The room dims as I flick the lights, but the muffled din barely subsides as my fourth graders scramble from their small clusters on the floor, the rug, and at tables where they are copying, reading, singing, and writing poetry. They look toward the agenda on the board for their next grouping cue — book clubs.

First, we all settle on the rug for a few minutes to talk about how things have been going in the clubs. "I think we've worked out that problem we were having and we're going to stick with Jacob I Have Loved," reports Adarsha, beaming. "You might not believe this, but nobody forgot their books this week! "Dylan gasps with mock disbelief — and the class bursts into spontaneous applause.

Then children go off in groups of three and four — to their usual spots around tables, in odd corners, out in the hall — to talk, read, and talk some more about the books they've chosen. The buzzing collection of learning groups is not perfect, not just the way I want it to be, but it's not bad, either. At P.S. 321 in Brooklyn, New York, we're discovering that the roads to successful grouping for learning are as numerous and varied as our teachers and classrooms. Here's how it works for me.

  • Groups to Start the Year
  • Getting Together for Social Studies and Math
  • The Heart of My Classroom: Grouping for Reading
  • Book Club: The Ultimate Reading Group

Groups to Start the Year

Planning for groups begins long before September when the prior grade's teachers come together to divvy up their classes for the following year in as fair and equitable a way as possible. In a school like P.S. 321, the year begins with a class carefully crafted to reflect a balance in terms of academic, racial, behavioral, and gender considerations — no small feat with six classes and 170 children in the grade.

Our heterogeneously grouped classes become microcosms of the world children live in. As such, kids' initial attempts at grouping themselves reflect the patterns we see on the streets of our city, breaking down all too often according to gender and race. Our job is to build a sense of community, getting kids to know and appreciate each other as learners and individuals so those lines become a bit fuzzier.

The very first day, I ask my kids to seat themselves around tables for four to six, and of course their primary consideration is sitting with old friends. Then, as kids get to know each other and can make more informed decisions about good workmates, I ask them to write letters to me describing themselves as learners, and listing who in the class they think might complement their own style, strengths, and weaknesses. "Dear Adele," writes Aron, "I think you're going to be surprised by who I want at my table. I like to hang out with Andrew, but I think he distracts me. I'm thinking that Sarah and Ariel would make good partners because they'll keep me focused. What do you think?"

Using these letters — plus some creative matchmaking by me to assure a comfortable, productive spot for even those few kids who have a little trouble getting along with everybody — I regroup the class around the tables.

Getting Together for Social Studies and Math

Once these table groups are formed, I find they work really well for most subject area explorations and activities, including science and writing. But I don't use them for every purpose. For some projects, like our extended Native American unit, kids group themselves based on a common area of interest. For months this year, students researched, wrote, and built models in groups that ranged from seven focusing on the Cherokees to one each for the Apache and Delaware tribes.

In my homogeneously grouped math class — P.S. 321's last bastion of traditional grouping — kids are drawn from all of the fourth-grade classrooms, and I like to mix them up a bit more so they can experience working with as many different children as possible. Every two weeks I stand at the door and assign new cooperative groups by dealing cards (ace through seven) randomly as they come in, à la Marilyn Burns. Well, almost randomly: I've found it helps to rig the deck a bit, stashing the twos at the bottom so I can be sure that kids who need a little extra attention will be at a table close to the front of the room. Deceitful, perhaps, but it takes them months to become suspicious. In groups like these, kids quickly learn that leadership qualities can be as valuable as discrete math skills. The most sought-after workmates are not always the most skillful mathematicians.

The Heart of My Classroom: Grouping for Reading

Our carefully choreographed dance toward reading groups begins as early as the first days of school, when kids are asked to reflect on their own reading lives. As a class, we spend long hours on the rug sharing memories of our first experiences of reading and being read to. I ask kids to interview their parents and write reading histories as the first entry in their precious reading journals, which will serve as a record of their growth as readers over the course of the year. They then create reading time lines that chart their changing abilities and tastes as readers.

From the very first day I read aloud to the kids as a whole group, because I love to and because it provides so many rich opportunities for modeling effective reading strategies. No matter how strong or struggling a reader, everyone is passionately involved and has something to offer in response. We model strategies for making sense of difficult text, noticing elements of an author's style, questioning twists in plot, anticipating what impact they'll have on the central conflict, and so on. We also come together as a class for mini-lessons; we may talk about how authors develop character, setting, and plot, or simply delight in gorgeous descriptive language.

Then the kids spin off to read independently, looking for examples in their own text to record in their journals, and return once again, eager to share with their classmates. Throughout, I'm looking for evidence that they've begun to incorporate the strategies we've modeled and discussed into their own reading behaviors.

As that elusive sense of community begins to grow, I ask my kids to again write letters — this time requesting a partner they'd like to read with. Their letters are always very touching, often containing the beginnings of insights about what makes them tick as readers as well as a growing level of awareness or curiosity about their classmates. Though it may seem simpler to group by "ability" as determined by test scores, I've found this process invaluable for both assessing strengths and needs, and for bringing my kids closer together. They truly come to appreciate the child who may not read fluently or quickly, but who has a sensitive and insightful soul and responds in genuine ways to good books.

Book Club: The Ultimate Reading Group

By the time we return from winter break, the kids are ripe for something more,and so they begin to form book clubs, a goal we've been edging toward since the very first day of school. I ask them to reflect on and write about what qualities they'd be looking for in a group of kids to read with. Their responses nearly always make me laugh and cry, but mostly fill me with wonder at how attuned they've become to their own styles and those of others.

But our book clubs are not formed by letters alone. Inspired by colleagues and workshops at Columbia University's Teachers College, I ask kids to write ads for themselves, patterned after the personal ads in the local paper — only instead of advertising their marital status, hobbies, and hair color, they sell themselves as readers. "Desperately seeking a voracious reader like me, a fast reader, a love to read for pleasure reader!" reads Amy's ad, while Angel's reads, "I'm a medium reader who loves mysteries, but might need some help with hard words." The ads are anonymous and identified only by made-up post office box numbers. They're hung prominently in the classroom for several days so kids have a chance to read and enjoy them, then respond to the ones they find appealing. Based on their responses, I play matchmaker.

The resulting book clubs of three or four kids choose their own books, set their own weekly goals and agendas, and choose their own journal assignments for homework, drawn from the many possibilities we've worked on for months. They even choose their own names, from '90s Girls to The Bookworms. With all these choices to make, kids soon face the need to negotiate and compromise.

An Endless Learning Dance

There are times every day when my head spins with the whirl of group activity in my classroom. It strikes me as remarkable that my kids manage to move so fluidly into and out of the various configurations their day demands. And, yes, there are times when I stand in the midst of the chaos and am consumed with doubt. It's at those times that I try to see through the eyes of that visiting teacher to renew my faith in my kids, so that I can answer her simply and truthfully: "Yes, they are amazing, aren't they?"

 

This article was written by Adele Schroeter, who teaches fourth grade at P.S. 321 in Brooklyn, New York.