot to park in.

Lesson plans and formative assessment are similar because I start with a plan, but once I'm there, I realize that adjusting my plan to fit the circumstances and student needs are in our best interests.

The formative assessments provide me with feedback on which route to take, what speed to progress at, and what pit stops I should make next.

I've done my formative assessment. Now what?
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I know the direction I want to travel in, however the pathways I choose are most often based on readiness.

If I am able to fill those gaps by building background knowledge or providing enrichment, then that's what I do.

If I need to work with small groups because of vast differences in readiness, then I differentiate the content (such as curriculum compacting, tiering lessons, learning contracts, i-Searches, or webquests).

If I want more flexibility to switch from small group, to whole group, from facilitator's role to a director's role, then I often choose differentiation based on product (such as choice boards, Tic-Tac-Toe boards, RAFT, or options based on interest, learning style, or readiness).

If it's a huge concept that needs to go in deep, I'll look to PBL, which addresses differentiation on multiple levels.

No matter what, I always differentiate the process by helping them connect meaning, ideas, concepts, and information in various ways. I try to address their learning styles throughout the process, even during my "traditional" type of lessons with direct instruction.

Ways to differentiate process and raise rigor

Differentiating the process takes the least amount of time and effort on my part. Differentiating the process helps students with various learning styles and strengths to make connections and meaning for them. It boosts rigor because making these connections go beyond filling in the bubble or completing a worksheet.

Some examples are:
I use several of these techniques daily during instruction. This is what it could look like:
Final thoughts

Having norms and procedures in place to create a positive and constructive learning environment is a necessity for differentiation. Remembering that the purpose of assessment is to provide feedback to improve, and to help us know the best route to take for learning.
  • How does differentiating raise rigor?
  • What are your favorite ways to differentiate the process?
  • What are some other instructional practices that makes a huge impact, with little teacher prep?
This post was written in preparation for AJHS's February 15th half day of staff development.


  1. Tracy,
    I love your analogy of lesson planning/formative assessment and planning a trip. We often need to build in Plans B & C as often we find ourselves veering from Plan A for one reason or another. Similar to what may happen on a trip.

    You have many wonderful resources which I will spend some time perusing. I quickly read the article on Rigor and decided that I need to take a look at my practices again. The opening sentence made me take pause: "Busy classrooms with engaged students doesn't automatically equal high achievement scores." My school of thought has always been that if students are engaged and motivated, they will learn. If they don't have those two factors it makes the learning process more difficult. I see now that I may have to rethink my perception.

    Something I have tried this year in ELA is using the Daily5 structure of reading. I read the Book Whisperer this past summer which inspired me to allow my students to read books of their choosing during ELA and build the lessons such that they could be applied to whatever a student is reading. Using the Daily5 structure, my students are able to read for 30-40 minutes uninterrupted (something that is new for many). To me this is differentiation at its best (and easiest). Allowing students the choice (as long as the books are 'good fit') the process then really becomes individualized as I meet with students one/one or in small groups.

    I'm not sure how students will achieve on the state testing as some students are still not reading on grade level. What I do know is that many really have a love of reading that did not before. Students are not concerned about carrying books around that they can't read just to look cool - they carry books around that they CAN read -to practice the skills that help them become better readers while at the same time, enjoying what they are reading because they CAN comprehend the book. Not sure if this falls under rigor but it has changed the culture in my classroom. Each child knows "it's about them"

    Now - to work this kind of magic in Math!

    Thank you Tracy for always raising the bar - your posts and questions are always making me reassess my practices.

    1. Dear Nancy,

      The statement about busy classrooms doesn't automatically equal high achievement made me pause too. It's interesting, but if I ask educators to define rigor, some will tell me it's being busy, having students do more problems, or doing more homework. -- To me, this answer really means busy work on Bloom's lower levels, and it does not equate rigor at all.

      Instead, rigor should be related to critical thinking and problem solving. It should be the ability to solve things creatively. What this means for educators is allowing students to grapple with their learning. It needs to be something that is a challenge for them, but not too challenging.

      It reminds me of setting the net for playing volleyball, because if the net is too low, there's no challenge and it won't keep our interest. If the net is too high, then why try?

      As educators, we need to learn how to adjust that net. The pre-assessment and ongoing formative assessment helps with that. As educators, we also need to realize that sometimes it takes developing the player with the right mini-lessons and skills first to be able to step up to the net. Other times, it might mean adjusting the net; but it never means hitting the ball over for them because then they never learn to do it on their own. Do you think we worry that something is too difficult for some children so we give them the answer so they don't ever get frustrated? And if that's the case, then are we really helping them? -- I guess it goes back to knowing where to set the net and building them to be able to hit it over on their own or with a team.

      From what I've heard of Daily5, and your explanation, it sounds like that's a very positive experience for building the love of reading, which is what we want for each of our students and children. This reminds me of something I read called "Reversing Readicide."

      I want to learn more about Daily5. I've read quite a lot about it from Kathryn Trask, and it is all positive.

      Engagement through following curiosity and your passions also reminds me of what you did recently with the radio in your classroom. I would like to see more of this in classrooms.

      For math, I know that bringing in authentic learning and pbl is what makes the most sense. Connecting it to their lives like how Mrs. Yollis, Mr. Salsich, and Mr. Avery do is also what helps the learners. For me, I started by building in the multiple intelligences to every math lesson. We'd find ways to act it out, sing it, and talk about why it works, rather than this is how to do it. We'd discuss different ways of solving problems, what was easiest for each of us, and if there were easier ways to do it.

      Thank you for this discussion. I always appreciate your thoughtful comments.

      Kind regards,

    2. Dear Tracy,

      As always, a wonderfully written post rich with useful ideas and links. Thanks for your kind words and including me in such good company! :-)

      I agree that "...rigor should be related to critical thinking and problem solving." Too often I see rigor confused with lots of busy work. You know, if you're in advanced get three worksheet pages instead of one or two. Sad.

      I love your analogies about planning a trip and the one about setting the net too high or too low. Perfect!

      Learning is a journey, and differentiation is tied to a teacher's willingness to be flexible. I used to do very detailed lesson plans and tried to stick with what I had planned. What I've learned, and I know this comes from lots of years in the classroom, is that flexibility is the key. Many times students differentiate a lesson in ways I hadn't thought of. This is especially true with gifted children. Being open and flexible can make for more enriching, individualized lessons. Of course, a teacher always needs to have a few backup plans/strategies in mind, but tapping into student creativity has been a real plus in my classroom.

      Thanks for all you provide for educators!

      Your friend,
      Linda Yollis

    3. Hi Linda,

      It sure is sad to think kids are penalized by doing more busywork if they are good at it, instead of creating something with their strengths and diving deeper into it.

      You helped me realize another mis-definition for rigor that I've seen, where rigor is defined by the grades and it's set up so very few can get an "A" etc. So, it ends up having a negative consequence on the students, but the teacher is blinded in thinking that few good grades means increased rigor. Yikes!

      Great point about students having the most creative ways of differentiating a lesson. I've also found that when they answer questions, if I'd follow with, "That's interesting. Would you explain why you think that?" -- They'd have the most creative thought process for connecting concepts that I hadn't even considered connected. Then, we'd build off of that idea.

      Thanks for your comment and for all you do! I appreciate you, Linda!

      Kind regards,


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