Three years before The Differentiated Classroom by Carol Ann Tomlinson hit the shelves and became a staple in many schools in America, Cathy Roller communicated a similar message in Variability Not Disability. Roller's book, which details her work in a residential summer camp for students with learning difficulties, makes the case for viewing students with learning disabilities as students with learning differences. During their time in the program, students are immersed in a reading workshop. The workshop looks much like any other workshop. In her workshop, Roller faces a challenge that many others don't experience: Roller's students arrive with deep and abiding prejudices against reading. Her results have been remarkable.
Those with a good understanding of workshops can attest to the fact that teaching in this way not only accommodates learning differences, but that the learning differences actually contribute to the success of the workshops. Students validate each others' ideas and come up with unique ways of seeing things and demonstrating knowledge. Those behaviors are integral to a successful workshop. Students in Roller's summer program brought those abilities to the table. In order to accomplish progress toward the goal of literate behaviors, the students were nurtured and their abilities were refined.
While it is true that some learning differences require intervention with strategies found outside of workshops, it is also important to acknowledge the clear links between the acclaimed principles of a differentiated classroom and those used by Roller and her differently skilled students. One of the recurrent themes in her book is that all students can learn in a system that respects their abilities. Classrooms (whether unique like Roller's, or common in workshop format across America) in which flexibility, collaboration, appreciation of differences, and a clear focus about what matters in the curriculum are present, will produce great student learning.