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When I was in school, back when dirt was young, we were placed in groups for English and for math. These groups were based on our skills in those classes with high, middle, and low groups of each. Our teachers gave us different work to do depending on which group we were a part of; for example, our 8th grade math high level group did pre-algebra while the other groups worked a notch lower.

This trend in education went away by the time I started teaching. However, like so many educational trends, it’s making a comeback, though under a different name. It used to be called tracking; now we call it leveling or Response to Intervention (RtI).

Why did it go away in the first place? One reason is that educational facilities are notorious for jumping on the latest bandwagon of what will work for students. Some guru publishes a study that shows why the latest fad is the way to go and school districts fall all over themselves to spend money on implementing it.

When I first started teaching, Mr. Pelzl told me that I would quickly figure out what was important to teach and that whatever the latest trend was could easily be conformed to fit what was truly important. He told me everything will go away, and if you teach long enough, it will return at least once or twice under a different name. Truer words were never spoken!

Another reason that tracking went away was that people started to worry about how kids would feel with labels that might be implied by being in the “low” group. Too often, it was called the dumb group, and that was not the case. This was a group of kids with lower skills in that particular area, but they most assuredly were not what you might call dumb. They just didn’t have grade level skills in that area, be it reading or math. There were always some kids who were in the low section for one and the high group for the other!

Regardless, the idea formerly known as tracking has actually been back in action for a number of years, especially in elementary settings across the nation, but now it’s been called RtI. As my kids went through our elementary school, they would spend part of their day in RtI reading and math groups. This would be based on skill levels in those areas. There have been multiple goals in doing this, the most obvious to provide interventions for those kids who were not yet to grade level in that skill. Another was to provide enrichment and push those kids who were above grade level.

For years, I’ve wanted to try this as an overall strategy in my 7th and 8th grade English classrooms. Math has been doing it for a long time with a high skills group in 8th grade. But there’s one big difference to what I’m going to be implementing in English classes this year. First, let me give a little background of how we finally got here in the English world.

We’ve been hearing for a number of years that RtI will have to come to our secondary setting. However, it’s a little more difficult to schedule that time in, and overseeing who might go where on a daily basis is an enormous task based on the secondary schedule. At last it was determined that we could implement this idea directly in our sections of English in 7-8 along with having high-skills groups in 9-10. Hopefully, at some point, the district will also hire a reading specialist who can provide extra interventions through a high school reading class and pulling kids out in small groups, which has been proven to work wonders time and again.

Here’s the plan and a big difference from the old style of tracking. All three of my sections in each grade will receive much of the same curriculum. It’s how that curriculum is approached that will vary. The type of questions they will answer will certainly change based on their skill level, and the amount of direct instruction will be different. I envision my high-skills groups being more self-paced at various times. That allows me to tweak some of the little things; they might not need as much of me in front of the classroom as a whole.

Some of the curriculum will differ. The low-skills readers need more instruction and work in that area. I’ve decided to cut back on some of the big writing projects. They likely also struggle with that skill, in part because reading is difficult. We need to get the reading back up to grade level first. They’ll still write plenty, just not as much. On the other hand, the high-skills readers don’t need as much of that so they will have some special writing projects to try to test their abilities.

Everyone will still be graded the same, though it’s not like I expect every high-skills student to get an A or every low-skills student to get a C. I expect to see some progress and some kids to really grasp this idea and be motivated to work hard and get better. There will hopefully be more time for working with small groups.

There will be kids who prove they are in the wrong grouping and will get moved up a notch. And that’s really the ultimate goal. There will always be a group of students who excel, but I’d love to see one group of that and two groups who are all around grade level. That would mean RtI or tracking or whatever you want to call it has been successful.

 

Word of the Week: This week’s word is poecilonym, which means synonym, as in, “The new groupings could be considered a poecilonym for RtI.” Impress your friends and confuse your enemies!

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