When you’re differentiating, the ability to run multiple groups in one class is an essential skill. Here’s a guide based on my own experience teaching math (and here’s one for language arts).
See It In Action
The best way to get a handle on what this looks like is to close your computer and walk to a classroom that already has a differentiated practice in place. No one at your school runs multiple groups? Ask your administrator to let you visit another school and watch it. They won’t let you? Take a darn sick day then! Seriously, this is essential. Watching an experienced teacher in action will answer way more questions than reading about it will.
Onto my own experience.
Begin With Pre-Assessment
If a student can already score 85% to 100% on material that I have not taught, it’s fair to say that they don’t need my lessons! So, I need to be pre-assessing. Benefits of pre-assessment:
- Students who already know material are allowed to work on something appropriate to their ability.
- On-level students receive instruction in a smaller group.
- Everyone works at their level, reducing behavior problems and boredom while increasing learning.
My school’s math program happened to have two versions of each test, a multiple-choice and an open-answer version. We all used the open-ended version as a pre-assessment. This way, it reduced students’ chances of working backward or otherwise fudging their way to success. I don’t want kids accidentally testing out.
Note: You don’t have to use the whole test! Grab the hardest questions that represent the material well. If kids can get the tough parts right, we don’t really need to ask the easy questions. Teachers I worked with called this “The Hardest Five.” They’d pick the hardest five questions from a lesson or chapter and use those for their pre-assessment.
Don’t have an open-ended version? A teacher I knew just photocopied the multiple-choice test, but covered the multiple-choice answers with a post-it. Boom. Instant open-ended version!
Use as much of your base program as possible. It’ll save you lots of time and align well with your daily instruction.
Giving The Assessment
I tried lots of different ways of giving the pre-assessment. One that I settled on was just asking students to come in at lunch if they wanted to take the test. They ate their lunch while they worked. I’d end up with a dozen or so students. Some kids took one look at the questions, laughed, and handed it right back – realizing they’d never pass. No problem. I don’t think this is the best or only way of doing it, but it worked in my situation.
I also tried giving the pre-assessment during work time or as just a block of time. Sometimes I had everyone try and sometimes I made it optional. Do what works for you and your students!
Using my pre-assessment data, I created the typical “Passed/Didn’t Pass” groups. 90% was usually the cut-off score.
Eventually, I ended up paying more attention to the group that scored between 75% and 90%. I realized that, with a score that high, it often meant they only missed one concept. Sometimes they just needed a quick mini-lesson and they’d say, “Ohhh! Now I see.”
I didn’t want students sitting through two weeks of lessons because they just didn’t know one detail. 80% on a test without any instruction is still pretty darn impressive. So, I’d try to be flexible.
In the end, kids who scored high enough had these benefits/rules:
- Didn’t have to complete daily homework.
- Didn’t have to take any quizzes.
- Received the top score in their grade book (this is because some kids would be mad if they got a 90% instead of 100%. We’d review the missed problem and then they’d get their precious 100%).
- Had to work quietly during math time – repeated disruption means loss of privilege.
- Worked on some kind of (mostly) independent project with some mini-lessons from me.
How To Create Assignments
This is the most difficult part of the program: creating projects for compact groups. I wrote about the four qualities I look for when designing a math project.
I always try to incorporate a construction element that can be made more or less complex depending on how long the unit takes for the rest of the class. Again, dig into your math program for some starting points. Here are some sample projects I’ve created.
Grading The Projects
In the end, my “test-out” group would present their final product to the rest of the class. People always wonder about grading this group’s project. I say, they already got a grade for this material from their pre-test! So I don’t “grade” their project.
People worry that this means kids will then produce cruddy projects and waste their time. If so, that’s an easy problem to solve: they don’t get to test out again for two chapters (or something). But in reality, I’m checking in with this group (at least) a couple of times during the math period. I am aware early if we have a problem. And, frankly, I never really had a student who was a problem. Kids really really like not having to sit through lessons and do homework. They do not want to risk losing it!
Sidenote: I’d actually grade their presentation itself for my Language Arts “speaking skills” grade – but that’s the bonus of being a multiple-subject teacher.
Again, check out this post for more of the nitty-gritty tips on pre-assessment.