The seating chart. Possibly a teacher’s most important decision with dramatic consequences and benefits. What better to use your seating chart for than differentiation?
I figured out early on in my teaching career that effective differentiation is the key to good teaching. If I’m always teaching the whole class in the same way, I’m teaching way over the heads of my lower students and boring to death my higher students. Enter behavior problems galore! So for me, it was never “why differentiate?” but instead, “how the heck do you do it??” I remember the year I finally became brave enough to try differentiating. I would make three different lessons for every class I taught! It’s a wonder I didn’t burn out after two days of implementing this!
The answer to successful differentiation is absolutely NOT writing three lesson plans for every class that you teach. Nor separating all your students into small groups and trying to meet with each group twice a week. These methods are completely unsustainable (unless you have super small class sizes). Instead, set up your seating chart at the beginning of the year to allow for smooth differentiation for the rest of the year.
In my classroom, I use desks or tables to create cooperative groups of 45 students. I very strategically create my seating chart by placing each student in a meaningful location according to the following schematic:
Each team has a higher student, a lower student, and two medium students. They each receive a letter (A or B) and a number. These are used for cooperative learning structures, which I will describe below. I only change seats once a quarter. This seems to be just enough time for students to become comfortable with one another to work together effectively, but not enough time to become too comfortable with one another! Here are three powerful ways to differentiate once you have your seating charts made.

Shoulder Partners
Each student has a shoulder partner, the person sitting directly next to him/her. One shoulder partner is designated “Partner A” and the other is designated “Partner B.” As you can see in the diagram, the two highest students on the team are “B” and the two lower students are “A”. If I want students to practice something newer that I notice many students are struggling with, I’ll give the command, “Partner B, explain to your partner how to ________.” On the other hand, if we’ve been practicing for a while and I want to check for understanding, I’ll have Partner A do the explaining. If the lower students are getting it, I know it’s time to move on.

Calling Whole Class
The diagram above also shows that each student on a team is numbered one to four. The numbers correspond to students’ general ability levels. In my diagram, number three is the highest student and number four is the lowest. I keep two cups of Popsicle sticks: one cup has sticks numbered one to four (student numbers) and one cup has sticks numbered one to ten (team numbers). If I want to build confidence among my lower students, I’ll ask a simpler question to the class, and tell students to discuss in their teams. I will then “randomly” pull stick number four, which means all number fours must stand up and be prepared to answer. I will then pull a stick from the second cup, which determines which team must answer the question aloud. If I have a challenging question, I’ll “randomly” pull stick four. The middle students (numbers one and two) are good to call on to get a general pulse on how well the class is absorbing the content.

Cooperative Learning Roles
I love using cooperative learning in my classroom, and this seating chart method works perfectly to give teams more complex problems to solve together. Lest the higher student take over in these tasks, I like to give specific roles to each student. For example, I may assign the lower students (number threes) to be the scribes. The whole team must come up with the answer together, but the number three is responsible to write it down. Other roles include “Materials Manager,” “Timekeeper,” “Coach,” “Presenter,” etc. If the task involves several different problems to solve, I’ll assign a challenging problem to the higher student, a simpler problem to the lower student, and medium problems to the medium students.
The link below this post is a cooperative learning activity that I created based on Common Core standard 8.EE.7 on solving equations. Students are responsible for solving their own equations, and they also have roles that they follow to create a poster that represents all students’ work. The assigned equations are leveled so higher students gets more challenging equations and lower students receives simpler ones.
I feel the need to mention that it’s important to consider that different students have different strengths. A student that struggles with solving equations may be a geometry master! It can be helpful to group students as I described here, as long as we keep in mind that individual students may need different levels of accommodations, depending on the content.
Take some time before this new school year begins, gather up any data you can for your students, and create a meaningful seating chart for each class. Then utilize them all year to powerfully differentiate to the differing ability levels represented in your classroom! Your lower students will appreciate the added support and your higher students will thrive with the new challenges!