How I Teach

I know the buzzwords. “I actively differentiate instruction in my classroom.”

What I do, really, is group my students by ability. Within the first week of school, I’ve used assessment tests and observation to group my kids. My desks are arranged in groups of 4, with some in tight clusters and others in “L” shapes because otherwise one student would have his back to me. Top student groups go in the back, weakest in the front, behavior problems who refuse to work way off to the sides ideally by themselves or well-behaved mid-level students (where the behavior problems will often eventually work, if only out of boredom. Or they sleep.)

Most lessons are two days, occasionally 3. I rarely work just one day on any subject unless it’s a simple development on the previous day’s work, since an hour doesn’t allow enough time for low ability kids gain some basic comprehension and the mid-ability kids get some practice and working memories of the subject. I hit most of the Explicit Direct Instruction components over the 2-3 day period.

On the first day, I have a combined lecture/classroom give and take on the topic and its connections to what the students have learned so far. While I used to think note-taking was largely pointless, I’m noticing that my low ability students look back through their notes with encouragement. Besides maybe just copying down the material gives them some focus. In any event, I’m spending more time with notebooks than worksheets this year. (Many of my top ability students don’t take notes.) I work a couple problems, then assign them to work a single problem, and wander around checking for errors. The upfront time usually lasts 20 minutes or so; if it’s going to go much longer then I warn the kids ahead of time and do even more classroom give and take.

Then I let them loose and they work on a group of similar problems for rest of the first day. On the second day, I do a quick review and go through common errors I saw the day before. If they were working a longer assignment, I send them back to it. If day 2 has some additional depth or complexity, I introduce it. But day 2 is usually very little upfront time. Then they spend most of day 2 working in depth on the problems. This time allows me to really dig in and work with everyone–or try to. More on that in a minute.

My weakest students will, for the most part, listen and engage in the classroom discussion. After that, they will work in fits and starts, stopping the minute they get confused. I stop by, help them with a problem, start them on the next, and it’s a huge win if they’ve done even one complete problem by the time I stop by again. This process is exactly like rolling rocks up hill. If you stop at any point on the way up—and you have to, to have any chance of checking in with all the students—you only hope that it hasn’t rolled back down too far before you return. But then, half an hour of focus on a difficult subject is still a lot of work and learning for them. (Work with any low ability student for longer than 30 minutes and they get extremely tired; mental stamina is a real problem).

The mid-level students are the primary beneficiaries of this approach. My teaching is designed for kids who, in previous generations, might never have taken more algebra or geometry in their entire high school career. They would have had far more time working with arithmetic, more practical math lessons, and considered algebra as a major challenge. The average college-bound student went so far as trig, and this was a generation when most students weren’t expected to be college bound. Only 40% of all high school students completed algebra II in 1982, for example. (Cite). Introducing abstract math to students with average intellect and no particular interest in math is one of the great challenges of teaching the subject. It’s why I’d always feel like I was taking the easy way out if I taught only history or English, two subjects that would give me a decent shot of being a popular teacher.

So what to do with the students who used to be the only ones to take advanced math, who can finish my entire planned two day lesson in half an hour? Many teachers let these students do homework from other classes or simply read, which is why a growing number of policy experts are warning that we are letting down our bright students.

My first year of teaching, I realized I would either have to move more quickly, allow my top students to read, or give them more to do. That was an easy call. I began planning different lessons for my strong students. With the exception of the second semester of last year, when I ran four different lesson plans each class, my advanced student lessons are the side show to the main event. Sometimes, I give the students a different, more difficult work sheet. Other times, I give them additional problems—applications, challenge work—after they finish what everyone else is doing. Still other times, they get a handout or a book section explaining concepts that the other students will never work with. The students work independently, first reviewing the material while I’m running the classroom discussion with the rest of the class, and working the problems if they can—and they usually can, maintaining productivity until I finish up with the class and check in with them. I always have white boards around them, and sometimes I’ll put worked problems on these boards for them as examples.

Assessment is the most difficult part of this approach. How can I be sure they are learning the material? The first year of teaching, I rarely did formal assessments of what they learned. Last year, when running four different groups, I gave four different assessments and the results were very good. This year, I’ve expanded my test difficulty, including some advanced questions to see how the students are getting the material. At some point, though, I’ll start giving students different tests. I can see it coming.

Most teachers think that the multiple lessons is the tough part. That makes sense, since many teachers are highly structured and methodical. They have worked all the problems out of every assignment before they give it out, and having two or three different assignments just makes for that much more work. But I never work out the problems to start with and just wing it when the kids ask me questions. Every so often I’ll assign the top kids a problem that I don’t instantly understand, and we have a good time chewing it over, which gives me time to work it out.

No, for me, the challenging part is working the room and making sure that I’m checking in with all students. Are they getting it? Did I miss an important element in the explanation? What do I need to cover tomorrow? It’s easy to miss quiet students, who will then complain that I ignored them. My first weeks of class regularly include reminders that go something like this:

“No, I’m not ignoring you. I just didn’t see you. If you need help, and I’m not coming by, tackle me. Holler at me! Beg! Make choking noises! But don’t sit there silently and sulk or worse, talk about something else and then whine that I didn’t help you. That way lies a rant from me.”

And as the semester goes by, I get better at circling, identifying who needs more support, and not getting sucked in by one student. For their part, they learn to yell for help if I accidentally ignore them.

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