Friday, June 28, 2013

un-tracking. de-tracking. mixing it up.

So here's what happened my first year teaching ... We had 50 seventh graders. The  25 of them were put in the "advanced" math class, 25 of them in the "regular" math class.  Truly, they needed to be in different classes.  They'd been tracked for years, and they were worlds apart.  The advanced class was doing Algebraic topics, the regular class was busy learning positive and negative numbers.  There's no way I could have taught them all in the same room.

This was not good.  Not good at all.  As a result, I had a classroom full of kids who thought they were in the dumb class, didn't think they could learn, and didn't bother to try.  They had no confidence in themselves at all.   If they got home and couldn't do the first problem on their homework, they'd just quit.  They didn't ask their parents, or each other, or message me on Edmodo.  They just quit.

And the classroom behavior.  Oh. My. Heart.  The behavior.   Every now and then I'd leave the room for something, and I'd come back to find whatever adult was in charge completely losing their religion.  The collaboration specialist, the reading specialist, the PE teacher ... all seasoned educators, all defeated by 10 minutes with this one class. I have to admit that I felt relieved when that happened, to know that it wasn't just me.  They even did it with the principal in the room.  I used the word "tedious," and the punk on the front row said, "Did you say titties?"  When he didn't get a reaction, he said it three more times until finally the principal said, "I'd like to thank you all for not taking Jack's bait," and he quit.  And usually some kid's goofy antics DID get at least a ripple of reaction around the room.

I tried EVERYTHING.  I tried classroom dojo, bribery, punishment, positive reinforcement, silent lunch, contacting parents, to no avail.

But ONE thing worked, just a bit.  When we came back from Christmas break, I told them that according to the standards of the Common Core, if they did well enough in 7th Grade Math, they could be placed into Algebra I with the advanced kids.  That they weren't So Far Behind that they couldn't catch up.  Slowly, the tide turned.  Leaders emerged.  Kids identified that they wanted to advance and began to work toward that goal.  A couple started coming back during study hall to work problems.  But - the best part - they started telling each other to shut up and learn.  A few of them began to have hope, and that was all it took.

I'd be lying if I said they turned into a model class.  They were still the toughest crowd of the day, hands down, but it wasn't the unmanageable mob that it had been.  Only a few of them excelled enough to be placed into Algebra I, but I'll take it.  And the rest of them will be in something we're calling "Algebra Lite" on "non-credit Algebra" and we'll keep pushing forward.

All of this got me thinking, though, of what I want to do differently next year.  I realized that ability-tracking the classes left a horde of bad attitudes.  The regular students I've already described, but the advanced students weren't much better.   They were arrogant, were indignant when things weren't easy for them, and generally spent their time waiting for me to give them the algorithm.  Math had always come easily to them, and they were unwilling to struggle any more than the regular kids.  I know I have to completely transform the whole culture next year if I am to reach anyone.

My state did a terrible job transitioning to Common Core, and my district transitioned to a new curriculum the week before school started.  At a complete loss for who should be where, the principal threw all the sixth graders into Sixth Grade math.  The classes were split by ability level, but they were all working out of the same book.  The gift in this is that they're all going into seventh grade math next year.  I asked the principal if she'd consider un-tracking the 7th graders, and she said yes without hesitating.   I love her.

The science teacher is thrilled, by the way, at the thought of un-tracking. Because we have two classes of each grade, his science classes are always composed of the kids who aren't in math.  So his classes are math-ability-tracked as well, and he runs into the same behavior and lack-of-leaders problem that I was having... although not entirely the same because they don't hate science like they hate math.

Road blocks I have considered: The biggest roadblock that I see is that it's going to be a HUGE endeavor to make sure that every student stays challenged on their level.  I truly subscribe to the "deeper, not faster" theory, and want to make sure that any student that has mastered the task at hand is given a deeper-thinking question, not scuttled on to the next standard.  This is going to require serious pre-planning, so the high-flyers aren't allowed to get used to spinning their wheels or goofing off.

Another roadblock I've considered is how to group the kids.  I've decided that there is absolutely benefit to heterogeneous grouping for some things, but there is still a need for homogenous grouping, too.  By the time you get to the end of a unit, some of those kids are going to be pushing deeper, some of them are going to need remediation.  I'm planning to address this by having different seating assignments on different days.  You can read more about that plan here.

The other thing I've thought a lot about is how important it is that the classroom climate support the self-esteem of all learners.  I attended a talk at NCTM Dallas last year and listened to a team talk about un-tracking their 9th grade algebra, and one comment was that while the experiment HAD been beneficial for the lower level students as far as learning and achievement, it had NOT been beneficial as far as self-perception. This I can't exactly explain, since their surveys showed self-perception actually went down for the lower-achieving students.  It is hard for me to look at those children, already defeated by their position in The Dumb Class, and see how it would be possible for them to feel worse.    The only thing I can think is that I will have to be diligent in monitoring their interactions as well as providing activities and lessons that are accessible to every student on every level.  Wish me luck.


  1. Wow. You took the words right out of my mouth. There are SO many similarities between what you experienced and what I spot on!

    Last year and this year I had "that one class" (so did the Science teacher for the same reasons as above) and I felt the same way as you. Tried EVERYTHING. One student asked one day, do the other classes have all these warning slips & lunch detentions like us? And the answer was no they didn't. I wish there was an easy answer.

    I like your idea of working to make the activities and lessons accessible to all levels, but I imagine that's going to be a rough task. I agree that pre-planning is going to be key, but come December/January/February's so hard.

    I look forward to reading your plan of attack and how it all works out. Now I am off to read your idea about groups!

  2. So interesting to read...we are a small charter school with only 36 students in 8th grade split into 3 classes. We actually are thinking of putting our lowest level students into one class (they stay with their homerooms for all of their classes) I could see them feeling bad about being the "slow class" but they are also the types of kids who would appreciate the slower pace. We would still have the same goals as the other two classes, those would not be advanced, just taught differently.
    Do you think the experience would be different if their behavior was different?

    1. I don't know, Robin. It's been 20 years since I did my undergraduate teacher ed, but one of the few things that sticks in my mind was a professor saying, "Even the slowest kids benefit from a faster pace." I have no citation to back that up, but I would look further into if I were you.

      Our solution has been what we call "double dose." The students who require the most remediation get a second period of math (we have an 8 period day), some kids every day and some kids just twice a week. Last year it was pretty much the same class twice, except it was 7th and 8th graders together. This year, though, the remedial students will be spread between the two classes for the regular math and then come together for their double dose. I think that will change the dynamic, too.

      I definitely think their experience would be better if the behavior was different. There's no doubt in my mind that a tremendous amount of instructional time was wasted handling disciplinary issues; even when a 3-second "look" is enough, it still throws off the pace of the class discussion. Add to that the time during guided practice that was lost (for me) trying to keep kids on task instead of concentrating on students' work...

      BUT, ask me again in a year! Or in September... I think it'll be apparent pretty quickly whether or not there's improvement!