Saturday, May 12, 2012

Teachers Can't Do It All

I recently reacted to this poster on Facebook, in the group International Gifted Education.  I wrote:  "This is a great sentiment, but where are real teachers supposed to find the time to do this?"  The only person who commented on that original question was Roya Klingner, who jokingly said that good teachers will find the time by working 20 hours a day.  I appreciate the humor in this reply, but I stand by my response:  "Seriously, though, I think we gifted advocates need to stop proposing solutions that put an even greater burden on regular classroom teachers. Most of them are overstressed already."

I  have just about had it with people piling ever more responsibilities and requirements on classroom teachers.  From new standards, new tests, and new technologies to increasing class sizes, dealing with kids with special needs, and increased extra-curricular duties (bus duty, recess duty, detention supervision, after school tutoring), teachers' plates are already full.  When in the world do they have time to individualize curriculum?  People, teachers are human.  They need to eat sometimes, go to the bathroom, sit down for a few minutes.  They have families, they need to get their own exercise, they may even do things for themselves like play an instrument, garden, solve calculus equations for fun (OK, maybe that is a stretch).  

I am passionate about gifted kids, but I am also a substitute teacher.  I go to many different classrooms in many different schools and school districts.  Some schools structure their classes differently so as to ease the teachers' jobs, but all of the teachers I have subbed for have had full and extremely busy days.   

Yes, teachers should learn to differentiate curriculum, to give kids choices in methods of demonstrating what they have learned, to pose projects that can be tackled in different ways.  Good teachers do this and poorer teachers try.  But accommodating individual learners is HARD and takes TIME, especially if the learners are gifted.  Teachers can help the kids who are struggling.  Breaking down the skills and concepts they are teaching into smaller chunks is something teachers usually are good at.  They even, usually, have a large number of other teachers and aides who help them with this.  But helping gifted learners requires a lot more of a teacher.  It requires going beyond what they are familiar with, sometimes learning new material themselves, finding other people who can help, judging what is available, so that, if something must be purchased, the money (usually in extremely short supply, occasionally the teacher's own) can be spent well.  

We might as well admit this:  teachers can't do this.  They can't individualize curriculum for kids who may be placed in their classes, but who are 3 or 4 grade levels above their nominal grades.  Yes, as I have written before, there are phenomenal teachers who can manage this - I am in awe of them - but we have to stop expecting the average teacher to be able to accomplish this.  Teachers have been exploited far too long.  "If you really cared about the kids you teach, you would..."  Fill in the blank (see a list of teacher duties that keeps getting ever longer).  

What can we who care deeply about gifted children do?  Personally, as I told Roya, I advocate structural changes - grouping gifted kids in dedicated classrooms, schools, courses. Yes, the projects even there need to be flexible, but that is different from developing curriculum for each learner.  Cluster grouping is also a possibility, if the schools are too small for dedicated classes or classrooms. 

Dedicated classrooms and special schools work mostly just like a regular school. There will always be a range of abilities in the classroom. Teachers can handle a range of abilities, up to a point - 1 or 2 grade levels above or below the nominal grade level. After that, it is much more difficult, unless the class size is VERY small.

Some schools follow continuous progress models.  Children are grouped for instruction, based on their current level of achievement in that instructional area.  One school I worked at had a math block and a reading block.  All of the math classes met at the same time and kids were placed where they were ready to learn.  Similarly with reading.  Another school did that for grammar and writing.  The drawback of these models is that the teacher loses track of the individual child.  In those schools, I sometimes felt that I missed my "own" kids. 

One other model that I have seen that seems to have potential was a Montessori school.  From an early age, the students were trained to work relatively independently on a set of tasks.  The level and complexity of these tasks varied, depending on the child.  I have subbed in Montessori classrooms that follow this model, but they were not dedicated gifted schools.  Though this model seems to have potential and the teachers in these classes were good, I still did not see curriculum or expectations that were beyond two years above the nominal grade level of the class.  This model has potential for use in a gifted school, in my opinion, but even in this setting, the teachers cannot be expected to accommodate a range of more than 4 or 5 grade levels.

There seems to be great future potential in various models of computerized instruction.  From flipped classrooms to online learning, to adaptive programming, to digital production, there are now more options in this direction than ever before.  There are still problems with these models, though.  Doing chemistry on the computer is NOT the same as doing chemistry in the lab.  Skyping with a group of students from around the world is not the same as trying to convince the people in your class that your idea is valid.  Even if computerized instruction were perfect and readily available everywhere, you still need relevant experiences, discussion and interaction.

So I am pleading with gifted advocates everywhere:  work for structural solutions, but don't put down regular classroom teachers if they can't individualize the curriculum for gifted students.  They DO care about kids, but they just can't do it all. 

