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One Teacher Finds An Alternative

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"None of the students feel like they're at the bottom of the class,'' says Rethwisch, now in her 19th year as a teacher. "I think it's a positive situation for all of them.''

For years, Rethwisch taught by using ability groups, but she found that many of the placements were arbitrary; there had to be equal numbers in each group, but many students didn't clearly fit into one. With three groups progressing through the material at different rates, she had to explain the same material three separate times. And, she says, the students in the "slow'' group never really caught up.

Now, Rethwisch presents the basic material to the whole class, then breaks them up randomly for the day's reading groups. Better readers become role models for the slower readers. If the faster readers need more of a challenge, they can work on computers or in extra reading labs. And the time Rethwisch saves by not having to repeat the lessons can be used for one-on-one help with students who need it.

"You're not worried about whether you should move the kids up and down.'' Rethwisch says. "You don't have all these social pressures that go on with groups. I think the kids are all more satisfied.''

She has adopted a similar strategy for math, where good students often tutor ones who are having trouble. Rethwisch's colleagues at Winside Elementary School are following her lead. Many of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade teachers have recently started their own mixed-ability groups. --D.G.

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