Friday, October 2, 2009

Thoughts from Differentiating Instruction (503)

I am currently on a half time leave from my job. Over the past 2 years my life's work has become very hard to do well, so I've decided to make time to hit my personal and professional reset button and figure out how to go forward.

In the book Success is the Quality of Your Journey, Alene Morris is quoted as saying that "self-knowledge is for the purpose of contributing," However, I'm beginning to believe that, at least when it comes to teaching, it is contributing that is for the purpose of self-knowledge. I have always felt that teaching is the most self-reflective profession there is. The best and worst of you is reflected back in your students' eyes immediately, but lately I have not been happy with what I've been seeing there.

As usual, my challenges in the current Wilkes course have led to a realization that I think is an important part of this redefinition of myself as an educator. I thought when I began this degree program that I wanted was make what I was already doing better. I thought when I started my leave, that what I wanted was to find my way back to the teacher I was. What I am learning from both is that what I really want is to move forward to the teacher I can become -- whoever she turns out to be. So this week I've been thinking deeply about differentiation and the need to listen to my students.

The video clip that follows shows a former student of mine named Christine. If you've been following this blog, you'll have seen it before in a post about my application to Google Academy (not successful) and my struggle to figure out how to upload a video to YouTube (finally successful). I use this clip during professional development workshops to illustrate how the creative use of new tools has given me a powerful means to meet individual students' needs and help them overcome serious barriers to success.

Christine had failed senior science twice before coming to the Learning Centre, but even though our program is individualised and she was taking an easier course, she was once again struggling. I kept trying to reassure her that she could do the work, but this was the last course that had to be completed before she graduated, time was getting short, and she was becoming more and more frozen. She had even begun to hyperventilate and experience panic attacks.

Christine is now working and happy in her new life after high school, but her plea for teachers to listen to our students still haunts me sometimes. Students want to do well but also carry a lot of fears. They don't want to draw attention to themselves. They don't want to risk drawing the ire of the teacher or taunts of their peers. They don't want to appear lacking in skill or understanding. As a result, by trying to do what they think the teacher wants, they miss out on getting their own needs met.

I regret that over 35 years of teaching I've missed many opportunities to find ways to help students overcome their fears and doubts. I left them trapped in the isolation of silence because I didn't tune in to their cues. When they were off task and behaving 'badly', too often I responded to the behaviour rather than stop and ask myself if it was a symptom of a learning deficit or long term frustration. Were they not learning because they were unmotivated or were they unmotivated because they weren't learning?

Now, I try to counsel the students in my classes on the importance of being good consumers of education. I ask if they'd ever let a salesperson in a store persuade them to buy a garment that was not the right size. (They laugh at the thought.) Wouldn't they'd ask ask the clerk to keep looking until he/she had found them what they need? (They nod.) I go on to say that not getting their needs met in a class is the same thing and that they must speak up in the same way to make sure their teacher is doing her job for them -- meeting their needs and ensuring they end up understanding a skill or concept even if it takes many questions and requires a lot of time.

I haven't always been very good at anticipating the assumptions students are making about learning priorities and acceptable responses. Now, with Christine's words ringing in my ears whenever I make up a new activity or write a new unit study, I do my best to see it through Christine's eyes. I ask myself if she would experience my lesson as a way to achieve breakthroughs and "walk around the circle" or whether it would trap her inside, hold her down, and make her hyperventilate again.

And so Christine, I have two things to say to you: first, I'm so sorry it took me so long to find a way to make education work for you, and also, I've taken up your words to heart. I'm doing my best each day to remember that I'm not teaching skills, content, and subjects -- I'm teaching people, and that I'm in the business of helping my students come to value learning as an act of empowerment -- one that should help them too feel free.

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