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The Uses of Placement Tests, Part 2

There was also a 4th type of student - one who had stellar grades and modest, but borderline acceptable scores on the algebra readiness test.  He was the model student: reasonably intelligent, very hard working, respectful, personable.  We accepted him into the algebra class as well, even though his algebra readiness score was somewhat less than I was comfortable with.  The other teacher defended his inclusion, saying that he was one of her best students and would be extremely disappointed if he weren't selected for the algebra class.

He did OK.  It was clearly a struggle for him, but he was, indeed a hard worker, he had support at home, and he was willing to ask for help when he needed it.  In his case, I think the class was OK for him.  It was a bit above what was a comfortable learning curve for him, but he had learned some of the study skills and personal skills that I wish gifted kids would learn: persistence, asking for help when needed, organization.

And this makes me wonder, if gifted kids were closer to their zone of proximal development for a reasonable portion of their school day, would they learn better learning skills.  With my own two children, it seemed to work.  But that is a pretty small sample.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Use of Placement Tests

I think I have written about this before, but I can't find the post and I want to think about it again, so here goes a reconstruction of the idea.

Years ago, I was teaching algebra to 8th graders who were recommended by their previous math teacher for inclusion in the algebra class.  In general, the criteria she used for recommending students for the class were two-fold: they had to have good mathematical understanding (evidence: tests) and they had to have good work habits ("A"s in math, which, with her grading system meant that they turned in virtually all of their homework). 

Since I was the one who actually did the teaching of the algebra class, I thought it might be interesting to add to these criteria an algebra readiness test.  So we gave the algebra readiness test to quite a few more students than she anticipated were actually qualified to take algebra.  Interestingly, we now had a new problem.  There were the kids who had good grades and who scored high on the readiness test.  Clearly, they were ready for algebra.  There were kids who had good grades, but who scored fairly low on the readiness test.  Not quite as clear, but still relatively convincingly, they were not quite ready for algebra.  But the ones that really led to a disagreement between the two of us were the ones in a third group:  the ones who scored high on the readiness test, but who did not have especially good grades.  These students were often described as the unmotivated ones, the ones who were lazy, the ones who just weren't interested in math.  She felt these students should not be included, because they hadn't earned the right to be in the algebra class.

Not right away, but after thinking about it for a while, I began to wonder:  why do we give smart kids a pass on taking classes or learning material that they are clearly ready for?  For kids on the lower end of the ability spectrum, or kids with specific learning disabilities, do we let them opt out of addressing their weaknesses?  No.  We may give them extra support to help them handle their challenges, but we don't let them say, No, I am not interested in reading, so I am not going to do this hard reading, I am just going to read this lower level stuff that I know I can do just fine.

Why DO we let the smart kids opt out of challenging material? 

And then, to carry that a bit further, what if we re-framed gifted education in terms of not just letting kids advance to higher level material, but instead use a slightly different argument:  all students need to learn to work hard and to develop good study skills.  Therefore, we need to place all students in curricula that are in their zone of proximal development (ZPG).  Naturally, this will be an approximation.  Teachers with 25 or more students in their classes can't be expected to individualize the entire class for each student, but it should be at least a goal.  Kids who are reading 2 or 3 grade levels above their class level should be required to work just as hard at new reading goals as kids who are reading 2 or 3 grade levels below their class level.  Why shouldn't they?  Why do we let them coast?  Why couldn't we re-frame the curriculum offerings to REQUIRE the kids who have mastered the regular curriculum to address curriculum that they haven't yet mastered?

As an experiment, we agreed to accept one student into the algebra class, who scored quite high on the readiness test, but whose grades would not have allowed him to take the class.  He was the lazy one; the unmotivated one.  And, interestingly, he continued this same pattern in algebra.  He passed the tests, but often just barely; he could have done much better if he had actually done more of the work.  I am not sure what we learned from the experiment.  I think it would have to be repeated a number of times, before we could decide either way - and clearly, it also depends on the students involved.  Even with material better suited to his readiness, he didn't learn good work habits.  Was it too late?  Should we have tried this when he was younger?  Or are lazy students always lazy? 

I still think we should require the smart kids to work harder.  Perhaps this is because I never had to work hard in school myself, until I was well into college - and by then it caused a number of related imposter syndrome problems.  (An entirely different post).

One more thing about the boy who was required to take algebra, even though he refused to work hard.  I had a software program for my algebra students called Green Globs and Graphing Equations (from Sunburst, I think).  The idea is that the computer sprays some random green globs over an x-y grid and you are supposed to try to hit them with lines.  The more globs you hit at one time, the higher (exponentially) your score.  This gentleman got really interested in the program and didn't want to stop at just straight lines.  He asked for equations of different types of lines, so that he might try hitting more globs with one equation.  I gave him circles, parabolas, ellipses.  He wanted still more.  I gave him trig functions, exponentials, anything I could think of.  I showed him how to add parameters to the sine functions, so that he could make them more dense (that really racks up the points).  He may not have been motivated to do homework, but he certainly did find something that interested him.

I wonder what he does now.