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.