My experience with flexible grouping

I began the school year with a fair amount of homogeneous grouping of my students.  I was notified of this prior to the school year so it wasn’t a surprise.  I’m writing this as a reflection of the process and how I’ve made it a successful one.  This subject is extremely sensitive among educators and a quick Google search will reveal advocates and opponents with relatively solid arguments.

It didn’t take long before I realized which class of students could be described as those students who previously had struggled in math class.  I invested a lot of time and energy trying to empathize with them about their prior experiences in math classes.  Their experiences in math classes were far different than mine, so it was important that I try to get an accurate picture of their feelings towards math.  I could imagine how awful it must be to walk into math class feeling behind everyone else (in a heterogeneous class).  I could imagine how hopeless it would feel sitting down to take test after test I was not ready for.  I could imagine how frustrated it would be to receive a homework assignment that I had no clue how to do and no one at home to help me with it.  I could imagine the fear and embarrassment of being called upon in math class when I really didn’t understand what I was asked to do.

In the first few weeks of school, I went about my teaching just as I had every other year.  I was trying my best to keep every class at the same pace, on the same schedule.  After all, it’s a pain when your classes are all at different levels, right?  You’ve got to plan a different lesson for each class, design appropriate instructional materials, identify weaknesses and determine efficient ways to address those weaknesses.  It finally dawned on me that I was fighting the very thing I had asked for in the first place.  I also realized I was part of the problem for those classes of students best described by the previous paragraph.

I made a silent commitment to myself and to those students that I would change their feelings towards math and would stop the relentless battering of fear, embarrassment, and frustration.  Early in an 8th grade math course, it doesn’t take long to realize which students aren’t proficient in adding and subtracting negative numbers.  I’ve taught 8th grade math long enough to know that a weakness in a fundamental skill such as adding and subtracting negative numbers will lead to a fearful, embarrassing, and frustrating year of 8th grade math.  I had to make a change in my classes.

I realized that until these fundamental skills like adding/subtracting and multiplying integers were strengthened, there was no reason to race through the curriculum covering concept after concept because I knew my students would never see mastery or proficiency with their current skill-set.  I also realized that I needed to reverse their perceptions about math.  This became a turning point for me and those students who had previously struggled in math class.

I decided to spend a week on skills that I knew those students could perform with a measure of proficiency.  We practiced reducing common fractions.  We practiced turning a fraction or decimal into a percent.  This completely changed the outlook on what I was able to do next.  Now my students had experienced some success.  They could feel the tide was finally turning.  I was able to get more of them talking in math class.  They were so appreciative and responsive to my attempts to give them something they could complete!  This set the tone for the weeks to follow.  I began to really differentiate my plans and preparation for these classes.  I felt relieved of the pressure and demands to maintain pace and cover the material.  Now my students could come to math class with hope and a positive attitude.  Now I could come to class with hope and a positive attitude.

I know what you’re thinking.  “Do the students realize which classes are the ‘slow class’?  How do you implement flexible groups without stigmatizing students?”  Developing that trust and honesty with students is crucial.  Students need to know their teacher is out for the best interests and wants them to succeed.  Albeit, this is true no matter how your students are grouped, but it is even more important to develop this early when students are grouped by ability.  Give your students a chance to succeed.  That chance needs to be much different than the one they were previously given.  Students need to see that you’re willing to adjust the pace of instruction so give them the opportunity to provide feedback about how the class is going.  See a version of my students’ responses about my class.  When you come to a fork in the road and not sure what to do, ask the students.  I also incorporate Standards Based Learning and Grading, which allows my students to retake assessments designed to demonstrate mastery of standards.  When I hear students who have historically struggled in math say “I finally got a 100% on something” or “I haven’t got an A on anything in math since fourth grade” I know that the student appreciates my efforts.

I’ve identified a few things that have made this transition successful for me and my students:

  • Adjust the pace!  One-size does not fit all.  The same target is OK, but use a variety of vehicles to get there.  When I get to a fork in the road and not sure whether to move on or stay put, I ask the students.
  • Let your students feel successful early and often.  This is very important and will help remove any evidence of the stigma that clouds ability-grouping.
  • Be open and honest about what skills need filled in and what needs demonstrated in order to move.
  • Actually move students.  This is NOT a static group.  Students need to flex and be moved to classes where they’ll remain challenged.  To date, I’ve moved 11 students with the help of my school counselor.  Students will catch on if no one’s schedule ever gets changed.  Be wary of the stigma.
  • Give students a voice and receive their feedback.  Students respond more positively when they know they have a voice in the process.  Every student in my lowest class understands they are there to succeed, I believe in them, and the focus is learning.  The alternative has not been forgotten.
  • I feel this is the knot that ties it all together: communicate communicate communicate.  You can’t be too positive.  I send at least 15 positive messages via text, email, card, or pat-on-the-back every week.  It’s actually easy to do once you start.

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