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Differentiation for Tweens
Sharon Longert

The latest term for middle school age students is “tweens,” the age range roughly from 10 – 14 years; five years from teddy bears and five years from college. The individuals in this group vary widely developmentally, socially and academically. It is a very fragile and yet important time in a student’s development. Instructional strategies need to be tailored to the age groups’ needs. Recent reports concerning increasing high school dropout rates make looking at this group essential for creating an environment that allows students to not only grow but also complete their required education.

Teaching to Developmental Needs
The National Middle School Association (2003) points to seven conditions that young adolescents crave: Competence and achievement; opportunities for self-definition; creative expression; physical activity; positive social interactions with adults and peers; structure and clear limits; and meaningful participation in family, school and community.

  • Incorporate movement every 15 – 20 minutes. Ask all the students to get up and hand in assignments. This age group cannot sit still for 50 minute lessons or 80 minute blocks.
  • Let students process information physically. Designate areas of the room for various responses to specific questions.
  • Use flexible grouping, allowing students to work with different partners.
  • Allow choice in school projects for self-definition.
  • Provide clear rules and enforce them calmly – to help students function as members of a civilized society.

According to Rick Wormeli, “These are not ‘fluff’ activities; they result in real learning for this age group. Integrating these developmental needs is vital to tween success.”

Treat Academic Struggle as Strength
With young adolescents, it is important to explain to students that not everyone starts at the same point along the learning continuum, or learns in the same way. Everyone is a beginner in some areas.

  • Good students try to protect their reputations and rarely take chances for fear of faltering in front of others.
  • Model asking difficult questions for which we may not know the answer, then guide students in the process of finding an answer.
  • Recognize and reward risk taking and failed scientific experimentation.
  • Help students to recognize their own growth.

Provide Multiple Pathways
Differentiation requires pathways for learning that may differ from the majority and requires the teacher to give multiple examples and employ multiple strategies. With exposure to many approaches, students can decide what works best for themselves. The goal is to make learning coherently a goal for all.

  • Present exposure to sophisticated learning even when basic skills are weak.
  • Group students for skills development based on their needs academically.
  • Teach mini-lessons for basic skills or on advanced material.
  • Allow alternative assessments for students to demonstrate their mastery of a topic.
  • Hold all students accountable for the same standard but allow them to get to the goal via different paths.
  • If the test is the assessment, everyone must take the test.
  • Allow students a chance to redo work until they reach mastery, not everyone learns in the same way on the same day.

Give Formative Feedback
Tween don’t know when they don’t know, or when they do know. Provide frequent feedback that assists in comparing what they did with what they are supposed to have done.

  • Give short assignments for prompt feedback.
  • Focus on one or two areas of assessment for each assignment.
  • Use quick exit strategies, a question that deals with the main theme or the critical content.

Dare to Be Unconventional
Tweens are interested in what is novel and what appeals to their curiosity about the world. Let them:

  • Give the answers; let them derive the questions in math;
  • Make a video for an elementary class on the need for water;
  • Debate a concept dressed as a character from a specific time period;
  • This is the age of “what can YOU really show me today”; they are bombarded by media, make it exciting.

Wormeli states, “We must be experts in the craft of guiding young, fluid adolescents in their pressure-filled lives, and we must adjust our methods according to the flow, volume, and substrate within each student. It’s a challenging river to navigate, but worth the journey.”

Wormeli, Rick, “Differentiating for Tweens,” ASCD, Vol.63, No.7, April, 2006

I hope you’ve found this article helpful. If you have a question or suggestion, don’t hesitate to e-mail me.


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