Secondary maths - Number crunching

12th September 2008 at 01:00
Sorting new Year 7s can be daunting. But you can group them with these top tips

You are standing at the door with a false smile on your face, meeting and greeting. The Year 7s are progressing down the corridor looking slightly lost.

In your head, this is the class to impress, this is the class that has no preconceptions of what secondary school maths is, this is the class that will let you be yourself.

But young Nathan is dragging his feet because he's just noticed Jemma is in this class, and he knows she is much better at maths than him.

So how do you cope with a Year 7 class who are suddenly being taught as a mixed-ability group? The class that contains pupils ranging in ability from level 2 to level 6?

You have two aims in these first weeks. One is to make sure that they leave feeling that the maths they have done is harder than the maths at primary school. The second is to make sure that they know your classroom expectations.

For you, the second seems more important but it's the first one that matters most.

Most schools will have a minimum of six weeks teaching Year 7 mixed ability before they place them in sets. That's probably 18 lessons where you need to support the pupil who struggles with adding up on their fingers, and extend the pupil whose teacher at primary school has already dabbled with the Year 7 key objectives.

Don't panic, it will all come together. For the first few lessons, the trick is to find activities that self-differentiate. If you use the transition units from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, then you can't go wrong. The first activity for Year 7 involves double- sided cards with positive and negative numbers. It will allow the weaker pupils to feel they are on safe ground if they're approaching a problem they recall from primary school, especially if you provide them with pieces of paper to write the numbers on and use. You can ask the top-end pupils to consider the outcomes of combining negative numbers without the support of the double-sided cards.

You could also set them a challenge, such as the "four fours" problem (see panel).

Now you have to make sure that everyone gets involved. Circulate, ask questions: "How did you . ?", "Are you sure . ?", "Well done, can you now . ?". Within minutes you'll have an overview of the class ability and temperament and the next lesson will fall into place.

If you let them sit where they like for the first few lessons then you are at liberty to seat them more to your liking from then on. Are your tables in groups, lines, a horseshoe? Do you want more than one seating plan? You could arrange it so that your level 2s are together and your level 6s are together. Or you could have a mixed arrangement, where they have an opportunity to support one another. Bear in mind that they are only 11 and that expecting them to step back and let someone else do the work may not happen - so perhaps sitting a level 6 next to a level 3 may not have the expected outcome.

Whatever happens, it's your classroom and they will be more scared than you in those first few lessons. Your job is to make sure they leave the room feeling confident about maths, whatever their level.

Transition units are at: www.standards.dfes.gov.uksecondarykeystage3allrespubma_trans_y6y7

Karen Hancock is an Advanced Skills Teacher at Oriel High School in Crawley, West Sussex

YOU CAN DO IT TOO

Try this "four fours" challenge for a mixed ability class. Given no more than four instances of the digit 4, represent all numbers using a finite number of mathematical symbols and operators in common use. For instance, to make 5, you could write (4 X 4 + 4) divided by 4.