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    (LONG) experience w/ leveling
    By sj

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    For the past 8 years I have worked with a first grade team that ability grouped kids for phonics/reading instruction for about one to on and a half hours per day. There were five teachers in the group, and we stacked the class loads to match the type of ability--22 kids in the top class, 10 in the bottom class--with the TA. The top 4 classes worked from the same curriculum and introduced the same skills and vocabulary, but the methods of introduction and amounts of drill/practice, and extensions were varied greatly between the groups. The bottom group was taugh by a much simpler phonics approach and with a slower pace. The majority of the kids in the bottom group (#5)were usually destined for Special Ed or already were. The teacher in that group included a lot of hands-on and phonemic awareness, activities such as LeapFrog, etc. Group 4 had about 13 students. Group 4 focused on the bare bones of phonics and their class times had a great deal of repetition, drill, and physical involvement. Many of these students were those who might have minor learning problems, or who ended up repeating the grade due to immaturity. Groups 5 and 4 were for the most part performing below grade level. Group three had about 16 students. Group #3 enlarged on the basics but presentation included a lot of high-energy high-motion activities to keep their interest. This group was generally the kids whose imagination had to be tweaked to get them interested in learning. They could and did learn, but their style had to involve more play. Group#3 adn #2 were considered the "on grade level" groups. Group 2 usually had the students who were bright enough to learn but lacked the self-discipline or organizational skills to reach their full potential. They needed more structure in order to be more successful. These students had more enrichment than group 2, but the presentation was less playful, as the play for this group was too stimulating to be helpful. Group 1 had the largest enrollment, sometimes as many as 22. These high achievers/sometimes gifted students were usually more self-motivated and well-behaved by nature, although some were not. The reigning attitude of the group helped to encourage those whose behavior was not the best to conform. In this group there was no lid put on what was teachable material. The basics were covered quickly and easily with little drill/practice. Students often asked questions that led lessons in varying directions such as word histories, foreign language connections, and symantic similarities between texts. They enjoyed learning the structure of language and applying it to their own writings. This group pushed the teacher to teach them--which made it equally challenging as the #5 group which had to be dragged into learning! We expected groups 1 and 2 to always perform between 90-105% on grade level work, Group 3 to perform at 80-90%, Group 4 to perform between 70-80%, and Group 5 to usually perform below 70%. We developed a conversion chart for grades for groups 4 and 5 so that students could have papers on which they had perfect scores and could taste success, but did not when recorded make them to appear to be performing at the higher percentages. For example, a group 5 child's paper on work that was on his level might have a big happy face and 100, but his grade would be recorded as a 75. In this way, grades still reflected the child's mastery of grade level material without having to directly impact the child's self esteem. We made our groups very open, meaning that we moved children up and down between the groups as we saw their performance change. The kdis knew that they were in higher or lower groups, and would set goals to move higher. Because the same content was presented in all but the #5 group, students could progress between the groups with minimal jumps in basic content knowledge. As I said, we did this for 8 years. The teachers felt that it was extremely effective, and gave us opportunity to address not just the ability level but the pace and style of learning that best fit each student. Only one year of those 8 were we not allowed to do this grouping. That year is the only one that showed a dip in our ITBS achievemnt scores in reading. All other years our grade level averages on the ITBS were above grade level in reading. My opinion was that my top level students could stay excited about learning and they simply became more and more avid learners. The bottom kids were not defeated because they were experiencing daily successes, and yet they were not able to hide behind or depend on more capable students to carry the class during that period of the day. As for having no models...I think that idea is very overblown. Most students aspire to achieve what the teacher sets as a standard, and they generally gravitate toward the model of the middle of whatever group they are in. So, if you have a multi-level class, your 1's will gravitate toward a 3, as will your 5's. If you separate your levels, your 1's gravitate to 2.5, and your 5's gravitate to a 4.5. You don't lose so much from your top and the goals for the bottom are more achievable. OK--that's my long-winded experience and opinion!! Hope it helps.

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