I just returned from the optometrist with my son. Banished to the waiting room (“Uh, Mom? I can do this myself, ya know…”), I sat and happily watched a mom with her three young kids as they waited for their turn to see the doctor.
After quickly looking through a variety of books and chatting with the receptionist about her summer, the little girl (who I would guess to be about 7 years old and full of energy) noticed the bin of pencils the office had put out for patients. After being told that they were special back-to-school pencils, the little girl and her younger brother excitedly began fingering through them to pick a pencil each. Eventually the little girl swooped in to grab a red one and held it above her head with a loud, “YESSSSSSSS! I GOT A RED ONE!”. The receptionist laughed and asked why the excitement over a red pencil. “Red must be your favourite colour,” she surmised. And the answer, “No, it’s because I’m in the red reading group at school.”
Now, I have no idea what it means to be in “The Red Group” at school. It could be an ability grouping, an interest grouping, a random grouping, etc. The Red Group could be a group of advanced readers, beginning readers, whatever, but in my experience, most reading groups are based on abilities or needs. What struck me was how that little girl, eight long weeks out of school, continued to identify herself as someone belonging to The Red Group. Not only that, but the little girl then picked out a green pencil for her brother, exclaiming that she thinks he’ll probably be in The Green Group when he starts school in September. Again, I’m assuming that green = a level of ability of some sort. Her identity as a learner is currently wrapped up in this idea of The Red Group and whatever criteria comes with it, so much so that something that would seem so innocuous as choosing a pencil is coloured by it (pardon the pun). I’m confident that was not the outcome her teacher had intended.
As we head back to school, it’s something to think about as we get to know our new community of learners, and begin to plan for their instruction. This is not to say that I believe teachers should do away with grouping students – just the opposite. Done with care and dignity, and purposeful planning, grouping students provides lots of opportunities for targeted teaching to needs, interests, readiness, etc. Working in groups fosters collaboration and teamwork, and I could go on and on. My caution is to what degree do we make A Group the focus of our instructional planning? And what are some of the unintended outcomes? How fluid are the groups? Are they teacher-chosen, student-chosen, a mix of both? Do we chart student progress visibly on the wall by group? What is the purpose of the grouping? Are they productive and effective for the purpose? Or are they simply a cute way to organize your guided reading instruction with matching posters and binder dividers?
Something to think about.