Let's Talk About Text, Baby: Differentiate

Education certainly holds no corner market on empty jargon, but we're no slouches either. Schools--especially those designated as underperforming under NCLB (now Race to the Top) after failing to meet AYP for particular subgroups who did not achieve a proficient score in ELA on the MCAS which the Mass DESE says requires implementation of EPPs or IEPs and early intervention through safety nets via the IST which may or may not support the vision of the ILT, RLC, or the PLCs--well, let's just say we are no strangers to jargon. We typically keep a lot of this useless verbiage circulating among the adults, however, preferring to save our valuable time in front of students teaching vocabulary that matters in real life.

So today when I checked the homework of one of my brightest and most diligent students and found that he had used the word "differentiate" in his writing, my English-teacher heart did a quick pitter-patter as I saw a twenty-dollar word gracing the topic sentence. Pitter-patter quickly became palpitations when I realized he had misused the word. Normally, I wouldn't care. Normally, I would just be thrilled that a sophomore spelled it correctly and used it in a context that was in the general universe of its intended meaning.

So, really, it wasn't the misuse that disheartened me, if I'm being honest. It was the particular way he misused it that made my temporal lobe absolutely throb. He had written, "Discipline and abuse must differentiate depending on the situation." Okay, yeah, he's in the ballpark. And when I explained how to use the word correctly, he understood immediately. But in the back of my head, I was remembering how just two days earlier, I had heard a seasoned teacher say something quite similar in one of our [insert acronym] meetings. "The math and science skills will have to differentiate for this to work," he had said, without the least stumble of hesitation. I shuddered with the memory and then did something I usually wouldn't. I said to the kid, "Have you heard this word used a lot lately?" to which he replied, "Yeah." And I said, "Me too. Just be aware that this word is being thrown around a lot, and most people don't know how to use it correctly. Even teachers." And he said, "Uh-huh," and gave me a little grin, and added, "Now that you've explained it, I realize I don't think anyone is saying it right."

"I don't think anyone is saying it right"? Kid, you have no idea how right you are.

So, what does it mean to differentiate? I'll let you pull out your favorite dictionary to get a layperson's definition. But if you want to know what it means within the jargon-rich context of a school like mine, you'll have to ask someone who doesn't work here.

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