Differentiation at the Gym #SOL19

Two weeks ago, I started attending a great exercise class at my local gym called Active. It’s a terrific combination of cardio, weights, abs, and balance.  The instructor gives just the right amount of guidance in advance of every move. Her constant stream of directions makes it fun and accessible. And it suddenly occurred to me – the instructor is a whiz at differentiation! “If you are finding this too much of a challenge, feel free to… If you want a bit more of a challenge, you can…” She was speaking my language! I could learn a thing or two from her.

And then I noticed that the young woman next to me was in great shape, but struggling. Not struggling in the out-of-shape sense, but struggling to follow along. She went left when we went right, backwards when we went forwards, too many repetitions, not enough repetitions. It wasn’t the usual uncoordination or lack of rhythm I’ve seen in classes before, though. And her slightly older companion in the row in front of her seemed to be doing OK, but kept turning around to speak to her struggling friend. And then it occurred to me – she doesn’t speak English, or at least not fluently. When they speak to each other, it’s in Spanish. She’s not benefitting from either the clear verbal directions or the differentiation the instructor was providing, because she cannot understand it. She was purely following along visually, perhaps catching bits of language here or there that makes sense. This broke my heart.

As an elementary school teacher, this experience has me thinking two things. First, how incredibly important differentiation is to support all learners. Differentiation requires that we attend to the learning needs of all students. This is critical if we are to maximize student growth and ensure individual student success. This is exactly what my Active instructor was doing and what I strive to do each day in my classroom. It certainly isn’t easy. Second, how frustrating and discouraging it is to be the struggling learner. I’d like to think that the young woman in my exercise class will keep coming back, but who knows. Will she become so frustrated that she gives up?  Do our ELs feel this same frustration? I’m sure they do. We are seeing an increase in the EL population in our district and I wonder if we are really doing enough for them. Mapping out instruction that supports them is an important part of my differentiation planning.

Much food for thought, and all from one exercise class at the gym.


Many thanks to the crew at Two Writing Teachers, and the extended SOL community, for giving us the time, space, and encouragement to live the writerly life here each Tuesday and every day in March. Won’t you join us?



8 thoughts on “Differentiation at the Gym #SOL19

  1. Christie! I think we are taking the same class…and having the same thoughts. I have been scared to join a gym for years, and I finally did. Now I go to regular classes of weights, balance, cardio…all of it. And I have been absolutely observing the teacher, how perfect she is at meeting all of us right where we are. Just walking around and commenting calmly and with just the right amount of serious, gentle, encouragement. Not too peppy, not drawing attention to any one person, not complimenting or criticizing with too much zeal. Just a steady, interested, expert exerciser who shines a flashlight for the rest of us. I am supergrateful to her, and for the first time ever, I feel like I can be a gym person. Conferring, growth mindset, independence, scaffolding…all of it. It’s so cool. Big hug! xx


  2. Differentiation at school and in life outside of school…It is certainly needed for learners in all walks and stages of life. Thank you for giving me something to ponder today, Christie. That’s a great post.


  3. I was just having a conversation with my yoga teacher about this topic. She is excellent at differentiation because she is an expert at yoga. She knows the moves, so she is able to modify and teach to each person’s strengths and weaknesses. We have lost this in schools where curriculum is the one and only way to reach and teach. I am very concerned about the driving force behind this kind of education.
    I love how your exercise class has spurred on your thinking about your own teaching.


  4. Wow! Such great connections. You had me thinking about extending challenges or support like exercise instructors often do- I think this could be great in the classroom. Like friendly voiceovers! I’m going to keep this in mind. Thanks for the insights.


  5. Isn’t it funny how the mind of a teacher never fully rests…there is always something new to notice, glean, or learn.

    “Will she become so frustrated that she gives up?” This line gave me pause. I thought of two students from last year’s class who could relate. And some from the previous year…

    I hope it gets easier for the person in your class just like I hope it does for my former students.

    Thanks for sharing your powerful takeaways.


  6. Thanks for this reflection. Differentiation makes a world of difference and while we practice it well in some areas, there are always blind spots. Your post gives me pause in thinking about where I might be missing or misunderstanding a student’s struggle in class.


  7. I too just joined a new exercise class and had similar thoughts as I struggle to keep up. My coordination fails me and I need to see not hear the directions given. Yes – how can we ensure we differentiate our instruction so we can all grow?
    Great thoughtful post.

    Liked by 1 person

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