This Week’s Feature: Differentiated Math Groups

This week I bring you a write up from Mandy who is a really amazing, super organized, teacher at my school. Her classroom is remarkable to walk into because there is evidence everywhere that she has a procedure and routine in place for everything. This gives her students a safe environment to build independence because they know exactly what is expected of them. When I first heard about how she and the other 6th grade teacher are running math groups I was overwhelmed by the idea of two groups running on totally different lessons at the same time, but as Mandy will explain she has a system for that! I am so happy to share this with you all because I feel that it is so important for every student to experience mastery of a concept.

I hope you read and enjoy this as much as I did!

Mandy Purcell
6th grade
Worcester Massachusetts

Tell us about what is working in your classroom?

This year we began a new math program called EnVisions Math. Aligned with the Common Core Standards and far more student-centered, the EnVisions program struck me as a program that would work for our students. Although the program embeds many opportunities for differentiation, it was not enough for the students in my classroom. The program begins with number sense; building the foundation for their yearlong (and lifelong) study of mathematics. Throughout the unit it became clear to me that a handful of my students were not grasping these critically important concepts.

These observations along with formative and summative assessment led me to create two math groups in my classroom. One group consists of the students who are on grade level or above grade level (Group A). The other group consists of students who are currently performing below grade level in mathematics (Group B). During each math block we are simultaneously running two lessons, with two groups, on two different topics. Both groups will eventually cover the same content; however the speed and teaching techniques are different. While students in Group A may take one day to cover a particular lesson, it is feasible that students in Group B may need to spend two to three days covering the material. By splitting the class into two groups students are given the opportunity to master the material without being forced along by the momentum of their classmates. As a teacher, this form of differentiation also allows me to teach my students in ways that work better for them. My students in Group B respond well to visuals and manipulatives, while those in Group A can grasp material in different ways. This year, Group B is a small group of only six students. This allows us to give them more one-on-one attention and support.

Why do you think this practice is working?

​I believe this practice is working because of my classroom community. I put in a lot of work at the beginning of the year laying the groundwork for how I expect my students to treat one another. We discuss, model, and practice what it means to be a member of our classroom family. It is my belief that this practice helps students to feel comfortable in the classroom and feel as though they are respected and supported by their classmates.

​I also believe this practice is effective because the students are seeing and understanding math in a more complete way. Since students are grouped by ability, they don’t move on until they have developed mastery over a concept. This is increasing their confidence in mathematics and allowing them to experience the feeling of a true and complete understanding.

How did you set this practice up in your classroom?

​I set this practice up in my classroom toward the middle/end of September. I wanted to give my students time to adjust to me and my classroom before making any decisions about their mathematical abilities. I also felt like I needed to gather several weeks of data before I could make an informed decision about my students. Once I determined the need for two math groups I began planning two math lessons for each day. Since my students are sixth graders, I wanted to be sensitive about the way I presented them with this change. I chose to pull the students slated for Group B out of the classroom and discuss my plans with them. I explained to them why I felt they needed this support and how important it was that they understand the concepts before moving on. Since I was also someone who struggled with math as a child, I was able to include a personal anecdote to help ease their minds about my decision.

​My class adjusted surprisingly well to the change. They were very supportive of each other and respectful. Although I didn’t anticipate issues, I was unsure of the response I would receive. Students now begin their day with a math message (do now problem) that is specifically for their group. They complete Minute Math (timed multiplication/division) which they progress through at their own pace. They play a quick math game with a partner whose fact knowledge is comparable to theirs. When it’s time for the math lesson the smaller group generally gathers at the front of the room or at the table outside the classroom. Sometimes I jump between groups, teaching and then giving them partner or independent work to do while I switch to the other group. At other times my student teacher will work with one group while I work with the other. The students have become so well-adjusted to the program that they’re able to handle the process. They are also assigned different homework assignments based upon their group and level.

Can you suggest any resources (links/books/articles) that would help someone else set this practice up?

​The Responsive Classroom: http://www.responsiveclassroom.org/

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