Sunday, March 29, 2009

Differentiated instruction vs. tracking

Mayo Writes:
A conversation at lunch in 318 on Friday got me thinking. I need to clarify a few things in my mind, and perhaps others could help me in my thinking. Usually tracking is something that keeps kids locked in place for their entire academic experience. Those of us that went to school in NYC remember there was the top class, the bottom class, the middle class—and I, for one, know I had the same kids in my class from 1st grade to 5th grade. Same in tracked high schools—you’re in honors, AP, or regents track. There isn’t much movement among the tracks.

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.


Janine said...

I agree with Lori. My senior class is working in literature circles and their final project is a comparative research paper. They will work together on their papers, coming up with probing questions and using their journals for support.

My methodology wasn't exactly scientific. I culled the bookroom and looked for a variety of texts and genres that could be paired. (Granted, this is not exactly choice in its purest sense, but we need to work with what we have.) Some groups are working on gothic lit and reading Dracula and Frankenstein; the Modernist group is reading Gatsby and/or Hemingway. Another is reading two Tennessee Williams' plays. Other groups are studying the African American experience and the philosophy of Ayn Rand, respectively. Sure, the kids that have a greater aptitude for reading and want a challenge went for Rand, while the ones who are daunted by thickness gravitated toward Williams, but who could argue that Rand has more literary merit than Williams? It's all good.

I'd like to quote part of an online monograph from the California Department of Education on Differentiated Instruction. In its definition of flexible grouping, it states "Instruction is provided in flexible groupings to maximize student performance. Whole-group instruction or heterogeneous grouping may be used when the objectives are appropriate for the range of learners in the classroom. Homogeneous grouping may be used to customize specific instruction for assessed student needs."

Notice that it encourages homogeneous grouping where it addresses "specific instruction." We can't forget that "flexible" is the operative word here. Heterogeneous groups all the time isn't reasonable and doesn't service kids. We also can't forget that high-quality instruction is what matters most.


Anonymous said...

As a teacher who is attempting literature circles, I have many thoughts going through my mind. While the literature circles are reaching the lower level kids (sometimes!), my higher level kids are not getting a deeper analysis and understanding of the text (which is why I am compensating for that by torturing myself, by creating higher level thinking questions for EVERY GROUP. OY!) There is so much theory, and yet the practice is such a different's exhausting. My lower level students are most often also the students who are the least motivated. Therefore, I spend so much time working with them, and yet many of them are still not even reading the text that is ON their level.

The higher level students are having ON TASK conversations, but are not pushing their thinking. While I do sit in groups and push their thinking, you can only really do this with one or two groups per class and the rest are just doing "plot summaries".

I'm beginning to think that we need to be really careful with which books we choose for literature circles. Books are not just about "plot" which is really all they have been looking for. While we've discussed themes, and characterization, the deeper analysis still always only comes from me. The books I chose are so deep, and need to be analyzed, therefore I feel frustrated with the lack of analysis my kids are missing without my guidance.

There is also so much being gained (self-directed learning, holding each other accountable...).There is so much to teach in a book that is also being lost in literature circles (analysis, the bigger picture, guidance, class conversation). I think literature circles are like anything else, too much of anything is not good either. Especially in an English class, where our job is entirely skills based, we need to offer students a variety of skills, projects, options, etc.

Everything we do is (unfortunately) aways geared towards one level or another. Literature circles (at least in my class) are better for the middle and lower level learners. Therefore, 1/3 of my class (the higher level) is still relatively bored, which was the same as before when I was teaching the whole class novel and the lower 1/3 was bored. They have on task conversations, and the literature is differentiated, but their brains are capable of so much more, and I don't know how to get them all there in every class. What to do?

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with the last post... It follows the same pattern that most differentiation leads to the dumbing down of the curriculum. Literature circles work great for someone like Nancie Atwell who teaches small classes with extended blocks -- not for the majority of us who teach large classes for about 40 minutes. I hope someone answers your question!