Humanities as a Vehicle for Differentiation in Middle School

Fall 2021

By Amy Tomblinson

Do you remember your first year in middle school? Moving from one teacher all day in lower school to having multiple teachers, different classrooms, and varied expectations? That’s not even taking into consideration locker combinations! Thankfully, despite the beginning-of-the-year anxiety, students quickly learn to navigate the hallways and find the rhythm of their class schedule, which organizes their day by subject. Not only is this the easiest way to manage large numbers of students from a scheduling standpoint, but it is also a familiar model for teachers, students, and families alike. This is a safe model, but is it the best model?

As educators, we encourage students to find and make connections in what they are learning. (Think STEM and STEAM.) The challenge arises when we attempt to make cross-curricular connections within our own silos. Encouraging students to make connections between subject areas can also be tricky, as units of study may not be inherently aligned within a division. How can educators better serve their students in fostering cross-curricular connections while still maintaining a high level of engagement and academic rigor?

Four years ago, Ravenscroft Middle School in Raleigh, NC, created a sixth grade humanities course as a replacement for separate American History and Advanced Language Arts and College Preparatory Language Arts classes, moving to one thematically based collaborative interdisciplinary course. A double-block course, Humanities 6 is a skills-based, interdisciplinary course that integrates reading, writing, oral presentation, critical thinking, and aspects of the arts. The course is taught through the lenses of identity and community in a variety of historical and contemporary contexts.

The original intent was strategic but did not fully support our mission of “nurturing individual potential.” How do we meet the needs of all learners while still delivering a curriculum that is relevant and pedagogically sound?

Differentiation Through Cluster Grouping

In order to meet the needs of our students, we created cluster groups. They are based on individual learning needs so that students are grouped with students of similar skill sets in order to provide differentiated learning. To form the groups, we used several data sets based on the research in the following resources:
  • The Cluster Grouping Handbook: A Schoolwide Model: How to Challenge Gifted Students and Improve Achievement for All by Susan Winebrenner
  • A Teacher’s Guide to Flexible Grouping and Collaborative Learning: Form, Manage, Assess, and Differentiate in Groups, paperback by Dina Brulles PhD and Karen L. Brown M.Ed.
The benefits of cluster grouping have been overwhelmingly positive for students, faculty, and families. Most important, students appreciate the opportunities to receive more focused and personalized instruction based on their individual needs.

Thematic Units

All faculty members move through the same thematic units, although pacing may vary according to the specific requirements of the cluster groupings. Thematically, the historical and contemporary topics include The Great Migration, Immigration, World War I, The Harlem Renaissance, World War II, The American Dream, and the decades 1950 to the present (popular culture, politics, economics, and the arts). Accompanying novels and reading material, including poetry, short stories, and nonfiction articles, are common in theme but may differ depending on the unit. Three essential questions provide focus:
  • How do people manage and adapt to change?
  • How do people express a desire for change?
  • How do people with different identities form a community?
For example, during our unit focusing on World War II and the notion of courage, students are given a choice between several novels that feature courage and identity as themes. Although the novels are different, the overarching themes are the same, and the historical context is the common thread used in class discussions. Students form book club groups for in-class discussions as well online discussion board prompts where students compare and contrast their journey through the novels. Formative assessments, usually in the form of a writing assignment, may differ in terms of length, format, and required scaffolding. Regardless of the novel or pacing, students are engaged in discussions and assignments answering the essential questions of the units.

How’s It Going?

Students exhibit a higher level of engagement in all of the cluster groups. Faculty are able to provide more focused instruction in terms of pacing and rigor based on student needs. Both parents and students appreciate the changes that we continue to make to our curriculum—meeting students where they are and supporting not only the advanced learners but all learners. Students who would typically sit silent during class discussions are able to have their voices heard, take risks during discussions, and ask clarifying questions without the stigma of appearing “less able.” In turn, our more advanced students are challenged by the rigor they crave and the challenges that support them in their growth as readers, writers, and critical thinkers. Student engagement is high.

Placing students in cluster groupings has been impactful in a most positive way. By the midyear mark, discussions in most classes are more likely to be student-led in the form of a Socratic seminar without many interjections by faculty members. Overall, students take greater pride and ownership in their discussions and their research, as they become the “expert” within their sixth grade peer group. Students frequently chat about the similarities and differences between their novels, and some students even decide to read a novel that a buddy in another cluster group is reading. Rather than memorizing material for an assessment, students engage in thoughtful discussions about the common threads running through each and every unit. How does identity play a part in forming communities? How do people react to challenges and change? What is the American Dream, and how has it changed over time? These and other questions are discussed and answered throughout the course.

    Assembling Dodecahedron Projects

   Preparing for Socratic Seminar

Looking back over the past four years, it is clear that our efforts to better serve our students through cross-curricular study combined with differentiated instruction have provided students with the environment and support they need in order to soar. 
Amy Tomblinson

Amy Tomblinson ([email protected]) is grade level leader and faculty at Ravenscroft Middle School in Raleigh, North Carolina.