Compare and Contrast

Fifth grade teacher Huck Phillip faces grouping challenges as he tries to meet the different needs of students in reading, writing, and mathematics. Using formal and informal assessments, anecdotal notes, and the input of the reading specialist, Huck strives to set objectives for students that connect to school improvement goals and maximize individual student growth.

Huck Phillips works with a guided reading group in his fifth grade classroom at Lewis and Clark Elementary School.

Helen needed a lot of reassurance from her teachers.

“Mr. Phillips, is this right?” Helen asks, scooting her chair closer to Huck’s. Huck suppresses a sigh. Helen is sweet and easy to get along with, but she’s overly compliant. He wishes she had more confidence and self-reliance.

“Show me what you’ve got,” Huck smiles, regaining his normal patience.

Helen hands him her first draft of the web she’s created to demonstrate her understanding of the concept of independence and how it applies to Sarah Bishop, the Revolutionary War novel her reading group is discussing. Fitting topic, Huck thinks, picking up her carefully penciled work. Everything’s correct, he notes, but there’s no detail, no spark, no imagination. She needs to take more risks to grow as a learner, he believes.

See Helen’s concept map below:

Huck looks at Helen, smiles, and then carefully frames his response. “Helen, you have a strong skeleton here. Now I want you to challenge yourself. Ask yourself questions like, ‘Which example of independence do I think is the most powerful?’ and ‘Why do I think that is such a strong example of independence?’”

Helen nods her head, eager to please, but clearly disappointed that he didn’t think her web was perfect as is. “Okay, Mr. Phillips.”

“So,” he prompts her. “What do you think is the most important example of independence in the novel?”

“Ummmm . . . Well, it was really good when she left, right?”

Huck prompts her for another minute, getting her to generate a more detailed and specific answer. As he gets up from her desk, he wonders if he is pushing her too hard by placing her in this reading group. With her tendency to reread and self-correct, she’s one of the weakest in the group. On the other hand, Helen has kept up with the reading and joins in discussions in a thoughtful way.

Huck moves across the room to look over the shoulder of another student, Ben, who is working in the writing center across the room. In the half-hour Ben has been writing, he’s only completed a few sentences. Dark, heavy pencil strokes characterize his work. Huck has suggested Ben hold his pencil differently, but Ben typically responds, “But this is how I’ve always done it.”

Huck checks the clock. “Time to get ready to be dismissed for recess,” he announces. Still thinking of the issues Ben presents, Huck watches as he rushes toward the row of coat hooks lining the back wall. Ben looks over his shoulder and sees Colby nearby. Grabbing his hooded sweatshirt from the hook, he turns and purposefully bumps Colby’s shoulder, hard enough to knock him off balance.

Colby cautions, “Watch where you’re going!”

“You watch where you’re going,” Ben replies.

Colby just rolls his eyes and heads for the door.

Ben seems pleased to have engaged this popular student, even though Colby is clearly annoyed. Huck wishes he had more information about Ben, but since he was home schooled for the past three years there is almost no assessment data available and pow-wowing with his mother doesn’t seem as productive as working with prior teachers would have been.

Huck grabs the red emergency bag from his desk and heads to the playground.

Clipboard in hand, Huck takes notes as students play the math game “24” in small groups or pairs.

Click here for a description of Arithmetic 24.

A trio of gifted students plays a challenge version of “24” using exponents. An instructional assistant from the learning resource room guides another group through the game. Other pairs are spread around the room, all engaged in this number combinations game. Regional competitions have spread the game’s popularity, and Huck is glad, because watching his students play helps him determine their math level and computation rate.

Each year by mid-October, Huck and his teaching partner, Billie, divide students between their two classrooms. Huck takes the lower achieving students and collaborates with a special education teacher who supports students with math IEPs, while Billie teaches the higher performing group. She is usually willing to take a few more students, allowing the struggling students in Huck’s class to get more individualized attention. They’ll be splitting the classes soon, and Huck is taking meticulous notes during today’s lesson to supplement the results of the pre-assessment he administered in September to measure students’ knowledge against year-end objectives.

As Huck watches Helen in a group with three other students, he notes her familar reluctance to jump into the fray. She scored a fifty-three percent on the math pre-assessment, a fairly high score. Helen could fit nicely in Billie’s class, Huck knows, but he wonders if placing her in the higher achieving math class is the right move. Huck’s smaller math class might be the best setting to play on Helen’s strengths and get her to take risks. He makes a note to discuss her placement with Billie, along with his goal for Helen to become a more self-directed, independent learner.

His mind wanders to Billie’s impending retirement. This will be their last year teaming together, and it’s hard to imagine his professional life without her. What a mentor she’s been! Billie is old school, no nonsense, and mostly by-the-book. Huck sees himself as more of a dreamer and a poet. Billie and Huck do not always agree upon or understand each other’s approach to a standards-based curriculum, but they respect each other’s ideas, and their partnership has challenged each to grow professionally. Billie may be old enough to be his mother, but she’s gutsy enough to handle camping trips with his buddies. Huck can’t imagine another teacher filling her shoes.

