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Differentiated Instruction: Meeting the Needs of All RCSD Students

Differentiated Instruction: Meeting the Needs of All RCSD Students


Like bumblebees on a flowering bush, children buzz about the classroom from one activity to the next. Each knows his or her task for this portion of the day and is excited to accomplish their job. There is an audible hum of liveliness and joy as the students work together in small groups or on individual projects. 

Some work in pairs solving math equations, others catch up on their typing skills at the computer tables, and a few have grouped at the writing center to tackle today’s journaling. Their teacher sits at a table to the side of the room, reading with five students who needed just a little more guidance to understand the morning class reading.

This is in contrast to the traditional set up of desks neatly lined up in rows, children facing toward the teacher who delivers the lessons of the day. Practiced at all Redwood City School District (RCSD) sites and in “virtual” group settings, differentiated instruction provides flexible learning that tailors to the individual student’s needs--academically, physically and emotionally. 

“This provides opportunities to support students in a way that is at their level,” said Dr. Linda Montes, assistant superintendent. “It’s just part of what we do.”

Through differentiation, each child can excel and grow using a more personalized plan based on assessments throughout the school year. Teachers can tailor content, environment, and process to provide a curriculum that works well for a student’s specific needs and learning style. 

Within one classroom, students can work in flexible groups and use nontraditional workstations so that one teacher can cater to a diverse group.

Monica Volz, fourth grade teacher at Roosevelt School, said her students have learned best when they are able to make choices and are comfortable so she typically has many options about seating and grouping in the room. When using distance learning platforms, small group learning sessions are accomplished from the comfort of home.

“My classroom is completely flexible,” she said. “This means that I have different chairs and tables instead of the standard desks and chairs we are used to. I have a tall table for students to stand while they work, I have a floor table for students to sit on cushions on the floor, I have a picnic table with wobble cushions, I have a circular table with yoga ball chairs for students who need to bounce while they work.”

Classroom Seating at Roosevelt School

Volz makes sure there are choices in how the students can learn, whether in the classroom or from home, and how they can show mastery of materials, too.

“Differentiated instruction is about the teacher finding the needs of the student and meeting them where they are instead of expecting the learner to meet the needs of the teacher,” she said. Her students can work in stations, in groups, or individually as they need.

“They take action for their own learning,” Volz said. “They are responsible for deciding how they want to learn or what they want to learn about. Since they have a choice, and they have materials they need and want to be successful, they light up.”

Second grade teacher Cinthya Alvarez de Kanaday at Adelante Selby Spanish Immersion School said that differentiated instruction helps a teacher see the students holistically, meaning “we see each one of our students’ potentials individually by taking into consideration how developed they are intellectually, socio-emotionally, physically, artistically, and creatively.”

“Based on this data, we create lessons embedding the needs of the students as a whole group as well as individually,” she said. “This is so important to take into consideration in a classroom because everyone is different and every student learns in different ways.”

Both informal assessments based on observations, and formal assessments are key to differentiated instruction, said Alvarez de

Teacher Alvarez de Kannaday with Students

Kanaday. Assessments help her map out student groups, lessons, and methods on a daily basis.

Recognizing that each class of students is made up of a diverse and unique group, Felicia Tse, second grade teacher at Roosevelt School, has always used small groups as a means of differentiated instruction. She plans to add more methods each year because she sees so many benefits.

“All students learn at different rates, while also coming from different backgrounds and knowledge,” she said. “Students learn better when they are taught material that peaks their specific interests.” 

Tse added that the benefits of differentiation reach further than academics. Her students also grow by leaps and bounds socio-emotionally by having the freedom to make choices about their learning. 


Teacher Felicia Tse and Students

Aura Tello-Bartok, second grade teacher at Adelante Selby Spanish Immersion, spoke to impact on a student’s self esteem, as well.

“Students are able to work with tasks and materials that are at or slightly above their academic level most of the time,” she said. “For most students this helps to inspire confidence in themselves because of the fact that they are able to produce results and see gradual progress.  Dealing with content that is way above their reading or academic level, or content that is way too easy does not encourage students.”

Tello-Bartok said her goal in using differentiated instruction is to make the curriculum accessible to all students, to make them feel respected, and to keep them engaged throughout each unit of study. 

“It is effective because I see that it builds confidence in each student based on where their strengths are. It gives them opportunities to explore and shine based on what they can do at their level and their particular goals for improvement.”  


Update: Since we first published this story, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Linda Montes and Teacher Aura Tello-Bartok have both retired. Congratulations!