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Literacy at the Barre: A Focus on Differentiation

By Kathryn Caprino
 | Mar 22, 2018

Literacy at the BarreBarre is my new go-to fitness class.

When I signed up for my first class, I thought barre would allow me to escape briefly my world as a literacy teacher educator. And then I had this amazing teacher, who just happened to be a former English teacher. The way differentiation played out so organically in the class was something I wanted my students to see.  

In this blog post I share what I have learned about differentiation from the excellent barre teachers I have had and ask questions to help pre-K12 literacy teachers consider how we create spaces for and engage in differentiation.

  • Effective teachers create a positive environment that encourages risk-taking. The best studios always make me feel calm when I arrive and energized when I leave. How can we do this in our literacy classrooms? Can we design our classrooms like barre studios, adding soft lighting and incense? Maybe not all of us. How can we create environments that put students at ease so that they feel comfortable enough to take risks?   
  • Effective teachers encourage students to make decisions. At various times during my barre journey, including when I was expecting my first child and when I returned to the studio after having my little boy, I had to make adaptations that were appropriate for my fitness and ability levels. Sometimes these levels changed from class to class and even during class. Instructors’ comments, such as, “You make the choice” and “Whatever you need today” gave me the autonomy to decide what I wanted to work on or not work on in class. For example, during one of my most recent classes, I went up to relevé to challenge myself but also did modified push-ups when I was not sure if my arms could support me. How do we encourage our students to engage in this type of on-the-spot individual choice?
  • Effective teachers do not make students feel ostracized for needing modifications. I used to motivate myself during fitness classes by trying to outdo my classmates. I wanted to lift more weights or to hold my balance just a little longer. This changed when I attended a barre class 37 weeks into my pregnancy. There were things I just could not do. I had to learn—with my instructor's support, of course—the appropriate modifications. At first, I did not like doing arm circles with no weights while the woman next to me was using three-pound weights. But eventually, I learned to be confident in who I was and to not rely on social comparison. I also learned that a group of people can share a similar goal (e.g., to have a good barre workout) but reach that goal in myriad ways. How can we create this reality in our classrooms?
  • Effective teachers encourage students to push themselves. As educators, sometimes we wonder if we should offer students choices. What if they always select what is easy? From personal experience, I know this is not the way it goes. I have heard my barre instructors use phrases such as, “Whatever you are doing is awesome,” but then come back with, “You’re stronger than you think you are.” In these moments, I hold my weights up just a little bit higher or hold on for one more rep. The instructor’s praise does not fall on deaf ears. Like many of the pre-K–12 students with whom I have worked, we appreciate when our teachers notice we have done something well. How can we apply this in our literacy classrooms?
  • Effective teachers help students understand that barre is really hard. There are certain times—during plank especially—when I just want to stop. And sometimes I actually do have to stop (so that my arm does not fall off). But pushing through challenges is an important part of learning to read and write—or learning to teach reading and writing, for that matter. How do we encourage our students to push themselves as readers and writers and to strive to reach new levels?
  • Effective teachers celebrate strengths and accomplishments. One of the reasons I can push myself during barre classes is because my instructors are quick to celebrate my strengths as well as those of my classmates. When someone does something well, she is praised immediately. There are no gradebooks, no formal assessments—just simple praise for a job well done. Someone might have challenged herself to hold a move for just a bit longer. The person beside her might have stopped a few seconds before. Yet, they both did their best. How can we recognize each student’s personal growth and success?

I just scheduled my next barre class, and I am excited. I am equally excited for the work to come in our literacy classrooms.

Maybe we should all take some lessons from the barre. As we imagine our classrooms as studios, what are some steps we can take to foster differentiation in our literacy classrooms? I would love to hear your ideas!

Kathryn Caprino is an assistant professor of pre-K–12 new literacies at Elizabethtown College and a book blogger for teachers and parents at

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