Teacher to Teachers
Laurie Hagberg,  Village Christian High in Sun Valley, CA
ecently 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 another page - http://home.att.net/~adhd.kids
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.