Thursday, November 12, 2015

Transforming your Classroom & Teaching to the Top

Can we just be honest with ourselves right now?  How many of us have ever, in our teaching careers, whether now or in the past, "taught to the middle?"  We looked at our spread of kids, saw the low - saw the middle- saw the high - and taught exactly what those mid kids needed because it just seemed to make the most sense.  If we go too low, we're most likely helping the fewest number of our kids, if we teach high , the low kids probably won't get it, but the middle- well we need to teach the standards that they need anyway - so that's what I'm gonna do.

The problem with teaching to the middle is (as I know you all know) - you are doing those high kids a disservice.  They're going to be bored.  They're going to start creating problems.  And there's even a possibility that they'll start falling due to inappropriate instruction or not paying attention (aka boredom).

I know we've all figured out the solution to this: differentiation!  For many teachers, that might look like a 90 minute math block with 4, 20 minutes rotations, with kids grouped based on ability and teaching 4 different lessons (or 1 lesson taken to different levels taught 4 times).  It works.  We can reach all of our kids.  But here's the problem - that takes SO.MUCH.PLANNING!  If you really want to differentiate well, you need an appropriate lesson for each group, appropriate independent work that has them practice what they did in the lesson, and appropriate math stations (if that's what you do).  It's so much work, y'all.  #AintNobodyGotTimeForThat.  Furthermore- those low kids are still held to the same standards as everyone else.  Obviously there are exceptions to this but for the most part, everyone needs to know and understand the same curriculum.

So I have another solution..

Teach to the TOP!

I recently went to the Ron Clark Academy - and one thing Mr. Clark said that I've always believed but it just continuously resonates with me since I've returned is: "Life is not going to accommodate for these kids- we are doing them a disservice by accommodating for them constantly!"

And it's so true.

Now- obviously we need to accommodate and differentiate to a point and there are some exceptions. But why are we continuously giving them these accommodations that life is not going to provide them?  We need to teach them how to live in this world. And accommodating things for them is doing nothing.

Let me give you an example from my class this year.

I have 20 students.  Of my 20 students, about 7 of them consistently need support in order to feel comfortable with our lessons - with maybe 3 who are really struggling, about 5 of them usually pick it up after a lesson but need a little extra practice or guidance, and 8 of them consistently show knowledge above grade level expectations and are ready for a push (OK- I got lucky this year).

So here's the thing.  Whether I teach to my 5 in the middle or the 8 at the top, my 7 strugglers are going to need extra support anyway, right?  And if I teach to my 8 at the top, the 5 in the middle, as long as I provide the right instruction, are going to get it.  So - that's what I do - I teach to the top.

Now- you can't just walk in on Tuesday morning, know you're supposed to teach multiplying by multiples of 10, and say OK, I'll teach this because that's what my high kids need.  Just like any other lesson, you need to plan purposefully.  What do your students need to know in order to get this concept? How can you provide instruction so that they have an understanding of the concept?  How can they show me that they do, in fact, get it?  How will you provide support to the kids who don't get it?  This requires me to plan 1 and only 1 lesson - that I will think deeply about.  I will hold my students to these standards and I'll work with them to help them get it.

For me, I'm pretty lucky with an AIG specialist that provides nurturing 2x a week.  During those 2 days a week, she pulls a reading group for 30 minutes, and a math group for 30 minutes (The math is in addition to my regular math block that is sadly only 50 minutes long).  Those 2 days a week when she is pulling my 8 kids who scored high on the pre-test, I'm providing lessons to my other 12 that either reinforce what we've been learning or that the other 8 don't necessarily need.  The lessons may be  prerequisites that will help my other students feel confident with the next days lesson.  Then they are getting what they need plus a push, while my high students are also receiving that challenge they need.  I may also do something like- teach them the same concept but change the numbers they are working on for independent practice - or put kids into pairs so they can bounce ideas, strategies off of each other - or just have someone for help if needed.  I have NEVER been so happy with my math workshop before. NEVER. And I'm seeing kids grasp concepts that you wouldn't think 3rd graders in their 5th months of school would know - with a true, concrete understanding of what they are doing. And I apply this same concept across the rest of the day - but for me, Literacy is so much easier to differentiate for.  You teach a mini-lesson with texts that are at the level of your high students while making sure the content is appropriate for all kids and teaching them concepts, vocabulary, and have discussions.  It works, I'm telling you.

If you hold high expectations for kids, they'll work to reach them.  I promise.  And what if they don't? Well guess what - you were providing an enrichment based on standards so your intervention should be focusing on the standards and....VOILA- they're good with grade-level standards WITH exposure to higher-level thinking.  The more exposure to those higher-level thinking skills- the more likely they are to eventually be able to solve them on their own.  And I'm telling you - kids WILL rise to the occassion.  They are capable.  They can do it.  They will.  They will amaze themselves and they will amaze  you.

So why don't you try it if you don't already do it? Just start with 1 unit.  Do a pre-test, see where your kids are at, and plan instruction based on the highest score - you'll be amazed at the growth you'll see in your students.

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