IT ISN’T JUST ABOUT WHERE STUDENTS & STAFF ARE;
IT’S ALSO WHAT THEY DO WHEN THEY’RE THERE
By Dr. Howie Knoff
As I’ve worked with schools during these Pandemic months, it has been interesting to watch how they have handled social distancing, the organization of instructional pods, and the movement of students in and out of different settings across the school.
When observing in a Michigan school classroom last week, I was amazed to see 28 fifth grade students jammed into a too-small room with each desk equipped with a bolted-down plexiglass front. The students were arranged in three rows with six inches between the desks on the side, and less than 18 inches between the desks in each row.
From a pedagogical or classroom management perspective, respectively, there was no way for the teacher (a) to move comfortably to the back row if s/he wanted to closely watch a student complete the problems on an assignment, or (b) to use proximity to prompt a student to get back on task.
From a safety perspective, the students could not comfortably move from the front door to their desks, and I shuddered to think what would happen if the students needed to get out of the classroom during a fire drill (or worse).
Clearly, the Pandemic has altered how we organize the different settings in a school. But issues related to school and classroom settings existed before the Pandemic ever hit, and how we conceptualize settings is critical to the services and supports that we provide to students, and the collaboration and productivity of school staff.
How settings impact the outcomes
of 5 different processes in a school
Too often, we let the classroom setting dictate how we organize students into differentiated instructional groups.
Many teachers do not know the functional skill levels of their students in the core academic areas of literacy, math, and language arts/writing.
Yes. . . they may know their iReady, Acadience, MAP, NWEA, or STAAR scores. But these test scores often do not provide the specificity to truly understand a student’s mastery of the skills in a curriculum-based scope and sequence chart.
To this end, at the middle or high school level, every teacher should know the functional skill mastery levels for every student before the first class each semester or quarter. Without this information, a 10th grade science teacher would not know that one-third of her class is reading at the early 8th grade level, and another third (with some student overlaps) have mastered their mathematical calculation skills only through Grade 7.
With this information, the teacher would know how to adapt her instruction, what supplemental materials to layer in so that students understand and learn the 10th grade science vocabulary and content, and what remediation to provide so that students can perform the 10th grade mathematical calculations present in a specific science lesson.
Some teachers have not differentiated their curricula into content that is best learned in heterogeneous, multi-skilled, or multi-leveled student groups, as opposed to content that is best learned in homogeneous, same- or equivalently-skilled student groups.
This can result in the use of different differentiated grouping patterns within the same class of students. For example, an 8th grade teacher may strategically organize his/her class of 24 students—for a differentiated lesson on calculation skills—into four skill-based groups of six students—where the students within each group are functioning at the same skill level, but the students across the groups are performing at very different skill levels. Later on, the same teacher might reorganize the class into four heterogeneous or mixed-skill groups of six students for a problem-solving unit on determining the best travel route to a destination under different weather conditions and times of the day.
Some teachers—for example, four teachers teaching at the 3rd grade level—who need to differentiate for the five to seven different skill clusters of students within their respective classrooms in literacy, may feel locked into their classroom settings.
Pedagogically, this scenario is a disaster. . . because there is no way that any teacher can provide high quality differentiation for six different skill groups of students over an entire school year—giving each student group the same amount of time, practice, feedback, and individual coaching.
A more flexible use of these teachers’ settings would be to teach literacy at the same time of the day, merge all of the students at specific skill levels across two or all four teachers together, and have certain students walk to another teacher’s classroom for literacy.
By working across the teachers’ settings, they end up with a more manageable number of differentiated groups to teach in literacy, the groups can be reconstituted each quarter if students make different amounts of progress, and more students have a higher potential of maximizing their literacy learning and mastery.
The Pandemic has altered how we organize the different settings in a school, as well as how we schedule and logistically move students and staff from setting to setting. But, as we have emphasized throughout this article, putting people into places is not the goal.
The goal is putting the right people in the right places with the right other people, putting the right people “in charge,” discussing goals and desired outcomes at the outset, providing and sustaining needed resources and conditions, and accomplishing great things over time.
While the Pandemic has created a number of challenges, some issues—related to the use of school and classroom settings existed before the Pandemic ever hit.
How we conceptualize settings is critical to the services and supports that we provide to students, and how school staff collaborate and productively accomplish important school and schooling outcomes.
As we continue to address Pandemic-related issues, we also need to identify the issues that existed before the Pandemic and address them also. But we need to recognize, once again, that it’s not where we do our work, it’s how we do it on behalf of all of our students.
Knoff, H. M. (2020, August 8). Why stress-informed schools must precede trauma-informed schools: When we address student stress first, we begin to impact trauma. Project ACHIEVE Educational Solutions. Retrieved from:
Howie Knoff, PhD, NCSP, is an international consultant, speaker, and author specializing in school improvement and strategic planning, social-emotional learning and social skills training, multi-tiered systems of support, and interventions with behaviorally challenging students. He is a practitioner who has also been a university professor (22 years), and State Department of Education federal grant director (13 years). The author of 24 books and 100+ articles/book chapters, he was the 21st President of the National Association of School Psychologists. Learn more at projectachieve.info.