Shifting his attention, he watches Ben play “24” with two other students. He is perplexed by Ben’s pre-assessment, where he wrote repeatedly “learned but forgot” (LBF) on a number of items. He scored twenty-seven percent, which put him somewhere in the middle of the pack for this time of year, but the test showed holes in his learning. Ben appeared to have some understanding of geometry and probability, yet no exposure to manipulating numbers or fractions. While most of his students at least had been introduced to concepts related to averaging and place value, there was little indication of this on Ben’s pre-assessment. Were these gaps due to home schooling or did they indicate some kind of learning disability? Did Ben have problems with social skills because he had not been in school with other kids since first grade, or was he pulled from public school because of his inability to get along well with others?

See Ben’s Fifth Grade Math Standards Assessment below:

But as Ben continues the game, Huck notices a few strengths. Ben knows the rules. He can site what is and is not allowable with certainty, if not with tact. He is quick and accurate when it comes to mental math calculations and has picked up on all the correct math vocabulary. The discrepancy between his performance on this game and the results of his pre-assessment are striking, and Huck is baffled.

Ben perks up as Huck nears his team and blurts out, “Mr. Philips, how many weeks ‘til the ‘24’ competition?”

“Eight weeks, Ben.” Huck smiles at him. “You’re looking like you’re going to be a major player!”

Ben beams, “My dad and I have been playing at home! I’m going to be victorious!”

Huck notes this on his clipboard and encourages Ben’s enthusiasm. “Looks like your practice is paying off.”

Huck wondered if Ben’s holes could be filled quickly. If so, he might be able to move into the higher math group. He is drawn back to Ben’s signature phrase, “learned but forgot.” Was this just a case of forgetting over the summer? Or was Ben’s poor pencil grip and large printing with virtually no spacing a clue to deeper issues?

After school, Huck struggles with grouping decisions as he pours over student work samples, data, and anecdotal notes. He solicits advice from the building reading specialist, Kate Byers.

Huck studies student data before making placement decisions.

Kate Byers, the reading specialist, stops by Huck’s classroom, book bag in hand. Busy examining his assessments, notes, and faculty hand-outs, Huck doesn’t notice her until she’s right in front of his desk.

See the Reading Levels hand-out Huck reviews below:

See a Running Record Testing Results for some of Huck’s students below:

See Writing Samples from one of Huck’s students below:

“Huck, you look like you are taking our school improvement goals way too seriously!” Kate jokes.

“I have to.” Huck shakes his head. “But right now what’s troubling me is creating new groups. You know how it is. Most kids are easy to peg, but there are a few I’m just not sure of.”

“What would teaching be without a few good challenges?” Kate laughs. “Anything I can do to help?”

“Remember you did a running record on Helen Simons for me?”

Kate thinks back to her session with Helen. “Yeah, I tested her using both timed and untimed formats.”

Helen’s Reading Assessment Video

See Kate’s running record from Helen’s reading below:

“Well, she’s a little above level for comprehension but she’s got fluency issues. I’m torn between putting her in this group focusing more on fluency and maybe encouraging some risk-taking, and putting her with a higher group to try to stretch her comprehension.”

“Fluency does affect comprehension, you know,” Kate responds, looking at her watch. “I’m not sure I’ll be able to shed more light on Helen as a learner right now, though. I’ve got to pick up the kids from daycare in just a few minutes. Okay if I get back to you later on that?”

“No problem,” Huck replies.

“Do I still get chocolate?” Kate grins. When Huck began at Lewis and Clark, he approached Kate for some extra help developing his skills as a teacher of reading, and, as a thank-you, had given her a bag of Dove chocolates. In turn, she’d repaid him with a bag of chocolates for helping her copy and collate articles for a staff inservice she’d provided. Giving each other chocolates had become a tradition between them.

“Of course!”

“But I’ll have to buy you a bag soon anyway.”

Huck raises his eyebrows. “What’s up?”

“I actually stopped by to ask for your help! I finally got some time in the next faculty meeting to show teachers how to complete running records and just learn more about reading assessment in general. I want them to feel comfortable using different types of assessments and interpreting results.”

Huck nods as Kate continues. “I’ve got a slide show and a video, but I’m afraid it might be overwhelming for teachers, and I don’t want anyone to leave the meeting screaming! I need you to give me some feedback.” With that, she handed him a paper copy of her PowerPoint and walked over to the VCR. “The video’s short, so this won’t take long.”

“I thought you had to pick up the kids?”

“I’ve still got five minutes!” Kate replied. “This video basically shows Shaunna Hall administering a test to Eric.”

Huck smiles at the mention of his colleague, but doesn’t say anything as the video begins.

After it was over, Huck questions, “Why was he reading nonsense words? What’s the point of that?”

Kate laughs. “And that’s what we’ll be talking about in our faculty meeting! But I’m not so worried about the video, more about the slideshow. Take a look.” She checks her watch again. “I’ve really got to go. Maybe we can talk tomorrow?”

Click here to view Kate’s PowerPoint presentation.

Huck’s stomach growls. He’s starving, and it’s time for him to head home as well. He puts Kate’s PowerPoint in his messenger bag and files assessments and student work into appropriate folders. The last papers he files are his students’ science reports. Lying side-by-side, in glaring contrast, are Helen and Ben’s reports. He scans each briefly, sighs, and slips them into a folder and then into his bag.

See Helen’s report, “Light and Dark Apples” below:

See Ben’s report, “Mt. St. Helens” below:

He recalls Kate’s earlier remark, “What would teaching be without a few good challenges?”