George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Do you play well with others? OK, let's see. You meet with your colleagues, share resources, divvy up tasks, discuss student concerns -- and then you go back to your room to teach the same differentiated lesson as the rest of your team. Is this true collaboration?

Mastering the collaborative arts requires you to approach instruction with the same all-hands-on-deck group mindset that drives your planning meetings. Flexibly grouping students between classrooms saves time and boosts achievement. In my post Five Ways to "Remove the Walls" from Your Classroom, I highlighted five collaborative grouping strategies to help you work smarter, not harder. Below are five more.

1. Preteach skills and content through quick, differentiated activator mini-lessons.

Preteaching increases student independence and lesson mastery by leveling the playing field initially. Whether with a full class or small group, spending a little instructional time to fill knowledge gaps or prime specific skills for an upcoming lesson can pay massive dividends in the end.

At the beginning of each unit, my grade-level team would analyze our students' pre-assessment results, which included questions measuring their prior knowledge of new unit standards. Along with prior summative and periodic formative assessment results and IEP/ELL/504 goals, we planned activator groups to fill the students' content or skills gaps for upcoming lessons. Here's how this looks in practice: While you pool students from across the grade level to build skill deficits, have another teacher prep advanced students to lead their assigned groups (including students from your pullout) during the subsequent lesson.

Think of your classroom as a business. Investing in the small setup cost (time) of priming your students will highly increase class productivity by minimizing your need to reteach later on. Spend a little, gain a lot!

2. Catch your students up through the 3 R's: Reteach, Redo, Reward.

It’s no secret: students learn and work at different paces. With differentiation, seasoned teachers help their students master content, processes, and skills through diverse paths. However, all students have the same deadlines to complete projects and assignments with identical summative assessments. How can we ensure that all students meet those deadlines while also encouraging the advanced, productive learners? Don't be afraid to plan a strategic catch-up day with colleagues. If done purposefully, this is time well spent.

Last year, we found this to be helpful at my school. On the day before spring break, my seventh-grade math team strategically regrouped students between our classes. Teachers sent students with missing assignments to one classroom, while I retaught students who struggled with certain lesson standards. However, many students were motivated to join the board game/movie reward group, so they worked hard over a two-week period to turn in all assignments and attended tutoring as needed. Once again, this leveled the playing field. Students in the smaller reteach group progressed toward mastery, while those in the redo group bumped up their grade through individualized assistance to complete missing assignments. Even though not all students earned the behavioral incentive, overall behavior improved in the weeks leading up to spring break.

Alternatively, you could productively engage your fast-paced, advanced students in an extension project during a reteach-redo make-up day. A behavioral incentive successfully motivates students and increases attendance on days before semester breaks when many would otherwise skip.

3. Engage students in differentiated station rotations.

Our students were born into a fast-paced, constantly-evolving, technology-driven culture that has overturned the rules of business, communication, and (most importantly) education. In this new environment, how can we possibly continue raising the bar and integrating all of the latest and greatest educational initiatives while our students have the attention span of a gnat?

Simple. Meet them where they are! Rotate your kiddos between short, differentiated, student-led stations. Consider building all of your school's new instructional initiatives (cloze reading, writing, technology integration, etc.) into individual stations. Jigsaw lessons with leveled readings, differentiate for learning styles or preferences, integrate technology, provide real-world extensions, or prep for a test.

Save time by collaborating with your teammates to develop the stations. While you work smarter, your students work harder!

4. Challenge your students through cross-curricular projects.

One of the most exciting yet daunting parts of Common Core is its interdisciplinary approach. What does it look like to weave literacy, writing, mathematical skills, and real-world application throughout all classes? And where do we find the time?

For one, you could challenge your students through research-based projects with a common rubric. Last year, my seventh-grade science team gave our students the choice of completing the science fair, researching the biography of a famous scientist, or writing a report on a STEM-related career. On project days, the students traveled to the classroom of the teacher facilitating that topic.

Students gathered around a desk connecting pasta into a modular structure

For secondary schools, teachers can coordinate an interdisciplinary project that aligns with standards from each core (and possibly some encore) class. For example, task your science class with persuasively arguing whether Pluto should or should not be considered a planet through a research-based interdisciplinary project. The students will research their claim and supporting details in science, write the persuasive essay in language arts class, develop an annotated bibliography in social studies, and construct figures and captions with relevant interpretations in math. Each teacher will grade a different part of the project based on a unique rubric. Lastly, keep in mind that your media/library specialist is a great resource to help your team gather necessary books and other research materials.

5. Build a teacher toolbox of quick, flexible grouping strategies.

Below you will find a few of my favorite strategies for flexible grouping.

Interactive student folders

This system helps students easily organize their work and complete long-term projects. At the beginning of the year, use each student's previous testing results to purposefully assign them an interactive work folder:

  • Blue folder = basic in math and reading
  • Red folder = basic in math but proficient in reading
  • Orange folder = basic in reading but proficient in math
  • Yellow folder = proficient in math and reading
  • Green folder = advanced in math and reading

Simply "rainbow" the folders for heterogeneous group projects or classroom assignments by ensuring that the folder colors are evenly divided.

Desktop index cards

Taping these cards to each student's desk provides a secretly-coded individual profile to plan groupings. Use stickers, colors, and shapes to indicate reading and math readiness levels, specific goals, learning styles, and other important defining characteristics. Get creative. Try grouping your students with the same shape for leveled reading assignments, or combining preferred learning styles by telling your students to find a partner with a different sticker. The possibilities are endless!

