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Teaching the Way Students Learn: My Journey with Grouping

By Kyleema Norman, Educator, Guest Blogger, and Director of School Renewal

In my seventeen years of teaching, I have learned that we have a tendency to prepare lessons the way that we’ve been taught or the way we learn best. This isn’t necessarily a bad process as a teacher, but it does exclude a number of students in your class who don’t think like you do. Until I started teaching, I didn’t realize how alone a child could feel not having a strategy that addresses their learning needs, or how lonely is it to be the one in the class who “doesn’t get it.” Grouping allows for students to learn from other like-minded students. Grouping also exposes students to other types of thinking and broadens the way students view academics along with their solutions. Grouping teaches you to honor the learning stance of every learner in the room. It validates every student.

The Way We Learn

I am a math teacher, and I’ve always loved math. I also have always learned math best through repetition. Worksheets after worksheets practicing very similar problems to arrive to very similar answers is how the world of mathematics was made known to me, and I excelled. So, when I started teaching math, I brought that practice right along with me. I sat my students in rows and gave them rows and rows of numbers expecting rows and rows of correct answers. To my 22-year-old surprise, I didn’t get the results that I had anticipated. My students returned quite a number of blank papers and more often than not, quite a number of wrong answers. I was devastated. So, I decided to “change” my practice. I decreased the rows. Instead of single desks, I paired students and sat them two by two in rows for instruction. I then decreased the number of problems they had to complete by lessening the rows on their handouts. Could you believe those strategies didn’t work, either?

Changing My Approach

I began to ponder how to change my outcome, but I didn’t arrive at my answer as quickly as I would’ve liked because I joined the rank and file of educators who see their current issues of instruction as the sum total of poor teaching from their colleagues who had taught their students previously. It’s so much easier to sleep at night when it’s not your problem. In my second and third year of teaching, the Workshop Model was introduced to me as well as the idea that all teachers were literacy teachers. I always say that I entered education at the right time. With the Workshop Model, I had to develop more practice time for students, and with the literacy initiative we had to read. During the expanded practice time, I got a chance to see who was struggling and the misconceptions they had as they tried to solve the problems. During the literacy time, I got a chance to hear who could read and then do the problem and those who struggled to read and do the problems. Unbeknownst to me, I was actually collecting data on my students.

Through my observations of what students did when they applied their math understanding, I concluded that students needed to be grouped some of the time with people who responded similarly to them when being taught mathematical concepts. Homogeneous grouping, as I later learned it was called, helped me determine in the initial phases of delivering the content of a topic, what certain learners needed to further their understanding. These groups were very flexible because students didn’t always require the same type of help for each topic. If I noticed that a group wasn’t working with one another, I would take the time to see if they needed another method of explanation. This later became known as Flexible Grouping, which allows students to transition from group to group depending on their demonstrated need at the time.

Designing for Every Learner

I then discovered the need to have members from each group work together. The underlying factor for creating groups that are heterogeneous is to help your students develop the patience for one another and the belief that not all of us learn the same way and at the same time. At twenty-two, I didn’t know this key fact in teaching students. After years of experience, I now find it helpful to think of the issue this way: we all have an internal learning clock. If we want someone’s clock to function in sync with our clock, we may need to adjust our clock to mirror the clock of the learner.

When designing learning experiences to meet the needs of my students’ internal instructional learning criteria, these are the steps I take:

  • First, I need to find others who learn like you and research how to make successful lesson design and delivery with tried and proven techniques for people who learn like you do.
  • Then, I need to analyze your outcomes to see if they match the expectation I have set.
  • Next, I need to give you the chance to work with others who learn using different methods to expose you to a variety of strategies.
  • All the while, I need to collect data on the progress and efficacy of your learning.

Grouping students allows me to honor how they learn and providing strategies for them to function efficiently in a group says I respect them as a learner.

Kyleema has been an educator since 2001. She started as a NYC Teaching Fellow then became a Math Coach, Assistant Principal, and Principal. She now serves students as a Director of School Renewal for NYC working with five school districts by partnering with principals to develop and implement strategies to improve their graduation rates through academic and social emotional supports for their entire learning community.

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