Cycle Two: Challenges and Opportunities in Building Classroom Communities

Reflecting: analyzing and reflecting upon readings

One of my favorite places to spend my prep hour was in an AP English class down the hall.  About once a week, I ignored my stack of papers that I should be grading and sat in on some of the richest discussions of literature I had been around in years.  Students interacted with one another in a way that was friendly, yet professional, and great work was being done.  Ideas were being explored that reached beyond the curriculum and were fostered by an independent work environment.  And this is where I become torn: isn’t the concept of advanced placement courses a form a tracking?  When we take that term, we often refer to it as grouping students based on one characteristic: intelligence.  When that happens in a course like this AP English course, we are thrilled to watch students thrive and take ownership in their work.  Just as in the basic idea of tracking, these students tend to travel together from class-to-class, perhaps not by designing them as a group, but because they sign up for similar classes.  They are certainly on a track themselves, whether the councilors technically mean to schedule them together or not.

Let me be clear: I am not a huge supporter of tracking.  Schumer clearly notes in “One Classroom, Many Minds” that struggling students fall farther behind when segregated because teachers lower their expectations and water down curriculum; therefore, the gap between these students and their peers continues to grow.  But I am forced to wonder whether we are simply looking at how it is damaging for our “lower” students instead of studying the benefits for those who excel academically.  I think about students in my most hectic course last year, like Kyle, Nichole, and Cassidy, who just simply were not challenged due to the classroom environment of having the most challenging group of students I have worked with yet.

This, of course, is where the idea of differentiated learning comes in.  I would love to have used tiering to give these students greater challenges while finding more appropriate challenge levels for other students.  But isn’t tiering just a nicer way of tracking within the classroom?  If we give different assignments based on “challenge levels”, don’t we still separate students into groups based on intellect?  Are we not still removing our most intelligent students from working with our lower-end students, the very idea that should be benefiting those who struggle?  The idea of tiering is to continually regroup based on the assignment at hand, but with the standardization of our curriculums, how often will we really see that high group be broken up?

This is why I feel overwhelmed: The more I read, the more intricate this process is and I have never actually seen differentiated instructed done well in the classroom.  If we have tiering, then we don’t use our base groups properly.  If our base groups are not focused on working together on projects and are instead only meant to monitor progress and be there emotionally, then we don’t have collaborative schoolwork.

**AND THIS IS THE POINT WHERE I NEED TO TAKE A BREATH**

I love the idealism and the concept behind differentiated learning, so maybe it’s not a horrible thing to feel overwhelmed and exhausted thinking about all of the different types of learners I work with and how I need to differentiate instruction better. Tomlinson notes in her article “Responsive Teaching…” that “differentiation does not ask teachers to be specialists in dozens of areas, but rather to continually develop reasoned and reasonable approaches that will be helpful in working as effectively and efficiently with more and more students of the span of our careers.”  I feel I should probably put this slogan on my coffee cup as a reminder each morning wake up to go in early and for each night I stay up late working on new, challenging projects for my students. It’s a long slogan, but I’ll need a pretty big cup anyway.

This week’s texts are based in idealism of differentiated instruction and sometimes are not specific about what implementation looks like or how it has worked.  But this itself is a good reminder: in teaching, there are no perfect lessons that reach every student because our lessons need to be tailored to the specific students we are working with in that class period that year.  We need to take ideas and be willing to build our curriculums over time and work recursively to rework curriculums and improve instruction.

One particular concept that continues to give me great hope is from the work of the Khan Academy: flipping the classroom.  When we think about the work the program has done thus far, it’s easy to recognize that this is truly data-driven instruction that places emphasis on the individual student, encourages exploration and experimentation, all while requiring mastery.  This could easily be the point in which I get overwhelmed and say that I cannot simply “flip the script” and create a bunch of tutorials and online tests to require mastery and…. There I go again.  Instead, I go back to my coffee cup reminder that an idea like what Salman Khan lays out can (and should be) developed over time.  If I stay focused on humanizing the classroom by building a community based around student interactions, great things can take place.  Just as Emily Pilloton notes in her lecture “Teaching Design for Change,” it is important to design with, not for, and that is a reminder not simply for designers like herself, but for teachers when putting a collection of units in place for a course.

