Differentiation is difficult. There is no doubt about it. I’ve been on a mission to find small ways to differentiate without stressing myself out, and without stressing out the teachers I work with.

I often found myself realizing that I was giving one math problem to the whole class when I’d look at my gifted kids faces. You know that look on their face? That boredom in their eyes look…where they’d rather be someplace else than sit and do another problem that they already know how to do. That is what inspired my idea of just putting two problems up, a *meets the targe*t (happy) problem and an *exceeds the target* (stressful) problem. I always explain to the students that if you are able to complete the happy problem correctly, you are meeting the target. It is even more impressive if you can do the stressful problem, but it’s not necessary.

Here is an example. Today in a second grade classroom the learning target was adding 2 digit numbers mentally (without regrouping). I put up two problems, the happy one was a check for me to see who had it. (They worked in their notebooks but it’s also great to use dry erase boards.) The stressful problem is the one that students who need to stretch their thinking just a bit might try after doing the happy problem.

Using two faces makes it both visual and fun for students. Cut them out and reuse them over and over!

I keep those little face headings handy, they go up on dry erase boards, chalkboards, and easels…wherever we are doing math. If I forget to put two problems, the students definitely remind me. They love to see the stressful problem face, especially the first time when I draw it in front of them. You can use this method during quick checks, problem solving, mini lessons, practice, mental math…the possibilities are limitless. This is something that can be done quickly, and doesn’t require hours and hours of work.

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Fabulous! I wish I had known this years ago!

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I like the idea, but I have a question. Why do you propagate the idea that math is stressful? Math is fun, math is great. I don’t think 7 year Olds should be encouraged to think math is stressful. Could you find a different adjective with a less negative connotation? Excell, adventurous, stretching? I teach HS Science and my students mostly cringe at math, any math. We need to break this stereotype that math is bad.

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Theresa, thank you so much. You are SO RIGHT. I should use a different adjective. Maybe an “on target” and “challenge” problem. Thank you for making me think!

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I love your posts about about simple differentiation! It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Do you have students who never try the stressful problem but are capable of completing it? You know those frustrating students who do the minimum. Do you have any tips for motivating them?

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Elena, I simply walk over and give them the hard problem on their paper/board! 🙂

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