Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Every Kid Can Learn

There may be exceptions, actually, but I really believe this in general. The main thing that stands in the way of that goal, though, is often administration. Of course not every student will cooperate, and of course not all students will pay attention, study, or do homework. Of course some will fail. For the most part, though, it doesn't mean they couldn't have passed.

Every teacher I know has heard about differentiated instruction. I know some supervisors have demanded multiple lesson plans for different students. Sometimes supervisors assume teachers have nothing to do and unlimited time. This is not a good approach. We have a lot to do, our work is important, and it's sad when we're burdened with wasteful nonsense.

Differentiation is a tough demand when you have 34 students in a class. Of course, class size tends to be overlooked by administration, and in fact when I go to grieve oversized classes, they fight to keep them that way. It's an ironic attitude from an organization that claims to put, "Children First, Always." Of course, the real meaning of that slogan is demoralizing and devaluing those of us who do the important work of teaching the children (the very children Moskowitz Academies would not accept on a bet).

I'd argue that differentiation is a fundamental human trait. Unless you are in possession of a remarkable lack of sensitivity, you treat people differently. I see, in my classroom, students who will challenge me. I'll let them do it, and I'll challenge them back. I have nothing to lose, really. If they manage to out-talk me, I must be doing a great job. I also see very sensitive and reserved students, students who need my understanding, students for whom a harsh word would be hurtful and damaging.

Then there is talk of assessment. I hear insane things from administrators about assessment. There is evaluative and non-evaluative (formative) assessment, evidently. Supervisors come into classes and trash teachers for failing to offer non-evaluative assessment. They write them up for it, failing to see the irony that they themselves have just failed to offer the formative assessment for which they advocate.
As for non-evaluative assessment, it too is often presented as a one-way street. The only way you can do it is if students have red and green cards. Green cards mean they understand, and red cards mean they don't. Or they use left and right hands. Left hand means they understand, and right means they don't. Or vice-versa. Who remembers?

I recently read a Danielson observation form criticizing a teacher for failing to use the left hand-right hand thing. Evidently this teacher was walking around looking at student work. The observer concluded there was no way the teacher could assess the quality of student work that way. I was amazed by this conclusion.

First of all, there is the underlying assumption that 15-year-old students will freely announce to their peers that they do not understand what is going on. There is the assumption that kids at that age are neither obsessed with nor concerned about the opinions of their peers. There are the further assumptions that students who do not know what is going on are aware of it, that they have not yet tuned out altogether, and that they are even listening when the teacher says raise this or that hand, or this color or that color card.

The very worst assumption, though, is that of the binary nature of understanding. You understand it or you don't. There are no degrees. There is no grey, only black and white. That's ridiculous. Once you understand that, you understand how absurd the criticism of looking at student work is. When I look at individual student work, I can offer individual advice. This sentence doesn't make sense. What were you trying to say? That's a good idea--please explain or build on it. This sentence doesn't belong in that paragraph. Eliminate it or start a new paragraph. This word doesn't need an apostrophe. Use a question mark here, please.

If everything is green and red, or left or right, your subject is pretty limited. I don't really want to be in your class if that's how you see things. And even so, if I'm the only student who doesn't get it, why do the other 33 students have to sit around and wait while you explain it to me?

You may as well give only true-false tests and hope for the best. If you're marginally more adventurous, you can give multiple choice tests. I was a pretty terrible high school student, but I loved multiple choice tests. I almost always passed them, whether or not I knew the answers. Now on an open-ended question I could spout a lot of wind, but I couldn't usually appear to know things I didn't. 

There is spectacular irony in the fact that our system demands that every one of our students take the same tests. I mean, if we're going to talk differentiation, how can it possibly exist when final assessment is exactly the same for everyone?

Every kid can learn, but not necessarily the same things in the same way. I'm glad to see that NY State has finally allowed some leeway for different students with different needs. It's a step in the right direction, but it isn't enough. Every kid can learn, but every kid can learn differently at different times. Some kids need more time than others. Some have learning disabilities. Some don't know English. A full 10% of our kids are homeless, and as long as we continue to ignore that, we won't be serving them no matter how often we give them the meaningless label of "college ready."

Learning is not binary, and it's not multiple choice either. It really is individual. The sooner administrators can understand that simple notion, the better we will serve our children.
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