Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Responding to Student Needs

I've been slowly reading Lost at School as part of a professional book club at work. Honestly, I don't think much of the book is ground-breaking stuff, but it's a nice common-sense teaching book to spark some common-sense teaching discussions. It provides a good focal point at work for discussions about what is important to all of us, rather than discussions about our individual concerns.

Here is a quote that I liked that helps me view my current experience through a different lens:
Good teaching means being responsive to the hand you've been dealt.

It goes without saying that each group of kids is different. The task with each group is to get a handle on its collective strengths and limitations and work toward building a community where each member feels safe, respected, and valued. But that takes time and concentrated effort. It doesn't happen by itself. And it looks different every year. That's what it means to be responsive.

It also goes without saying that every individual in a classroom is different. [...] The ultimate challenge is to be responsive in both ways -- to the group and to the individuals in it -- simultaneously.

I think this really nicely outlines all of the things that are on my mind constantly, as I struggle to grow into being a "good" teacher for my kids.

* My Grade 7's have a few lagging performers who haven't yet figured out that math is important and they need to come see me outside of class for help, so (in response) I weave all of their review of past topics that they're still weak with into our normal class. Every test is cumulative and hits every past topic, and we review accordingly beforehand. I also send daily emails home to let parents know when their kids miss an assignment. And, once every few weeks we play a game that reviews an old skill that I want them to fully master.

* My Grade 8's are a bimodal group, so I need to balance between keeping the really advanced kids challenged and giving the strugglers time to work on their factoring skills when the leading coefficient isn't 1. I do so by introducing every factoring tool possible (looking at graphs & using quadratic formula), and also giving the top-top kids extra graphing calculator assignments to work on independently.

* My Grade 9's are the lowest group in the grade, so there are kids in the group with serious language issues, others with no mathematical memory past the current day, and a few kids who are working very hard to bridge the gap of their learning. I need to provide tasks that are accessible to all kids and allow them to work at their individual paces, and I give them free reign to correcting/re-doing all old assignments as many times as they want. Frequent assessment with clear skills expectations is key to making sure all kids are given regular feedback, and I've met half of their parents already to discuss my concerns about the kids.

* My Grade 11's are a mixture of returning kids and new kids to the school. The returning kids are much more experienced with the first topics of the year, but to ensure that all kids have a fair shot at the IB exam, I'm teaching them all from scratch to make sure the new kids get proper training. Again, it's a balance act of approaching the topic from many angles to ensure that the returning kids are challenged and enriched and pushing the new kids along with some urgency to make sure they do a bit of extra homework to keep moving at the same pace as the others. In the longer run, I've worked out with a colleague that she can transfer the kids who need a bit more nurturing into my group, in exchange for moving kids who wouldn't mind/could handle moving at a much faster pace into hers. We're both happy with that arrangement and think it will maximize the benefit to all kids.

* My Grade 12's have a lot of gaps in their knowledge. They basically don't know/remember anything they are supposed to know from Year 11, and so I've been interleaving as much of old material as possible into current topics to help them review. I know that in the spring, I will have to do some very heavy-duty concept-mapping and explicit learning strategies like algorithm flashcards to get them familiar with the basic concepts of each topic, before we can start doing integrated review and test prep. I am prepared to make that happen and I have a plan for how to help them be successful. (It'll involve topic-based worksheets / individual tests when they're ready / moving on to individually review the next topic when both they and I agree they've mastered the basic ones, or repeating the cycle until they do improve.)

It's stretching me professionally to consider the various academic and emotional needs of my many groups and to attempt to address individual needs within each group. But, I am loving the challenge! :)

(...Now, if only someone could tell me if it's having any actual effect on the kids...)

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