So Ryder and I just posted a picture of the two of us in hoodies.  I am not one to twist an ankle jumping on a bandwagon of social justice, but Trayvon Martin’s death resonates with me on many levels.  I have taught, coached and mentored many a Trayvon Martin.  I have also done the same for many others- and invariably at the core of so many of my interactions has been that above all, character, tolerance, effort, courage and love.  Russell Baker’s autobiography represents one of the most accessible and transcendent non-fiction titles for adolescents.  In it, he talks about being cared-for in his youth by Annie Grigsby- born in slavery. I always took pause to point out to my students that Mr. Baker is still alive. That means that someone who is alive knew a former slave in his youth.  Think about that fact- it should cause us all to consider that the slave era in our history is not so far in the past as most would think.  As much as we believe that such intolerances are likewise in our past, those of us who understand that intolerance is a learned/taught behavior and not an innate instinct know different.  A neophyte does not evolve from the womb with hate in his/her heart- quite the contrary. We are born with the instinct to connect- to build relationships that comfort, secure and please us.  If there is one element of this human tragedy that gives me hope that we are moving in the right direction, it is the overwhelming support that Trayvon and his family are receiving- support that transcends traditional “lines”.  From my vantage point, it appears that this event has galvanized our national community in pursuit of human justice.  In any event, as parents we have a responsibility to teach our children to embrace everyone, not to judge and to forgive.  It is human instinct to want our children to have a better life than we had- and an often forgotten part of that is that we need to give them a world better than the one we were given Teaching and exemplifying human relations with all represents the highest form of improving the world we pass on to our children. 


The Evolution of Choice

As a young English teacher, I was mentored by tremendous academicians and educators at an elite independent school in Tampa.  My good fortune in being part of such an excellent team of instructors, led by one of the top department chairs in the independent school world, has to this day been one of the most integral components of my success.  As I gained skill and savvy in the classroom, my students achieved to greater heights.  We taught each other- somehow, I became a better learner in my experiences as a young teacher than I displayed when I was in school as a student.  As I moved on with my career, the magic of reputation allowed me to gain tremendous liberation in what, how, when and to what extend I taught and guided my classes.   I also began to realize that the rigor and single-mindedness of my mission to help mold great AP writers and readers was yielding great returns.  It was said that students who “survived” Roth’s class were set for high school and beyond. I loved this reputation- and perpetuated it with substance and style for a couple years.  Then I realized through conversations with former students that while they were great in their skills, very few had the passion for the process of displaying the skills that I had hoped for them to have. I learned a good lesson that being good at something doesn’t always mean that we will love to perform.  I shifted my attention ever-so-slightly to focus on not only helping my students develop great skills, but more importantly to focus on helping them love to write and read sophisticated literature.   I made one simple decision that changed my course dramatically.  I started to give my students choices regarding how and what they wrote.  Yes, there would still be formalities, structures, expectations, standards and rubrics- but I began to leave open to individual interpretation the how and what of these areas.  Further, I started to create tiered, thematically driven reading lists for our differentiated instruction units (Not called differentiated at the time, rather I used the term Varied Instruction Unit or Individual Reading Projects).   I would develop a list of books that I felt students had enjoyed in the past, and made sure there were levels of sophistication that would have the texts appeal to readers and be accessible to the different abilities represented in the class.  Accessible titles were those that all students would be able to experience, moderate titles were a bit more challenging and sophisticated titles were those that were the most challenging.  I took a good amount of time to summarize each one for the students and encouraged them to research the titles online, talk with friends who had read the books and with parents.  By allowing such autonomy in selecting their title, students had greater efficacy in the experience.  Further, when we had already completed a couple of these units, and with passing years, the word of mouth about different books became a powerful influence in kids choosing books the expected  to love, rather than dreaded reading because they had to do so.   Further, many parents started to hear about books that the kids loved, and they started to read with their children creating an opportunity to have a learning community that extended to include the parents, students and teachers.  With increased passion and joy in the reading process, came greater zeal and verve in the writing process.  Students were now moving on to upper school courses with the same skills, but now they added the love of reading, the knowledge of what types of titles they enjoyed, the added extension of having experience reading and discussing literature with parents and peers and a more well-rounded conception of writing about literature.  This differentiated approach brought me closer to the ideal of inspiring a learning community amongst our students and families- certainly a more impactful and meaningful endeavor than merely developing a group of Roth-Survivors who could do anything with books and writing, but lacked a love and passion for doing so.

Theory and Differentiation

John Knowles’ classic  A Separate Peace has been taught in the middle school classroom for many years.  The complexity of the first person narrative from Gene’s perspective, his relationship with his peers, school, teachers, community and world reveal the very nature of the early adolescent experience in a competitive, pressure-filled school environment.  Conflict, friendship, competition, identity, change, confusion, world relevance, efficacy and the struggle between success and failure (and the resulting impact each has on the sense of self and one’s relationship with others) are all elements of the text that appeal to adolescents.  Although I have always known that the appeal lies in the students’ ability to recognize so much of their own experience in the experiences of the characters, the process of studying educational psychology and reading the multitude of research articles has given me theoretical and empirical basis to understand why the events of the book unfold as they do. For instance, many believe we all have neurotic needs, and that we either pursue them healthily, or neurotically.  The early adolescent, who is experiencing greater change during the 12-15 year range than any other three year period, whether the change is physical, emotional, intellectual, spritual, psychological etc.  struggles with the pursuit of these needs.  Since the adolescent spends more time at school, with teachers, peers, coaches and administrators,  the need for educators to be aware of the healthy and neurotic pursuit of these needs by adolescents is necessary for us to better serve the middle school aged student.  Increasingly in the classroom, the use of differentiation and varied instructional, curricular and assessing methods is providing the diverse population that is the middle age student with a higher level experience.

Carol Tomlinson defines differentiation. “Differentiation can be defined as an approach to teaching in which teachers proactively modify curricula, teaching methods, resources, learning activities, and student products to address the diverse needs of individual students and small groups of students to maximize the learning opportunity for each student in a classroom” (Tomlinson, 1999).  Tomlinson’s name appears in so many of the most effective resources I found on differentiation, so I have adopted her definition as the archetype.

My original motivation for writing this piece was to explore how a complex theory regarding neurotic needs and/or perfectionism could help educators gain a better understanding and awareness of the highly dynamic middle school population with the goal being to provide basis for more purposeful differentiation. Neurotic needs, perfectionism, achievement goal orientation and efficacy are all areas about which educators and parents need to be aware as educators’ recognition and understanding of these through being aware of how they are manifest in student behavior can be a tremendous tool for those  who desire to best serve their students through differentiation.


Tomlinson, C. A., Brighton, C., Hertberg, H., Callahan, C. M., Moon, T., Brimojoin, K., et al (2003).Differentiating Instruction in Response to Student Readiness, Interest, and Learning Profile in Academically Diverse Classrooms. Journal for the Education of the Gifted , 119-145.Retrieved on May 22, 2010 from Wilson Educational Full Text.