Semester in Review: Combined IB SL/HL Mathematics Class

This past semester was tough. I've always taken on more than I probably should, but I hit my limit and need to change things around.

The biggest element of the challenge came from my combined IB mathematics standard-level/high-level class. It's a given that this combined SL/HL situation isn't ideal. My internet searches on ways this has already been done successfully haven't yielded much, aside from people saying that this is a bad idea. Another important given, however, is that I had input into the schedule building last year, and saw that our size and staff prevents this from being done any other way. The way I see it is as a design challenge: given that SL and HL students are working in the same room, what do I do to optimize that time?

My lesson planning process has been pretty consistent over the past few years. My learning standards for each group are based in the curriculum documents provided by IB. These are pretty solid documents in mathematics, and I don't tend to struggle there. Some standards are common to SL and HL, with HL specific additions added to my standards descriptions. The HL specific standards have also been pretty easy to parse out of the documents.

From the standards, I piece together pacing based on my experience and knowledge of my students. I've been teaching them all for the past two years at least, so I feel comfortable knowing how to push them. For each lesson, I curate a set of problems as the benchmarks, work out the prerequisite skills, and then figure out what students are doing at each stage of the class. At this point (which is usually about forty-five minutes in), I identify how direct instruction fits into the sequence, if it needs to be there.

This is where the separation between the groups gets tricky. I don't always have the SL students necessarily do the same warm up questions as the HL. The HL students might be given one basic problem, and another that forces them to figure out a need for a new method, find patterns, or attempt to generalize based on observations. While the HL students do this, I am debriefing with the SL students, giving them a mini lesson on the objectives of the day, and then setting them off to do some practice. This frees me to work with the HL students, give them a mini lesson on their objectives, and then get them working in a team. I circle back to the SL and work with them wherever needed.

I let the HL students flounder a lot when they are working together. That productive struggle leads to a need for me to come in and nudge them in the right direction with the right question or observation. In a perfect world, I don't need to nudge and the students figure it out themselves, but the dense reality of the curriculum doesn't allow for too much discovery.

This process, on the whole, is exhausting. It's only one of my classes to prepare on any given day, though the block schedule gives a lot more flexibility to do this than if I only had 45 minutes. Out of necessity, I can't spend time fixated on the perfect pivotal questions. While it is easier to do teacher centered instruction, the planning I used to do just isn't practical. I do a lot less instruction and a lot more throwing my students into problems and cleaning up issues along the way. Students wanting a clear set of instructions from me aren't getting them, which admittedly bugs me sometimes. In the long run, these students are spending more time figuring things out on their own and talking to each other, which makes me feel better about the situation. I just wish I was a better curator of materials to make this more smooth for students.

I have identified some ways I plan to change things around for second semester and lighten the load. The curation piece is the big one. Choosing good problems for each group to work on together is the most important element of that work. My direct instruction is then focused on leading students through the tough parts of the thinking process, and then getting out of the way to let them finish the job. The downside to this is that the completeness of my class notes decreases, but I'm not convinced students look back at those notes frequently anyway. There is a lot of good material available online to help students through the basic skills, and my time might be better spent finding and collecting that content for students to work through on their own.

I also feel the need to improve the quality of my interactions with each group. This is especially difficult when I am switching gears so quickly. Some SL or HL discussions don't fit neatly into a twenty minute interval together while the other group is working. I've decided that two blocks of every two week cycle (five blocks total) will be HL specific time. This means the SL students will have time to work on their own and help each other, and I can spend longer intervals of time working specifically with HL students on their exclusive content. The SL students undoubtedly have work to do for their other IB courses, and have expressed an interest in having time to work. The dedicated HL time will also mean the time spent with SL students and on common content becomes more streamlined and focused.

I'm always looking for ways to improve my workflow, so your suggestions are, as always, very welcome.

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