Reflections from a “Most Effective” Teacher (Part 3): More on Differentiated Small Groups

Frequent Formative Feedback: My Most Effective Teaching Strategy

In the two prior posts referenced below, I talked about how I grew from an “average” to “most effective” teacher.  This time around I’ll discuss some specifics about my use of differentiated small groups.

#1 Targeted intervention for my lowest readers

This made a big difference for me. Read all about how in my last post.

#2 Higher-level questioning and groupings for my highest kids

I worked on this goal through leveled groups. And while my highest kids grew, they did not grow as much as my middle kids. This was a disappointment. I need to aim higher next year. I’ll be working on raising the stakes in my small groups even more, and taking a more student-centered approach.

#3 More text-dependent writing.

Last year I wrote this: I'm asking kids to respond in writing to literature at least once a week, and I've built in a self-assessment component to this so they can be aware of their own work.

I think this is essentially what made such a big difference, and this was only done via small groups with immediate, frequent feedback, as described in #1 above.

This is also the part that is hardest for me as a teacher, because I really can’t plan for my groups. I have a list of skills (pulled from the standards) that I want each small group to master, but everything is done on the fly.

For example, I asked one of my lower groups to write a short summary of the book they were reading, because that was in my list of skills for their level. I almost didn’t even give this assignment, as it seemed too easy. Surely all of my sixth graders knew how to summarize!?

Well, it turns out, they didn’t. Most of them, frankly, were awful. What a surprise! We talked about what they were missing, and they did it again. And again. The kids who mastered it the second week were given a free choice assignment; the others practiced until they got it right.

During these sessions, I ask them to identify what they did right by starring that part in the margin. I ask them to identify areas for improvement by drawing a stair in the margin. I have a lovely selection of highlighters for them to use; why these are so motivating and exciting, I will never know. I encourage them and ask questions and listen. I’m more like a coach. I don’t always know what will happen next, or what skill I will assign next.

What I do know is that this immediate, frequent feedback is really helping.

I believe that analyzing the data, making decisions based on what I saw, and trying these three new things were largely responsible for my “most effective” teacher rating. I kept up these practices this year, with some adjustments, as described above, and plan to do the same next year.

Sometimes I fear we overly focus on the data and forget the human side of teaching. Let me not forget to tell you that these small group sessions are actually one of my favorite things about my job. I get to connect with each student throughout our busy week, and each child is getting what he/she needs. I guide them toward self-assessment and it is awesome when they are accurate in identifying areas for improvement (as they very nearly always are). Many of my students now ask me if they can resubmit their work for a higher grade because they see what needs to get better. Of course you can, I tell them. That’s what learning is all about.