Sunday, June 21, 2015

Grouping for Differentation Without Losing Your Mind

So, you've decided (or it was decided for you. In our school, we call this being 'voluntold'.) to take on Guided Math, or Math Rotations, or whatever you want to call it. Bottom line is, most of your instruction will take place in small groups. This sounds daunting, but, in the long run, when done well, will make your classroom a more engaging place, better able to meet individual needs. This is a good thing. Now what?

Here's what you don't want to do: In a staff meeting last year, a friend, colleague, and generally competent teacher said - yup, right out loud - "I don't need all of that data crap. I know where my kids are." and in doing so, violated two Cardinal rules. 1. If the bosses ears turn red, for the love of Pete, shut up. Now. and 2. 'Knowing where your kids are' is very subjective and very general. Sure, Andrew is quite a mathematician.  Is he good at every single skill? What about my EC kids? Are they bad at everything? Of course, the answer is no.

In order to group well, you need to get down to the nitty-gritty. You need to know specifics. You need data.

Now, in her defense, this colleague has 3 boys of her own under the age of 7. She's up to her eyeballs, and gathering data is one more #$%& thing she's got to do. What she needed to know is that it doesn't have to be a big deal. It can be easy.

Five Easy Rules for Grouping
1. Keep It Fluid.  You are not grouping for the year, or even the unit. My units are broken down into very small chunks, often a single skill, like Adding and Subtracting Fractions with Different Denominators. I expect my groups to last between 4 and 7 days, and then I'll assess, which means I'll probably regroup. This accomplishes a couple of things, one, it keeps kids where they need to be. You can't build a house on a foundation of sand. If this is a foundational skill or one I know is hit hard on the state test, kids will stay with it until it's under control. Others move on. Two, it keeps everything positive. Finding yourself in a buzzard group from time to time isn't a big deal, because it isn't permanent. In the end, you'll find that pretty much every child will be a red robin, a bluebird, or a buzzard (How's that for a throwback?) at least once, and that makes a big difference in everyone's attitudes. It puts focus on skills, rather than identity.

2. Keep It Short.   It doesn't take 20 problems to know whether or not a kid can already do long division. It takes 3 or 4. Don't make yourself crazy by creating yourself a ton of grading. Again, if you think of your groups as being for a single skill, that's all you've got to collect data for. This also keeps you from spending a boatload of time in assessment.

3. Keep It Simple. See above. Assessments can be a lot of things. Three or four problems on a sheet, a prompt in a notebook ("Write down everything you remember about fractions." or "What does a 6 in this place represent? How do you know?") or even the quiz you plan to give at the end of this skill. (Seriously, they're not going to memorize the answers.) There are plenty of pre-assessments available on TpT, but you really don't need to go to that much trouble and expense to create groups.

4. Keep It Data-Driven. Yes, you'll have kids, and even parents, who will want to know what happened if a kid who's usually an achiever find him/herself in an "I don't get it." group. These conversations always go easier if you can say, "Here's what I noticed when you did your pre. No worries, we'll get it tackled." rather than "Well, I just don't feel like you're getting it." When you talk data, the kids learn to do that, too, and their conversations change. They generalize less. (I'm really good at whole number division, but I need work on dividing fractions." vs. "I suck at math.")

5. Personality Does Play In. The number of high/middle/low groups is likely to differ as you go through the curriculum. If I've got two middle groups and two personalities that need separation, obviously that's going to happen. Have I ever bumped a kid up or down a group so that those personalities aren't together? You bet. Not often, but if the grouping is likely to disrupt everyone else, sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do. (You may even have behavior data to support it.)

A Bonus from a Veteran Teacher: Four groups seems to be, in any subject, the most any  one teacher can handle. Any time I (or anyone else I know) tries for five groups, it all goes very wrong. I've attempted it with both math and word study. Five's too many. Just don't go there.

I hope this takes some of the stress out of getting yourself ready to make the jump to differentiated teaching (whichever of its many names you might be using.) Questions? Vet teacher experiences that might help newer teachers get it right? Let me know!

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