Managing Multi-Grading and Differentiation

In school and university, I thought that if one studied science teaching, one would became a science teacher. That was that. Science would be forever your domain.

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The reality is a lot more messy. In a school, gaps open up and someone has to fill those gaps. As a person who struggles saying no, that someone has often been me! The Result? I’ve taught everything from Year 2 Maths to mixed Year 7/8/9 English – and I’ve never taught a single year group or subject for longer than a year.

Although I’ve experienced many days of tearing my hair out, crying from self-imposed stress and cursing how much work I have to do, I am so, so thankful that this has been my career trajectory. In 4 years of teaching, I have never yet been bored. But perhaps more importantly, teaching so many grades and subjects (sometimes simultaneously!) signaled a fundamental shift in my thinking: Grades are almost completely arbitrary. There are young children quite capable of studying topics that are ‘Grade 7’ in difficulty and there are final year students who have still not mastered writing a paragraph.

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Curricula are important to give you a framework for planning lessons – teaching can be aimless without them.  But by blindly sticking to the curriculum, all we guarantee is that children come out the other end ‘schooled’-  a frame of limited thinking that I had to fight for a long time to escape. How much of the curriculum the children take on is also almost totally dependent on the learning experience. If they’ve had a stressful year or haven’t connected with their teacher, they’re unlikely to have learned much.

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The classic comic which effortlessly illustrates the illogicality of standardised testing

So how is this knowledge – that children are not as standardized as one may expect -useful when dealing with the scary prospect of teaching a multi-graded class?  Well, as my mentor once succinctly said: Think differentiation, not grades . It doesn’t matter if half your students are Year 7 and half are Year 8: Look at the areas of the curriculum (i.e. Grammar, Speaking and Listening),  identify the keys skills you want to teach and teach them! Then, follow up with activities that can be made harder for those who need extending. You will not necessarily  know who needs extending at the start of the year – this will come with time.

I once taught a mixed Year 7/8/9 English class where abilities ranged from 3rd language English to completely fluent. Because of the circumstances I was under, I was forced to throw most of the curriculum out the window and just teach whatever English I could. We read and analysed my favourite books, played speaking games/held fun debates and I did a new grammatical concept with them once every two weeks.

I cannot stress enough, I did the exact same ‘lessons’ with all 3 grades (just mildly differentiating worksheets and activities) and very often, I felt like we were just playing at doing English. However, at the end of the year, each student wrote their externally set, grade specific exam and – to my genuine shock- they all they all scored between 50 and 80%.

My awesome mixed English class

So often, we teachers feel that if we have neatly ticked off every outcome and student books look pretty, we have done our job. I feel it comes down far more to classroom experiences. Good planning is essential to proper differentiation and neat, well presented books DO help the learning process. But just as important, is letting go of your lesson always going according to plan. Listen to your students: Let them have fun and make their voices heard. You have to be willing to experiment and go where the class takes you. As long as you know your learning objective well, you can always bring things back to where you’re meant to be heading,  even if it takes a more meandering route than anticipated.

Right, so this this post has gone a little further down the rambling road than I intended . Here are a few practical tips to help you survive your multi-graded/very differentiated classroom.

#1: Do a comprehensive, start of year assessment

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I would say assessments at the beginning of the year are even more important than ones at the end. If you are teaching a mixed Year 7/Year 8 class, design a few assessments based on the end of previous year’s outcomes for BOTH grades. Use the results to help you plot your unit plans and use homework to help fill gaps you cannot address in class for individual students.  This is not really necessary in Science but essential in English and Maths.

#2 Be flexible with how you teach

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Always try to arrange your year’s outcomes to get the whole class doing a similar or the same topic. For example, if Stage 7 is meant to do Particle Theory of Matter in Term 3 and Stage 8 in Term 2, rearrange!

Sometimes, there’s just no way to teach the whole class at once. If one group needs to study germination and the other group the human heart, it just ain’t going to work. In this case, consider designing unit-long individual or group learning programmes where you act more as the facilitator and less as a ‘teacher’. You can take a look at my TES shop if you want to see an example of this here.  In this example, students had to independently work through a Powerpoint, watching the videos, using links to visit specific websites and then completing a series of tasks. I was then easily able to assess the group using the tasks they had completed and observing and interacting with them while they were working.

I have found my students very often learn more when are put in charge of doing independent projects like this.But it does involve you having to ‘know your customers.’ Some students might need a lot more facilitation than others.

#3 Focus on the most important opportunity that school provides

Pure joy from some of my year 3’s after launching their egg protection systems into the air

Most of the value of a teacher lies in the experience they are able to create. Especially in our modern world,with its excess of isolating entertainment obsessions, the classroom experience should be rooted in social interactions – In essence,we are social coordinators!

That doesn’t mean that spending a quiet lesson writing or a lesson here and there asnwering questions from a book is harmful. But if this is the backbone of your teaching, you need to question if you’re having the kind of impact you want to be having.

Don’t stress too much if you don’t manage to meet all the outcomes in the year – just keep track of what you have done so that you, or the next teacher, know where the holes should be. Focus on giving your students a happy experience of school where they are learning something – even if this doesn’t precisely match the curriculum. In this way,they will hopefully have the motivation to fill in any gaps on their own.

#4 Win the war, not the battle

For whatever reason, your fun, awesome, well prepared lesson is not going according to plan. One thing I have learned, time and again, is that forcing them to carry on does not work! Stop and do a ‘brain break’ for 5 mins. Do a quick test on Quizzizz .If things have really gone off track, just admit defeat. Try the lesson again the next day or just cut your losses and make peace with the fact that lessons rarely work out the way you imagine.  Here is a link to an awesome collection of brain breaks: http://brainbreaks.blogspot.co.za/

At the core of all of this is the understanding that every second of class time does not have to be spent ‘doing work.’ Spending time building relationships, exploring interests, creating a fun environment… all of this is fundamental to a student wanting to be at school- and only when a student feels happy and safe can they optimally learn

Final Thoughts

The different ideas and strategies I’ve mentioned here may  not be considered “good” teaching by some. But what is good teaching really? I think its different for every class and you have to be willing to to try new new things and make mistakes. The only way to find what works for a specific group is to experiment. And when you truly experiment, there is bound to be failure. Learn from it and don’t hide from your students that you are always learning too.

I’ll end with one of my favourite quotes, that another mentor introduced me to

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