I taught high school English, leadership, and conflict resolution for 11 years in the New York City public school system. One of the things I remember from teaching other than going to work on the first day of school, was meeting one week before classes officially started and waiting to hear what the “We’ve figured out how to save education” plan was for the year.
And without fail, every year, on the day after Labor Day, our principal would come in to our first faculty meeting and explain how the district, city, and state (every now and again the Feds) had upgraded the school system. The resignation in the air was palpable. Very rarely were my colleagues and I inspired to take new action. Regularly, we wondered how we would actually get the teaching done from whatever the frame of the year was. And while standards constantly change in, I think, an earnest effort to address disparities in learning and outcomes for students, a student not being able to read or write several grade levels below his/her age is never a good thing.
Last month, I had the pleasure of conducting an intensive, 30 hour training for educators here at Tanenbaum. One of the points that came up for one of our educators, a young woman teaching 1st grade, was how to use the technical skill of differentiation without having children feel different. When Jack, she told us, realized he was in the green group for that phase of math (the lower performance group), his whole week was ruined. Really!
He began to relate to himself for that week as inadequate. And the other students related to him that way as well. It occurs to me that when we talk about differentiation (distinguishing learning levels and styles so that children are given material that advances them to the next learning level in a particular subject matter) we have to also be concerned about how children feel about themselves. It doesn’t matter if you separate groups by Greek letters, the alphabet, colors, planets, kinds of cheese, or laundry detergent names. When you see the same students who struggle with a subject area gather together, they are now “tagged” at a particular learning level. There’s also a social identity that can be formed as a member of that group, “You know the ‘blues’ aren’t too smart when it comes to math!”
We talked about how to address this. We don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water; differentiation provides an opportunity for children who in many cases in the past who have been left behind to actually receive the attention they need during the school day, and not only in after-school programs. However, we have not moved the rock much further up the hill if at the end of the day the “pears” are still mean to the “apples”.
One answer that discussed was the idea of creating an environment of respect where the class agrees, “We respect everybody, all the time, no matter what!” We talked about how educators can create a learning environment that is socially just – “We’re all going to the second grade and we’re taking Jack with us!! No one goes to the second grade without Jack!!” A little over the top? Maybe. But don’t most social movements in the beginning. What if children respected each other and stood for each other no matter what? And what if teachers could address the academics topics they needed to in learning environments where the children have been taught how to be respectful to each other? And what if children were able to learn early in life that what’s fair for me is good, but what’s fair for everyone is necessary? Well, if all that happened, I’d have to get another job. I somehow wouldn’t mind looking for another line of work.