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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Flexible Grouping to Promote Learning

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Darby Masland uses flexible grouping to foster understanding of texts and vocabulary.

Teacher: Darby Masland

School: The Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women, New York, NY

Grade: 9

Discipline: Social Studies (Global Studies)

Lesson Topic: “Grassroots lesson” (a focus on skills with which students are struggling)

Lesson Month: March

Number of Students: 18

Other: This classroom is in an all-girls school.

Featured Lesson’s Student Goals:

  • Content objectives – Understand how to break down a complex question
  • Literacy/language objectives – Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text; analyze how a text uses structure to emphasize key points or advance an explanation or analysis

Standards Addressed:

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects

    Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.
    Analyze how a text uses structure to emphasize key points or advance an explanation or analysis.

Instruction Details:

The Unit
The goal of this 20-day unit on Chinese and Indian civilizations was to introduce some of the cultural and intellectual achievements and religious beliefs of the East.

The Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women uses the Learning Cultures approach, which has a primary goal of helping all students learn how to carry out their own learning intentions. At the beginning of the year, students are given a list of the standards they are expected to meet for the year. The path they take to meet the standards is up to them. Students are guided to make their own choices and hold each other accountable to a learning community. The content of the class is social studies–based; however, the learning goals address historical thinking skills as well as reading and writing skills.

Before the Video
Students had multiple mini-lessons (about 15 minutes) of direct instruction on Hinduism, Buddhism, and some Chinese philosophies as well as small learning groups (both teacher- and student-led). In the week before this lesson, students who partook in the unison reading group examined possible texts that they could read and selected one.

During the Video
This two-day lesson was a “grassroots lesson” that Ms. Masland developed in response to a need she identified the previous week. (A “grassroots lesson” occurred weekly and specifically focused on skills students were struggling with.) Many students had difficulty answering a quiz question about the caste system in India and how Hinduism has impacted the development of Indian society over the course of history: Are social hierarchies a necessary characteristic of all civilizations? Students did not have the necessary skills to break down that question step-by-step. So, Ms. Masland taught a 10-minute mini-lesson on breaking down complicated questions, beginning with a discussion on one component of the question: hierarchies. The class worked for two days to break down the “tough question.”

After the mini-lesson, students engaged in independent work. During this time, there were multiple types of student-driven learning happening simultaneously. With standards in mind, students used the resources within the classroom to direct their own study of concepts, terms, and skills. In a unison reading group, students read aloud the text they had selected the week before (a comic about the Silk Road). The students broke down the text using four domains: decoding, social processes, comprehension, and genre. As they read, they “breached,” or stopped, when anyone in the group had a question, point of clarification, or new understanding. In a learning group, students chose to focus on vocabulary. They identified the vocabulary words they thought were important to know and used resources and prior knowledge to define them. Another learning group was pursuing individual inquiries about the topic using the resources in the classroom. During independent work time, students worked toward individualized goals they had set during conferences with Ms. Masland. Ms. Masland also held a short one-on-one conference with a struggling student.

After the Video
Students continued to learn about other topics in India and China and wrote a culminating thematic essay in class. The next week, the lessons focused on comparing and contrasting the impact that India’s and China’s belief systems had on the development of the respective civilizations. In the following unit, students connected civilizations in the East to those in the West through the development of the Silk Road. Students discussed how cultural and intellectual achievements and religious beliefs of the East spread throughout the Middle East and West through economic routes like the Silk Road.

Teacher Prep
Ms. Masland looked at data from students’ last assignment to address skills with which they needed more help.

Prior Knowledge
Students needed to know which skills they personally were strong in and in which skills they needed to improve.

Differentiated Instruction
During the mini-lesson on breaking down complicated questions, students used a “worksheet” with the same “tough question” from the quiz for support. (In this class, a “worksheet” is an optional resource that provides a scaffold to support independent work.)

