Mixing Advanced and Beginning Students in Your Classroom

HarrisI am frequently asked about the makeup of a particular Television/Video Production or Broadcast Journalism class. 

Traditionally, in high school we teachers are quite used to having all of our students in a class be at the same learning level.  In other words, all the beginner students are in one class and all the advanced students are in their own class.  Many teachers may have as many as four different levels of classes – a First Year, Second Year, Third Year and Fourth Year class.  Many of the proponents of this method will tout the ease of having only one level of lesson plan per class and the lower level of chaos found with all the students doing the same tasks at the same time.

I used to feel the same way and for many years worked under that model.  However, there are obvious flaws to that system:
 
• The biggest flaw is few teachers have the equipment quantities necessary for this system to be most effective.  In my own case since I didn’t have unlimited quantities of gear, the only solution was to group several students around a single piece of gear.  I knew full well that this would not insure the same level of learning because oftentimes there would be 5 or more students in the “group.”  That meant one or two might learn something, and one or two might not because they couldn’t get close enough to see or to put hands on the gear and it was easier to be idle teenagers while others worked.  I just didn’t see any other option of operating.  Rotating students through tasks is often only a band-aid but not a cure.

• When all students are kept at the same level then they all get turned loose on equipment at the same time.  As long as everyone is doing “book work,” writing, reading, listening to the teacher’s lecture/demo, or watching a video example of some kind, life is good and non-chaotic.  But once they’re turned loose on gear to either learn the gear as mentioned in the previous bullet or are released to begin working on actually production of programming, then there is a huge problem of what to do with the students who do not have a piece of equipment to operate.

Here’s even a worse nightmare I actually experienced once. I had a student who wanted to do an interview with the football coach on the football field. My principal said that I needed to be with the students on location and that I couldn’t leave the rest of the class in the classroom so I had to take my entire class out to the football stadium so this one student and his one camera operator could shoot the interview. The rest of the class was just milling about. I’m sure they enjoyed that day’s class but can anyone say that it was a good educational activity? Fortunately, the principal eventually “saw the folly of his requirement.”



• We all know that when the students get on their feet to do activities – particularly group work - that the hands begin rising for “help.”  There was only one of me, so as I would go to answer questions or offer suggestions, other groups would not get help because I was busy.

I’m reminded of that circus act where the guy spins plates balanced on the top of many vertical rods. As he adds more and more plates to the tops of more rods, a relatively relaxed face becomes one of extreme focus and determination. Then at the end of the act as he takes a bow his chest is heaving with heavy breathing and sweat is dripping.

How often do we feel like this at the end of a class as we try desperately to do an effective and complete job of answering far more questions than it’s possible to answer in the limited time of the class period?  Many days I was exhausted by the end of class.  And then the next class began…

• The quality of the work produced by the students is particularly important for the BJ classes which may be required to put on a news broadcast extremely early in the school year.  Obviously, the programming beginning students create in September is nowhere near the quality of the work they can produce by May.  The problem is the last thing anyone (students, faculty or staff) remember seeing of the student news broadcast was what was produced LAST SPRING AT THE END OF THE YEAR when quality was high.  Here it is September and the quality of the program drops down to beginner level and the audience is slammed with a letdown in quality.  It’s nice to think that your audience “understands” the reason behind the lowering of quality but do you really think this “resetting of audience expectations” actually occurs?

• I often hear from teachers who anecdotally tell of upper level students who would love to sign up for the TVP or BJ class “next year” but because as seniors they often take other upper level courses (Spanish 4, Calculus, etc.) which are only taught one period during the day and that period is the same period the teacher teaches TV 4.  Obviously the student can’t take both classes as the same time and often the more academic course ends up with the student and the TV teacher has one more empty seat in his advanced class.  When that happens enough times, the master schedule ends up dropping the offering of the TV 4 class due to poor signup numbers.  We all have to play that numbers game.

That’s what happened to me at one point and I decided to get creative and loosen up my preconceptions.  I decided to tell guidance that I wanted to offer my class available to both beginning and upper level students mixed into the same class. 

I discovered that there are some real advantages in the mixed class:
• The number of beginning students in an individual class is instantly reduced because they’re spread out over the course of your entire day.  Therefore, the number of students per gear item is a much better ratio and more learning can occur more swiftly.
 
• Also, there is no reason that the advanced students cannot be producing programming right from the start of the year.  Moreover, they’ll be operating at a quality level similar to where last spring left off.  Finally, they’ll have even greater access to gear because the teacher oftentimes will be lecturing or in demo mode so much of the gear will be unused at that time by beginning students.  Therefore, those “extra” students who would be standing in the group around the gear you’re discussing and not paying attention could be actually observing the advanced students as they are actually performing tasks at the level where they left off last spring.

For example, I began my year with lecture/demo work with my first year students and while I was doing all this, the advanced students were actually producing programming in the studio or in the field or manning phone in the office, or dealing with future contacts and interviews, or writing stories, or, or, or… All of these skills are life skills in the industry. The bottom line is the operation of the studio facility was continuous and there was no significant quality difference of output from the studio between May and September. As beginning students became competent, they entered the operation at functional levels that the public would see.

• As mentioned before, there are inevitable times when students are placed in small groups for various learning tasks.  Also, as mentioned before, the hands will rise with people needing individual help.  The mixed class offers an amazing advantage to the beginning students, the advanced students, as well as to the teacher.  You see, the advanced students already learned last year 90% of the answers the beginning students will ask this year.  So why not let some peer learning take place?  The advanced students can be sent out as battlefield medics leaving you to handle the more serious cases in the field hospital!  The advanced students will have the opportunity to reinforce their learning by helping to teach the beginning students while at the same time earning respect and gaining the confidence of the beginning students.  The advanced students will need that respect and confidence when they will eventually take over as leaders once the beginning students begin to move into production.  We all know the most difficult job in a production is directing, yet in every production there must be a director.  In an unmixed classroom, everyone is thrown into the pot with equal levels of experience and, in essence, the blind are leading the blind on the first few productions.  I don’t think this is terribly efficient and we all have probably seen a director in this situation “lose it” due to inexperience, stress, or unpreparedness.  In a mixed class, an advanced student can demonstrate directing (or any other job) for a team of beginning students.  It’s a great experience for the advanced student to work with a beginning crew.  It isn’t easy but most of the time a successful production will result in the end.  Ultimately, I discovered that I could bring my beginning students up to knowledge and performance levels much more quickly with a mixed class than I could with unmixed classes.   In the unmixed class there just wasn’t enough of “me” to go around.  The students both beginning and advanced were much happier because they were moving faster, learning more quickly, and producing work they could be proud of sooner.

• When I asked to have my classes mixed, the first and most immediate reaction I got was a smile from the guidance director because she immediately saw a place to put a lot more students.  Suddenly, my TV class was offered many more periods of the day and became available for many more students to fit into their otherwise schedules which were filled with classes only taught one period of the day.  Students had to make far fewer lady or tiger type decisions.  My overall enrollment (and, therefore, job security in a numbers driven environment) went up! 

There are many teaching styles out there.  If you’re up for a change, you might consider trying mixed classes.  It really worked for me and I never, ever considered going back to unmixed classes.  I felt it was incredibly beneficial to all of my students as well as my mental health!


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