How a 4th-Grade Teacher Used Differentiated Instruction to Build Student Self-Confidence
Picture a nine-year-old boy, up extra-early on a Wednesday morning in May to put the finishing touches on his end-of-year school project. It is a project he has been working on and researching for months, and it all culminates with a presentation in front of his teacher and all his classmates. He is ashen with anxiety and he has faint circles beneath his eyes from a restless night’s sleep. You can see him already start to unravel at the kitchen table when he can’t seem to get his Prezi presentation path to render correctly.
This nine-year-old was actually my stepson barely two months ago. This is a little boy who cares so deeply about so much—about LEGOS, his family, protecting endangered animals, playing baseball, and about what his friends and teachers think of him. We’d seen his steady work on this project and knew he was well-prepared for that morning’s capstone presentation. But I remember the knot in my stomach that morning as I watched him put on his brave face and leave for school, like a soldier walking toward a threat he could not yet see.
His presentation was scheduled for 12:30pm that day, and I can only imagine what those hours leading up to it were like for him. His teacher had scheduled several students to present that afternoon and the rest of the kids were huddled around clustered desks in a sweltering, late-May classroom. They all seemed to be leaning forward, engaged and supportive of their peer presenters.
A fourth-grade girl was finishing up her project overview and the teacher asked her several good, probing questions that required her to think on her feet. Then it was my stepson’s turn to present. After a few anguishing minutes of technical haggling to pull up his Prezi, it was game time.
I could see in his face and body language he was still nervous and I could barely breathe. As he cautiously started to speak, his teacher very naturally engaged him in an almost conversational introduction to his project—asking him a few leading questions about why he loved LEGOS and what motivated him to do the project in the first place. It couldn't have lasted more than 45 seconds but its impact on my stepson was profound.
"Differentiation is simply a teacher attending to the learning needs of a particular student or small groups of students, rather than teaching a class as though all individuals in it were basically alike."
— Carol Ann Tomlinson
His entire demeanor transformed and he went through his presentation in an easy and articulate way, with a smile on his face the whole time. When it came to Q&A, he got plenty of questions from the class and he fielded them all like a pro. His teacher pitched a few himself and, though they sounded almost spontaneous, I could tell that each one was tapping into knowledge retrieval that was specific to him and his LEGO project.
I can only imagine that if we had seen all of the other student presentations, we would have continued to pick up on their teacher’s knack for personalizing his communication and strategy for each student, to draw out their knowledge and self-confidence. I do know that the radiating little boy who came home from school looked nothing like the weary soldier I’d seen trudge out the door that same morning.
One thing I expected to see in him was relief—relief that the whole stressful thing was over with and that he could now smooth sail into summer. But relief was not the feeling he came home with at all. Instead, he brought home a new sense of pride and self-confidence because he realized:
- He really, REALLY knew his stuff about LEGOS and was able to share that with his friends.
- And he’d actually had fun doing it.
It was the lightbulb that illuminated his self-confidence scaffolding, which he will rely upon to face down the new challenges waiting for him just around the corner in 5th grade.