When you are asked, “What grade do you teach?”, what is your answer? Officially I teach fifth grade. But in reality, every day, I’m just like you, not just teaching one grade level but several, all at once. Developmentally speaking, I have a classroom full of students who are in 2ndgrade, 3rdgrade, 4thgrade, 5thgrade, and 6thgrade.
That arrangement is not just this year and it’s no passing phenomena. We teachers understand that our educational systems group students into “grades” by average developmental stage. But on “average”, ten of my 22 students are on fifth grade level. But I don’t have just 10 students and I can’t teach to only those 10 students.
You probably feel plenty of frustration, striving to meet the needs of all your students–it may feel impossible. Sometimes we feel like we’re just “teaching to the middle”. Math, in particular, can be extremely stressful teach to try teaching to all levels.
That’s where I was at the beginning of the year. I have never taught math to all levels. In middle school and when I taught 4thgrade, we grouped our students strictly by ability. I taught either the advanced, or the struggling, or the on-level students, but always separately.
If you teach a mixed ability group, you know what I felt this year. You’ve noticed that when you teach any skill in math, half of them get it, a handful are bored because they completely understand, and you have some that just won’t understand it the way you’re teaching it.
Any math lesson can become a nightmare. You get glazed looks, lack of focus, fidgeting, and misbehavior.
But there’s another way. It’s teaching math using small groups for the ENTIRE lesson—this is not your typical “whole group to small group” instruction. Here’s your step-by-step to getting started teaching math to meet all of your students and get them exactly where they need to be.
Step 1. Get away from whole group instruction. You may need a whole group approach occasionally, but use it only for warm ups, developing consensus, or reflections. If you are teaching at least 3 different grade levels, it does not make sense to teach them all at once. You can get them—all of them—where they need to be. You just need to reach them where they are—that’s true differentiation.
Step 2. Give a pre-assessment and assign each child a group for the specific skill you are teaching that day. Not all math standards are created equally, and every child has a variety of skills within math.
For example, we just began long division using an area model. As a warm up, I assigned two problems to solve. As they were solving (or not, because they didn’t know how to begin), I marked their paper with a colored marker.
I gave a pink mark for those who couldn’t even begin. A yellow one for those that could start but couldn’t get past the first step. A green circle was for those who could solve it (or get a few steps in) but didn’t get the answer correct. The blue circles were reserved for those that could solve the problem in some way before I even taught it—even if it was using a different method.
Step 3. Develop a procedure for small group rotations. I’m sure you teach small groups in reading, so you probably already have some procedures for teaching in small group.
Here, you’ll need to decide expectations for transitions, taking care of materials, and work effort. You’ll also need to decide what the students are doing when they’re not with you.
Math stations (your rotations) should consist of practice work, hands-on work using manipulatives, and technology integration. For me I have 1) “worksheet feat” that is a review, 2)” workbook nook” after I’ve taught for practice, 3) technology using our math curriculum online program) and 4) a hands-on math activity.
For my hands on math, I either use a center provided by our math texts or the choice boards I’ve purchased from Teachers Pay Teachers.
My approach may sound daunting to read about, but I promise it’s really simple. It will only take you about a week to get those procedures and routines into place. You’re more than likely to have the materials you need and you already do the same activities, just not in the same way. You just need to try putting them into rotations rather that using them in whole group.
Small group teaching or guided math is a game changer. I feel confident in my teaching, and my students have breakthroughs daily! They love math and I love teaching it!
You will be amazed how you are able to teach math by using only small group. Your students will be engaged again and you’ll feel confident in your teaching like never before. Reach all your students exactly where they are—whether it’s long division using smaller numbers, or more integrating more manipulatives and feedback, you’ll know it when you get them in front of you.
It’s time for the change in how you teach math—-one small group at a time.