[Elementary Learning] A Unique Approach for Differentiation

Thursday, March 10, 2016 -- Stephanie Abbott

Several weeks ago, I had the chance to go to the Pennsylvania Education Technology Expo and Conference (PETE&C). I attended a wide variety of sessions, covering topics including technology, instructional approaches, and professional development. I was amazed by how innovative educators can be. Thinking outside the box means that students are getting the best possible education experience, even if it does mean more work for the adults who teach and manage the students’ school day.

Here’s an idea that I share to plant the seed for reflection, motivation, and inspiration. Take away what may work for you, remembering that putting the student first usually means that things will be better for educators.

In one session, I sat with Amanda from St. Thomas Elementary School in Maryland, who was describing how she structured her class day. Her routine included projecting materials during whole-class instruction, followed by working with small groups. “And then,” she told me, “the students switch.” WHAT? I taught middle school, and I loved switching classes. I got a five-minute mental break to reflect and adjust. I loved the diversity—the combination of personalities and skill levels. However, elementary students come with a different set of focus and attention-span challenges. So, how does switching classrooms work for the youngest of students?

Amanda admitted that some days are challenging but said, for the most part, there are advantages for everyone. Students are grouped by ability as they move from one classroom to another. This flexible grouping results in the ultimate level of instructional differentiation. The key factor is that the groups are changed based upon the skill being taught. So, a student may be in one group for an ELA lesson because he or she knows his or her vowel sounds but in another group for reading comprehension. Amanda confirmed that all of the teachers have to be on board for every child to see success and that their principal is the driving force behind the plan.  Amanda called attention to three characteristics that teachers must possess in order to make this method work:

1. Reflective: Each week, all of the teachers on Amanda’s team develop a written reflection covering what worked, what didn’t, who made progress, and which students weren’t successful. This reflective process helps create a blueprint for the upcoming week. By acknowledging the highs and the lows in an honest way, students are at the heart of the teachers’ planning process. As an educator, I truly appreciate the collaboration required to make this work.

2. Flexible: Student grouping needs to be fluid, sometimes on a daily basis. Teachers address needs as discovered, shifting students between groups to fill skill gaps and acknowledge growth. This means that every day in every lesson, students are where they need to be to gain the most.

3. Adaptive: These teachers have become extremely creative and proactive. If a problem is discovered while working with one group, changes to lesson plans are quickly made. The expectation is that the grouping and lessons adapt to the students, not the opposite.

Sharon Vaughn of the Texas Center for Reading and Language Arts believes that a teacher’s grouping practices “provide a means for supporting effective instruction for all students, meeting the cultural and linguistic needs of all learners, and enhancing opportunities to learn for students with special needs.” It is readily apparent that the administrators and teachers at St. Thomas Elementary School have taken this practice to heart.

Want to learn more about how Edmentum’s online programs can support individualized instruction in your classroom? Check out our Comprehensive Elementary Solution – EducationCity & Study Island!