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.