Heterogeneous student grouping wheels

This system equitably groups students by separating conflicting personalities, distributing advanced student leaders, and mixing multiple academic readiness levels. The wheel below demonstrates how I split my class into seven groups of four. Create your own by inserting a copper brad through the center of different-sized circular cutouts.


Give it a try!

Take your instruction to the next level by collaborating with your colleagues to remove the borders from your classrooms. We must reach all students. Learning has no walls!

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Alex Byland's picture
Alex Byland
Special Educator by Day, Max's Dad by Night!

Hi Karin,

I'm glad that you highlighted the need to challenge our advanced learners. This is extremely important. You can use the wheel to homogenously group your advanced students (green group) for an extension project or pull your struggling learners (red group) for a reteaching lesson. While the rest of the class is completing an activator lesson, I like to preteach leadership skills to my green group so that they know how to lead their heterogeneous group in that day's review lesson. I also have found it beneficial to preteach any skill gaps to my red group prior to the lesson during the activator/warmup time. If you write your students' names on the wheel in pencil, then you can adjust their places on the wheel based on their ongoing progress. Also, if you find that any students don't work well together, you can easily ensure that they will never be in the same heterogeneous group by writing their names on the same level. For instance, in my wheel above, Ramone and Megan will always be in different heterogeneous groups because they both are on the yellow wheel. These are just a few thoughts from my experiences. Get creative and see how the wheels can work for you.

clenko's picture

I really liked your ideas about creating heterogeneous groups! They are quick and have students working with students who have different abilities. I am a learning support teacher in a co-taught classroom. Sometimes I feel like I am always putting the same lower students in groups. My co-teacher and I were just talking the other day about how we could mix up the groups. I am going to share these ways with her. Thanks for sharing!

SMartinez's picture

I think your ideas are awesome! I especially like the team work between teachers to make sure all students are learning and no one falls through the cracks.

Alex Byland's picture
Alex Byland
Special Educator by Day, Max's Dad by Night!

Hi Clenko,

Good luck with trying out some of the strategies. If you or your coteacher have any questions along the way, please let me know. I believe that you will notice an impact rather quickly. I have found (and research shows) that when students teach one another (with teacher guidance and support), they make the most gains.

Alex Byland's picture
Alex Byland
Special Educator by Day, Max's Dad by Night!

Hi SMartinez,

Thanks for your encouraging comments. I agree with you that these techniques and teamwork among teachers help ensure that students don't fall between the cracks. Additionally, this collaborative approach supports all teachers on a team so that no educator gets left behind either. This includes novice teachers as well as veterans (and educators of all levels of experience) who may struggle with new instructional initiatives.

Clruddy15's picture

I find that there are many parts of this post that I find incredibly helpful. Not only do you offer goals for what you'd like the classroom to look like but you offer practical steps for how to get there. Offering a make-up day but pairing it with an incentive is a great way for students to have to demonstrate responsibility for reward without necessarily pushing others farther behind.

The fact that differentiation is something that is so expected in the classroom but can be hard to put into practice is something that you have also given wonderful advice on. My only hope is that I have a job with teachers that are willing to collaborate and work together as much as it sounds like you are able to.

I also really appreciate the ides for grouping students that might be different than simply reading off pre-assembled pairs. It gives the students some level of choice while balancing student needs.

Jonathan Lloyd's picture

Sometimes I feel as if my professional collaboration time with other department members is underutilized and hindered by a lack of direction. Even though we share best practices, discuss student achievement goals, and decide on content, it seems we never really reach the full potential of our collective knowledge and expertise. Through your employment of authentic collaboration strategies and groupings, you have given me frameworks to implement during time allotted for professional discussions with colleagues. Thanks so much.

Alex Byland's picture
Alex Byland
Special Educator by Day, Max's Dad by Night!

Hi Clruddy15,

You're right- it's a heck of a lot easier when you and your teammates can collaborate well. However, if schedules or personalities conflict, you can always reach out to encore teachers, the media specialist, or educators in other grade levels. They may also be great resources. Your media specialist can quickly become your new best friend in planning a cross curricular project and he/she may even help you facilitate the lesson. By pairing with encore teachers, you can strategically plan ways that you can scratch each others' backs by preteaching, reteaching, and aligning content. By dissecting how curriculum from different grade levels (which usually spiral) may overlap, you can plan opportunities for older students to teach a skill or standard to their peers in a lower grade level. I highlighted this strategy in my previous article ( Remember that, regardless of the chemistry of your team, you have a lot of other collaborative resources around your school just waiting to be tapped. Good luck! :-)

Shelley's picture

I find the strategy of pre-teaching skills and content through quick, differentiate activator mini-lessons to be very helpful with my students that need the extra support especially in math. I like the suggestion to plan "activator groups". Our third grade team is working on learning groups ,differentiating our instruction in order to meet all third graders needs. I also like the idea of catching students up through the 3 R's: Reteach, Redo and Reward. This is another strategy to introduce to my teaching team that will truly benefit all our students as well as providing opportunities for my team to collaborate, plan and work out lesson plans together bringing the expertise of three teachers verses one meeting the needs of the students in our grade level. I'm excited to create the Heterogeneous Grouping Wheel. While we can't actually remove the walls between our classrooms these strategies are the next best thing!
Thanks so much for sharing!

Julia's picture

I struggle with differentiation with math in my classroom. I am very interested in your idea of this wheel. I am definitely going to try it. I continually find it a challenge to reach the strugglers, keep the advanced challenged and meet the needs of the middle. There is always so much going on. Give thanks for the tools and tips.

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