When we all first started to work in this untracked school, we worked under the premise that mixed ability meant we grouped kids by putting one of the top level kids, one of the lower level kids, and two in the middle (or some such combination). And sometimes, for some work, that is a good way to group. And other times it is not. And we’ve all felt the frustration of trying to challenge the higher achievers while still meeting the needs of the struggling students, and trying not to forget the middle. Like everything else, there are arguments for and against tracking. I think the arguments against are stronger because mixed ability classrooms give us the flexibility to take advantage of what both tracked and untracked classes offer.
When we talked about classroom structures like Literature Circles, people started questioning whether that isn’t a form of tracking. The funny thing is that I feel like some of the people that are questioning that are people that might actually favor tracking. It’s like a whole language vs. phonics argument—it’s not an either or. Mixed ability classes allow us to vary the way we structure groups according to our goals. Virtually, it’s an easy way to accomplish differentiated instruction AND allow for movement. So the kid in Dana’s class that’s reading Roll of Thunder rather than To Kill a Mockingbird might progress to the more difficult book in the next round of reading. But let’s be honest…the kid that can’t read To Kill A Mockingbird isn’t getting anything out of that book so why put it in his hands other than to reinforce the idea that reading is not for him? How many of us have read Cliff Notes (those of us too old for Spark Notes), gotten by on a test by taking notes during class discussion based on what the teacher thought was important in the text, cheated?
As we are starting to assess our 9th graders, we are finding that even our strongest students are reading below grade level. And that affects their ability to succeed in other content areas. It’s a bit scary, but also a bit of a relief to admit that same old, same old isn’t going to work. Is it going to be easy? Hell no! The best line so far has been one from Mike Lieber when Jamie asked what he thought of literature circles. Mike, in his inimitable way, said “it sounds like an awful lot of work.” And it is. Like any good student-centered work—a lot of work ahead of time in setting up the structure, and then an easier type of facilitating groups, listening in, pushing them with deeper questions, taking notes, asking kids that are doing well to model what works.
I’m reading a book by Nancie Atwell called The Reading Zone. In it, Atwell talks about kids that were avid readers in middle school and how they lost their love of reading. Some of us have kids that this is true of, some of us may have been kids like this. Atwell asks high school teachers to re-consider how they teach English, to think about what will make a true difference in the intellectual lives of their students. I think putting books in their hands that they can comprehend is one way to help them become better readers and have a love for reading. I will never forget the first time I attended an Open School Night at my own child’s school. Parents were asked to complete an interest inventory. Do you know how many were stumped when they were asked to name their favorite book? Do you know how many relied on answers like Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby because they hadn’t read a book since they were assigned the classics in high school? Isn’t our goal to have some of what we do carry over into their adult lives?
This is not to say that we will never do a whole class text. It’s just to say that if we want school to be more authentic we need to look at life. I’m in a book club with people that like the same type of books that I do. I don’t see the harm in providing that opportunity, that choice for our students. We can teach them what they “need” to know about literature through whatever they’re reading. It doesn’t need to be taken from the Uniform Lists, published in 1894, that teachers in NYC were already resisting in 1911 after they were persuaded that the differences in their diverse students should be valued over uniform requirements.
And this isn’t only about English. It just may be easier than it is in a content driven area. However, I think moving between groups of mixed abilities and groups of similar abilities can work to the advantage of the students in front of us.