Best Practices for Professional Learning Communities (Part 2)

Part Two: Address students’ needs

This is part of an occasional series about Professional Learning Communities— I dubbed it Trade & Teach, a practice of assessing all students in a grade level and creating leveled groups taught by different teachers. It can work really well in elementary schools, but I have noticed the trend is to reinvent the wheel in the name of teacher buy-in. Rather than that, I offer Best Practices advice from tried and true implementation experience in real third grade classrooms. If you’re not familiar with Professional Learning Communities, read the Wiki here.

In order for Trade & Teach to be successful, the emphasis must be on addressing students’ needs.  Think about the strengths and weaknesses of students in each group, and address them directly.

I have seen Trade & Teach function in the opposite way— students split into leveled groups, but all teachers teaching the same subject—Chapter X.  All students take the same assessment a week later.  What actually happens is just leveling students, then teaching to the middle in each group.  Such a situation can arise as an unintended consequence of violating the rules of wise assessment.

Following are Best Practices for addressing students’ needs.  I have given examples for each of the 3 Rs: Reading, wRiting, and ‘Rithmetic.

Above-level students need a challenge that focuses on synthesis and application.  Regardless of the subject, they should be working on solving problems and functioning as independently as possible.  Try to put these students above their comfort zone.  They spend most of school well within it—which is not the best place for learning.

Reading: Compare a novel or short story to research on that topic.  (Examples: From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and research on Michelangelo and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Or Teammates and research on Jackie Robinson.)  Then show how the book used information correctly in some places and took poetic license in others.  Bonus: Write a short story using information about a certain topic.

wRiting: Create advanced material and be meticulous about taking it through every stage of publication.  Be sure to make the material fit the intended audience.  Example: survey classmates to assess their favorites, then create a newspaper, blog or magazine tailored to the taste of the class.

‘Rithmetic: Apply area, perimeter and geometry in designing a blueprint for a house.  Work within constraints—lot size, budget, time, materials.  Another idea: break a skill down to its component parts and design a small workbook to teach younger children.


On-level students need to work on skills maintenance—these are the students firmly based in the “use it or lose it” camp.  Without constant practice, they will slide, not grow.  On-level students also need challenges, but theirs should be scaffolded so students feel successful at every step.

ReadingPractice fluency by performing Readers’ Theater plays.  Focus on skills with workbooks targeted at the components of good reading—comparing, summarizing, finding details, etc.  Read a novel together with scaffolding to ensure comprehension at every step.  Different activities for different chapters will keep things interesting: summarize some, create a timeline for chapters with lots of action, and predict when a chapter ends with a cliffhanger.

wRiting:  Work together as a class to outline and then write a five paragraph essay.  Students should spend ample time at each step and get teacher approval before progressing.  This way, mistakes can be corrected and techniques can be honed.  Children at this level would also enjoy creating comic strips to give directions or teach about a topic.

‘Rithmetic: Work on problems from the grade level standards and textbooks, but stop and remedy problems that crop up along the way.  For example, this group may be fine at 3 digit subtraction, but not if it involves subtracting across zeroes.  Slow down and focus on this skill.  A good scaffolded project would be creating a picture book that depicts multiplication arrays with a fun theme, similar to the cookies in The Doorbell Rang.


Below-level students need remediation.  I show them that the root word is remedy—a cure.  They need tasks that are like medicine for their skills.  If the kids realize that each task is designed to really help them, not just take up time, these students will work harder.  Whatever the subject, the bulk of the lesson for these students should focus on just one or two skills at a time.  However, a small portion of your time (perhaps 25%) should allow students to work on tasks that require using several skills, techniques or strategies.

Reading: Try to get a sense of what holds this group back.  Is it decoding words?  Or do students look at the first few letters and guess?  You may have to break this group into 2 camps to address each type of need.  The other group can read independently or complete skills sheets while you work with students.  If you want to teach whole-class, have students practice sight words, simple Readers’ Theater scripts, or word families.  May I also suggest the wonderful Little Critter reading series of workbooks?  They are pure magic at this level.

wRiting: These students probably need to practice with basic word families and phonics skills.  They also need lots of practice with writing complete sentences.  I also find that children at this level can benefit from copying fluent but simple writing—they see the patterns and get a feel for the structure.  You can teach these children to write paragraphs or even five-paragraph essays, but you’ll need to scaffold every step.  I would have the class make one outline together, then have each student work from that.  Did I mention that there are Little Critter Writing workbooks, too?

‘Rithmetic: Basic facts!  These students must learn them.  Spend a good deal of time practicing basic facts in many ways—worksheets, copying, games, flash cards, Learning Wrap Ups, computer programs—anything that works.  These students also need lots of help with place value.  I find that sometimes, learning basic facts is a gateway to understanding place value.  As students gain more confidence writing and manipulating numbers, the place value creeps its way into their number sense and your lessons are better received.  My free software, Best Times Tables Practice EVER! and Best Addition Practice EVER! are great for this level because you can scaffold learning.  Start with easy facts and work your way up.

This series on Professional Learning Communities Best Practices is made possible by Valerie, Donina, Bethany and Heather … an amazing third grade team!

Posted in Professional Learning Communities by Corey Green @ Nov 8, 2011


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