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Don’t Teach to the LCD

Teachers get into our profession for different reasons. Some of us truly enjoyed school and have always wanted to be teachers. Some of us value the independence of our own classrooms. Some of us like being part of a team. Some of us like the job security (true until recently). Some of us like the vacations. However, all of us share two common denominators: we enjoy working with students and we want to help make a difference in their lives.

These common denominators require some degree of compassion, empathy, and idealism. Admirable and necessary character traits for an educator, if you ask me. However, our penchant for helping individuals can work cross-purpose to our overall mission of helping all students. In fact, we often wind up teaching to the LCD (the Lowest Common Denominator). Perhaps I  had better explain…

Problems

  • We may spend an inequitable amount of time, resources, and personal teacher attention on students who need instructional remediation. Our desire to see every student succeed often means that we give more to the neediest. Remedial instruction often includes more instructional time within the school day. “Early Bird” classes in primary, intervention classes in intermediate, middle, and high schools provide that additional time. Our schools fund these special classes, which often include lower teacher to student ratios and more supplies (such as remedial texts) to students who perform lower than grade-level norms. Within the “regular” class setting, students with instructional and/or behavioral challenges receive more personal teacher attention than do other students. Now, few teachers would argue that these students do not deserve this additional time, resources, and personal teacher attention. This would run counter to “who we are” as educators. However, in the real world there are fiscal, legal, and systemic constraints. All students can certainly be labeled as needy—think middle-performing and gifted students… Don’t these students deserve equitable time, resources, and teacher attention? Teachers are less comfortable with the concept of “taking away” instructional time, resources, and personal teacher attention. But, schools are reductive entities. Giving more there takes away from here.
  • We may slow down the instructional pace to ensure that all students have a greater chance at mastering our teaching objectives. Typically, this means that we repeat instruction, provide additional examples, and spend more time on guided practice. Increased success in mastery of the teaching objectives for remedial students often comes at the cost of boring middle-performing and gifted students to tears.
  • We may cater to the perceived needs of remedial students. Beyond special classes, we spoon-feed alternative instruction (pre-teach/re-teach, TPR, student choice, learning styles, and more) within the classroom. Teachers may provide peer tutoring or use instructional aides to monitor progress of remedial students and especially special education students. Teachers repeat or re-explain whole-class instructions to individuals. In catering to the needs of some students, we may find ourselves unintentionally lowering expectations for these students. For example, we may be advised to reduce the class or homework for individual students. We may choose to ignore teaching certain challenging standards. We may adjust tests, grading scales, or the type of assigned work.

Solutions

  • Commit to spending an equitable amount of time, resources, and personal teacher attention on all students. Often, this means middle-performing students who can get “lost in the shuffle.” Think of the student names that are hardest to learn. They belong to your middle-performing students. I will bet that you quickly and more easily learn the names of your students with instructional or behavioral challenges and the names of your brightest students.
  • Be an anti-tracking advocate. Tracking students assumes that there is such a possibility of a homogeneous class. There is no such animal. For example, as a reading specialist I can assure you that lumping together a group of remedial readers into an intervention class does not make homogeneous instruction possible. Students are remedial readers for a wide-variety of reasons. At the other end of the spectrum, no two gifted students are gifted in the same way. Tracking costs additional money. Reducing class sizes for some raises class sizes for others. Scheduling tracked classes is a nightmare and involves real costs. We can also discuss the negative social stigma for some students that often derives from tracking.
  • Differentiating instruction for all of your students means that all deserve your personal attention. All students need to be personally challenged at the points of their diagnostically assessed instructional needs. Affording equitable personal teacher attention does not necessarily mean that you interact in the same way with each student; however, assigning appropriate learning activities needs to reflect that goal.
  • Speed up your instructional pace. You don’t have to become a “fast-talker,” but becoming consciously aware of how you manage class time, and especially how you deliver instruction, is essential to the success of all of your students. Counter-intuitively, remedial students benefit from a “hurried, yet relaxed” instructional pace. Setting a daily time for differentiated instruction will allow you to judiciously address students who need more time.
  • Guard time-on-task zealously. Use the full amount of class time by designing effective “openers” and “closers.” Train your students to make quick instructional transitions. Know your own proclivities. If you are the “funny teacher,” tell fewer jokes. If you are the “share my personal life teacher,” tell less stories and spend more time on Facebook®. Having a peer observe your time-on-task instructional patterns can be an eye-opening experience. Advocate forcefully for fewer class interruptions.
  • If two instructional activities or methodologies accomplish the same mastery, teach the one that takes less time. To tread on a few cherished traditions: sugar cube or toothpick forts and castles, dioramas, masks, oral book reports from every student, and quite a few science projects just have to go. Process and fun are fine, but we have choices to make as professionals.
  • We know from years of educational research that maintaining high expectations for all students is essential to their success. Guard against those that would provide the “realistic” caveat to that statement. Maintain your idealism that all students can and must learn. Treat students as individuals and know their needs, but don’t cater to them and avoid spoon-feeding. Encourage independent learning and maximum effort from your students.

Teachers are habitual creatures, just as are our students. It takes time to change from teaching to the Lowest Common Denominator to differentiating instruction for all of your students.

R

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

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