Teacher to Teachers -- How Can We Help All Kids

--Laurie Hagberg (educator and parent)

Recently I asked a co-worker how his grandson was doing. Roger shared, "Well, he was in trouble again yesterday." Curious, I asked why and Roger continued, "Well, he was working ahead and the teacher told him not to and he didn't stop." I nodded, understanding both the child and the teacher.

How often in the past I had asked a student to stop reading ahead--it seems reasonable, on the surface, to want all the kids in our classes to be on the same page. Now, though, as I look at all kids differently--more closely--I wonder how important it really is to the students. Yes, it's important for a teacher to know what the students are doing and to plan accordingly for each day's progress. It also sometimes seems best if everyone is doing the same activity, in the same way, so that the teacher can monitor students' abilities and achievement more easily. Also, if covering the material is a priority, a teacher may want everyone on the same page so that not only are kids not working ahead, neither are there any who are visibly behind. Notice how many of these apparently good reasons are serving the teacher and how many are serving the student.

When Roger told me about his grandson's experience, it reminded me of something one of my students had said last year. The boy offhandedly remarked, "This school doesn't like gifted kids, does it?" I stammered some immediate reply about his being in Honors English, but then he explained that he meant earlier in the grades before we start placing students in college prep courses. He remembered being told not to work ahead, to stay focused on what the class was doing, and he felt frustrated because he was ready to move on but had to stay "with the class." The same frustration that Roger's grandson felt. The same frustration kids in so many classes feel. So what do we as teachers do to maintain a sense of order, to effectively monitor our students' achievement, and to maintain the interest of all the class -- especially if that heterogeneous class is a large one with 32+ students -- and still encourage individual learning and progress?

Clearly, no easy answers exist or changing our expectations and teaching methods would not pose such concern. Perhaps we fear suddenly being required to write 32+ IEP's -- that's the special education teacher's job, not mine, we say; maybe our curriculum is driven by textbooks which do not allow for individual student differences; possibly, we simply lack the preparation time needed to effectively design independent study activities. I wish I had easy answers -- more and more my role as teacher is actually changing to that of learner in my attempt to teach the individuals in each of my classes.

When I taught my first seventh-grade English classes, at the age of 23, I considered myself a teacher. I knew how to write objectives, I knew how to write weekly lesson plans, and on my best days, I enjoyed the exhilaration of activities that "worked!" I even believed I had excellent classroom management skills--students were expected to be still, to be in their seats at all times, to turn in work promptly, to ask for make-up work after absences without reminders, to cling to every word I said with full understanding (because "if you're listening, I shouldn't need to repeat myself"), and to humbly accept verbal reproof and more dire consequences if expectations were not met. I modified my expectations very little over the next 14 years and prided myself for not having to give many detentions--yes, I had control--and I had the majority of the students "with me" in class. The minority, those kids who were ready for the "next page" or were still processing the previous page, went unnoticed except to remind me that I didn't have total control and that not everyone was fully engaged in the activities I had designed.

I won't go into detail here about what changed during last year, because that story is on the "My Confession" page, but I do want to share what I'm trying to do--what I desire to do--because I haven't sorted out all of the details yet. I still ask how can I meet the needs of the student who wants to read ahead when I only have a class set of books, or how do I keep the class' attention when one student clearly is ready to move on but can't do so without my providing some instruction. One approach is to use learning centers and reading/writing workshops, as many teachers are doing now. This enables students to experiment mentally and find genuine purposes for their learning. I use a writing workshop and find that the best text for prompting students' writing is their own lives and interests. I use class time for individual writing conferences, rather than relying on whole-class instruction to address the students' writing concerns.

Another approach to meeting individual needs is using learning groups, even though that sounds like a contradiction. With carefully designed groups, a teacher can teach to the various learning styles within the class and address individual questions, ideas, and interests without feeling like the whole class is getting side-tracked. Groups also generate energy in a classroom so that the teacher joins the students in discovering and creating during the learning process, rather than trying to lead while constantly looking back to make sure all students are following.

Let's commit ourselves to look around our classrooms and not merely talk about seeing individuals, but actually teach individuals where they are and with all the creativity, insight, and experience we have to share. Please join me in this pursuit by reading as many of the pages on this site as you can, and bookmark this and other sites which provide insights into the individuals we have in our classrooms.

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   The most valuable reward in teaching
is hearing a student say,
"Thank you for understanding me."

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