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Switch or no switch to heterogeneous classes?

By John Kerrigan

"We can win this game!" – (Herb Brooks, coach of USA Hockey Miracle Team)

The proposed switch to heterogeneous grouping at Harwood for ninth-graders would create a change in curriculum and the culture of the school and community. If we are going to make this change, why rush into it? We have been told what other schools have done. Let's bring in parents and students from schools that have made the change. Let's invite them to a board meeting and have a panel discussion. Let's bring in professionals on both sides of this issue for a presentation to the school maybe during one of our school assemblies.

I quote Herb Brooks, the coach of the 1980 U.S. Olympic ice hockey team who had to force his very young college players to change their style of play if they were to have any chance at beating the Red Army team of the Soviet Union.

Should we also change our "style of play" to enhance the success of all students?

I can see how this switch will change teaching at Harwood. I'm a classroom teacher at Harwood for 37 years and also coach distance runners. My runners range in ability from 5-minute-milers to 9-minute-milers. In cross country, I treat all runners as individuals. Their mile pace groups them. Suppose one day I say to all runners that we are all going to run the same pace. We all have as a goal 7 minutes per mile. What will happen? The slower students may try for a while, but they may not be willing or ready to run faster. They may become injured or sick or they may just quit. The 5-minute-milers may be bored. They may seek to attend club teams or other schools. Eventually, I will be paid the same salary for coaching 10 runners instead of 50! A similar scenario would most likely develop in the future Harwood classrooms. We may be all teaching at the 7-minute-mile pace.

Continuing with the running scenario, if the 9-minute-mile runners all worked at their own pace they would gain confidence. With encouragement they may do harder workouts, they may start to see themselves as runners. They may become 5-minute-milers or better. The 5-minute-milers, if given more coaching, may develop their talents, gain access to special opportunities and may become 4-minute-milers. With everyone working at their own pace but still part of a team, we build team spirit and enthusiasm and love for running, skiing or whatever the sport. I have used this philosophy to help Harwood students win 38 state titles in multiple sports during my tenure as a teacher and a coach. The success of the Harwood cross-country team is based upon the fact that runners are grouped by ability within the same team.

Our co-principals told me that this is the formula that I should use in the classroom. They assure me that we can restructure our classrooms the same way as I have done with runners. The needs of students of all abilities can be met within one classroom.

MULTI-TIERED APPROACH

Since I have used this multi-tiered approach with success in athletics, I have wondered if this approach would work in the classroom. The standard level classroom students are no different than the runners I coach. Some may be motivated to perform outside on the trails but not as motivated in the classroom. Some may be more motivated to perform in the classroom than they are motivated athletically. Some may have extra math, writing or lab skills that need to be honed. Others are deficient in these basic skills. There is another basic difference between runners that come out and join the cross-country team and students in my classroom. The cross-country runners choose to join the team. The students are required to be in my class.

Can I divide learning so that all groups are encouraged to reach their goals?

The Harwood classroom environment is much different than Harwood's outdoor campus. There are many more distractions in the classroom. Students are more confined. Students sit and perform labs inches away from each other. Presently, I have 24 students in a 400-square-foot classroom/science lab. The skills that they are asked to perform are much more varied and complicated than running. They require more thought, more teacher direction and input. There is more interaction between the students. A brighter or more motivated student could dominate the class if the teacher allows it. The close quarters allows a less motivated, disruptive student the opportunity to easily detract from the learning of others.

Many years ago, I did some project-based learning in my classes. I had two classes that had fewer students enrolled. One class had 12 students and the other had 16. After several weeks of teaching basic material, I thought it would be good to individualize each student's learning. Each student chose a project that involved working with live bacteria. The cultures had to be transferred daily onto fresh media. They had to be incubated. Cultures were monitored daily by the students. Library research had to be done. The work was as tedious for me as it was the students. I had now had 28 projects! I worked extremely hard for my students. I came in to school nights and weekends. It was very rewarding for the students and me. The extra time wreaked havoc on my family life. It also affected me physically. I ended up getting pneumonia at the end of the semester.

WILL HETEROGENEOUS GROUPING WORK?

In previous letters and articles to this paper, you have heard from administrators. I have been a classroom teacher for 40 years. I have been a teacher and a three-season coach for 40 years. I have taught students at all levels: honors, basic college prep and topics level classes. Do I think that heterogeneous grouping will work for Harwood ninth-graders?

As a professional classroom teacher, I actually think I can make it work. But my class size would have to be limited to no more than six students per class. There is no way with the present class sizes of 20 to 24 that I could effectively reach the needs of all students. Even with six students per class it would be an exhausting task if done correctly. With the present Harwood budget this could not be a reality. However, with declining enrollments due to fewer families purchasing homes in our district and the possibility that many parents will remove their children from Harwood for private schools, it may be possible to reduce maximum class size to six students and maintain close to the present budget.

Let's look at another scenario. We have been told that CVU, U-32, Montpelier and Mount Mansfield have made the switch to heterogeneous grouping. It is no secret that some parents and students in these schools are unhappy with this change. Let's keep our present honors classes. Let's not promote our school as innovative because we are teaching everyone the same. Let's promote our school as innovative because we are unique. Because we will be meeting the needs of all students by challenging gifted learners and motivating those who need it. Let's accept tuition from students unhappy with heterogeneous learning and maybe others from China, Korea and Japan.

After we get input from parents, teachers and students from schools that have made this change, we have the following choices to make:

1. Eliminate honors classes and create heterogeneous grouped ninth-grade classes with current class sizes as the Harwood administration has recommended. Then teach to the "7-minute-milers." This is the simplest approach. Not effective for most students. I am afraid that this is the approach that most of my colleagues will take.

2. Eliminate homogeneous classes and keep heterogeneous ninth-grade classes to a maximum of six. This is an expensive option but much less expensive per student than the cost of private schools. It would also take many hours of teacher training, adding more to the expense.

3. Keep the present honors classes and market our school to parents and students in other schools, which are unhappy with heterogeneous ninth-grade grouping. Place the added revenue into our core facility: Pave our axle-breaking parking lot, update our athletic facilities, labs and classrooms.

Kerrigan is a Harwood science teacher and coach.


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