Saturday, October 08, 2011

Young AmeriTowne

I was subbing in a fifth grade yesterday and for social studies, they worked on a curriculum called Young AmeriTowne.  It is a curriculum written for 5th and 6th grade age students (10 through 12 year olds), that helps teachers teach about business, economics, and free enterprise.  I was only there for one lesson - the penultimate lesson before they take a field trip to the bank site, which has been set up to simulate a town, in which their "shops" are set up.

For the lesson I saw, the students in four 5th grade classes were sorted into various shops.  The shops in my room dealt with travel, containers, a market, and investments.  Students, who had applied to work in those shops had assigned roles, some of which they had applied for with job applications.  The project managers ran the meetings for their shops and the accountants prepared the financial information.  The students decided on such things as the shop name, the shop logo, advertisements for the radio, newspaper, and television.  They applied for a loan to start up their business when they get to AmeriTowne, and the accountant wrote out salary checks, so they would get paid when they get to the site. 

So much for the basic design of the project.  What impressed me most was what happened when the project managers took over the management of the projects.  As a substitute teacher, I knew less about what they were doing than they did, so I basically just wandered around the room, watching and listening to the progress of their meetings.  Most of the groups had fairly strong managers, but sometimes other students seemed to be very helpful to the management, too.  The accountants, who presumably had been chosen for their mathematical confidence, seemed comfortable in their roles, but occasionally they seemed stronger than the project managers.

The program says that it helps to teach leadership skills, and, if the day I was there is any indication, they are correct.  The project managers had a long list of objectives for the session and they seemed to figure out how to get their teams working on them.  There were enough jobs and things to do that each person could be involved.  There were a few passive students, who seemed uninvolved or disinterested, but in general, I was impressed with the interest and task-oriented behavior.  The groups varied in size from four students to six or seven.  The group with only four students was very focused and hard-working, but they were the last to finish, because there were fewer students to do the work.  The other groups were done sooner.

All in all, I was impressed with the program.  I have often thought that schools need to include more economics in their curricula, and this is a good start.  I have seen other methods of doing this, including classroom based shops or economies, but this is one of the better examples of economic curricula.  I liked the level of active involvement for every student.

I wonder a bit about the cost of the program.   Another teacher said that the program cost each student $25.  I am not sure how the money was raised.  This school was in a relatively wealthy area of the school district.  I wonder if the program could be implemented in the much less wealthy school I had been in the previous day.  That school was less than 5 miles away, but had an entirely different demographic.  I hope that isn't part of the lesson:  the richer kids get to learn about economics; the poorer kids can't afford it.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Differentiation - It Isn't Enough for HG+ Kids

Yes, I know differentiation is the acceptable mantra for educators these days.  I know I am supposed to tout the virtues of differentiating for every kid in the classroom.  I know that, if potential principals see this, I will not be considered for full time jobs.  But, I also know that, as a sub, I see very little of it.

For anyone who actually reads this, but who doesn't know my background, I will briefly say that I have taught in four states: Massachusetts (private schools), Illinois (public and private schools), Alaska (public and charter schools), and Colorado (public and charter schools).  I have taught, either full time or subbing, in at least a dozen school districts, dozens of schools, and hundreds of different classrooms.  I have gone through extensive training on differentiation and gifted, differentiation and special education, and differentiation in general. 

I have seen very little differentiation in action.  Some teachers will differentiate spelling lists.  Some teachers will have different levels of book groups.  Some teachers will pair up with other teachers and group the students for math classes.  But, if we are talking about meeting the needs of kids outside of the middle of the bell curve, there is very little for those outlier kids.  It can be done - I have seen 3 or 4 teachers who could do it.  I laud them.  But, in general, it isn't happening.

And, I think it is time that educators who are interested in meeting the needs of HG+ gifted students admit that differentiation, as it is practiced (or not practiced) just isn't enough.  It isn't consistent enough, it isn't broad-based enough, and it isn't at the correct level.  The further the gifted student is from the class average, the less appropriate any differentiated accommodations are.

Differentiation is a great thing to train teachers to do.  It is effective to have the things that I mentioned above: leveled math, book groups, leveled spelling, different expectations for writing, etc.  It just isn't enough to meet the needs of the highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted students.  And I think it is time to stop pretending that regular classroom teachers can teach all students.

We know that inclusion has worked for a lot of kids with learning disabilities, but we also know that their special teachers, special classes, and supporting aides still have their jobs.  In fact, there are loads of jobs advertised for special education aides.  We know that differentiation isn't enough for these kids.  The simple fact is that they need more support than this.  Why don't we acknowledge the same for the highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted students.  The regular classroom teachers just can't meet their needs.

Again:  The regular classroom teachers just can't meet the needs of the highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted students. This was true before the great school budget problems; it is even more true now, with class sizes creeping up to ever higher numbers.  It is unfair to classroom teachers to continually demand more and more of them.  They already have more responsibilities and less time than they need in order to be maximally effective.

This rant is targeted mainly at elementary schools, but also somewhat at middle schools / junior highs.  By the time the kids get to high school, we mostly stop pretending that a single teacher can teach all levels of ability in a single class.  AP Calc AB is not differentiated and no one expects that AP Calc teacher to prepare lessons for students who might want to take the class, but who haven't yet mastered algebra.  Nor is the algebra teacher expected to teach calculus to the one kid in the class who is ready for AP Calc AB.  It just doesn't make sense.

For those of us who are interested in the HG+ kids, I think it is time to stop saying that differentiation can solve all of their educational needs.  It isn't happening.