Students had a lot of choice in this lesson, as they do in every lesson. The school places great emphasis on providing resources that enable students to think independently and find answers on their own. Thus, within the structures of the curriculum and standards, students can choose their own focus. They can choose what they will be working on and when to ensure it will be most beneficial to their own needs. (For example, a student who is not struggling in geography might choose not to work on that and to push himself or herself in a different direction instead, such as primary source analysis.)

To give structure to the self-directed learning, Ms. Masland continuously references the five social studies practices from the Common Core State Standards, which are always posted on the wall. The walls are also filled with student work, unison reading text options, library resources, reminders, expectations, calendars, and agendas. It also holds numerous “worksheets”—optional supports with things like guided questions to help students better understand a textbook; instructions for how to create a geographic features map; and hints for taking notes from online resources such as videos and infographics.

Group Interaction
Because the learning is student-centered and student-driven, students were encouraged and expected to take responsibility for helping each other meet the standards. Ms. Masland focused on developing the social skills students needed to help each other with partner and small-group work. During the mini-lesson, students “popcorned,” or popped a question, to a peer to build off of each other’s answers and share responsibility for keeping the class engaged and participating.

Unison reading groups met daily. Student leaders selected texts in advance (each student led the unison reading group once per month), and other students signed up for groups based on their interests. The leader began the unison reading with a countdown, and then all students read aloud in unison. Ms. Masland felt students paid more attention during unison reading and were able to experience their text collaboratively in “perspective-shifting discourse”—meaning they shared each other’s prior knowledge, thoughts, and perspectives and had an opportunity to change the perspectives of others.

Resources and Tools

  • Silk Road comic
  • Tough Question worksheet
  • MAZE Passages
  • “How-To” instructional guides
  • A classroom library with leveled texts about the topics they are studying
  • Two different sets of textbooks
  • Brief (one-to two-page) readings on the topics students are studying
  • Activities to be completed independently
  • Guided practice sheets for organizing student writing
  • All prior lessons for the unit (in a binder students can access)
  • All prior individual conferences (in a binder students can access)
  • All prior unison reading records (in a binder students can access)
  • Two desktop computers and an iPad


Formative Assessment
During independent work time, Ms. Masland sat with the unison reading group to assess their close readings skills. (The unison reading group members changed daily so she was able to assess all students regularly.) As they read, she took notes to record the breeches and assess for the breakdown across the four domains: decoding, social processes, comprehension, and genre. For decoding, she looked for skills like pronunciation, phonetics, sounds, etc. For social processes, she assessed for cooperation and collaboration. For comprehension, she looked for general understanding and ability to decipher new information and make connections. For genre, she looked for students’ ability to access the text and attend to its features (e.g., Is the comic read left to right or up and down?).

Student Self-Assessment
Students are asked to think about the standards on a daily basis. They assess for themselves the areas in which they are strong and with which they need more practice and design their individual work to support those areas.

During the unison reading group, Ms. Masland shared her record of breeches with students and, in response, students assessed their own work (e.g., how they were breaking down the text across the four domains, how often they were breaching in each area, who was not participating enough and needed to be brought into the group, etc.).

Summative Assessment
Students had a test on the unit that included multiple-choice questions, a short writing piece comparing and contrasting the civilizations, and a geography section.

Ongoing Assessment
Ms. Masland met with every student at least once per marking period for 10 to 15 minutes. She saw struggling students more often. In each conference, students identified their own areas for improvement and practiced the skill together with Ms. Masland (for example, the student in the video practiced slow reading). At the end, Ms. Masland set a goal or action for the student to take to continue to practice the skill.

Every week, students submitted four “artifacts of learning” to show what they had been working on throughout the week—worksheets or other things they had chosen to do to help themselves know the content and meet the standards. (There was no set standard or requirement for explicit work, so the artifacts for each student were always different.) Students also had quizzes every two weeks and a test at the end of each unit. There was a focus on thematic essays in preparation for the New York State Regents exams.

Series Directory

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines


Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation. 2015.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-906-4