I also want to get back to the idea of community and the importance of building one in our classrooms.  Johnson & Johnson note that communities are sometimes difficult to build because they are secondary groups; classes are together for a short period of time (a semester or year) and that students and teachers go their separate ways (unless we have tracking which, as noted in our texts, is not an appropriate approach).  Even the students themselves will break off into different sections and courses, so emotional connection is difficult to form in the long-term.

It is Parker’s article, “Learning to Lead Discussions,” that offers a way to build community that can be implemented faster than base groups or than reconstruction of curriculum: discussion.  Students bringing in their own experiences and listening to others’ interpretations by way of dialogic and student-centered discussions can help create a classroom community.  When students bring their own literacies to a discussion (ex. Knowledge of a culture), there is a great chance of them taking ownership of the classroom.  In addition, discussion allows students to share perspectives that were perhaps previously not fully understood by others.  It reminds us of what author Elbert Hubbard once noted:  “If men could only know each other, they would neither idolize nor hate.”  And while we may not think of our students idolizing or hating one another, we certainly must understand that, at the core Hubbard’s note, understanding one another is a crucial learning experience that helps bridge gaps between people. Discussion is one mode to help us get there.

Classroom communities are based on human connectedness, some of which is through design of groups and activities, but more often through a natural process when individuals feel comfortable with one another.  Building that environment with, not for students, is not always a fast process but, as my coffee cup must remind me, teaching, and life in general, is about continually developing reasoned and reasonable approaches to problems.

Sharing: related materials to enhance our readings

*Please note that these were incorporated in the blog post.  These are just additional notes as to why I selected these particular articles/posts.

-1-

I wanted to share this article from The Washington Post, titled “Flipping Classrooms: does it make sense.”  The Khan Academy has influenced thousands of teachers to take on this approach and challenged us as educators to assign a lecture for homework and participate in homework-esque studies in school.  This approach allows students and teachers to work together toward mastery instead of expecting the teacher to give a one-size-fits-all lecture.  The lecture can now be paused, reviewed, rewound, or whatever the student needs.  The article also notes a new book called “Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day,” which is coming out later this month.  Still, this article does include some concerns from teachers about the specifics of this process and the lack of research on whether this truly works or not.  It’s a great read for those who are interested in this process and want a supplemental text!

-2-

For those of you who need to take a deep breath and not become too overwhelmed with reshaping an entire curriculum and classroom, an article titled “The Downside of Planning” from Psychology Today reminds us not to get overwhelmed by our need to achieve.  We often think of planning in terms of laying out our curriculum for an entire period of time (some of us by week, others by month, unit, semester, or year), but whether it is planning for our classroom or just making sure we have enough time to take care of ourselves mentally, it is important to focus on one or two goals at a time instead of thinking big picture all the time.  As the article reminds us, even small steps toward a goal are better than no steps at all.

-3-

I had to do a bit of digging for this particular blog post, written by teacher and author Larry Ferlazzo, about some classroom management actions he took to, as he says, “regain control.”  Before you close out on that idea (it is important to note that classroom community should not equal classroom management), it is an interesting look into how Ferlazzo notes that his community was more fragile than he though.  It is an interesting reminder that communities are environments that, when disturbed slightly, can have major changes.  The ‘disturbance’ for Ferlazzo’s room was five new students who were not used to the community’s written and, just as importantly, unwritten rules that he and the students had bought in to.  Perhaps this will lead us to think carefully about how we understand and grow our own classroom communities.

3 Comments

Filed under Cycle 2

3 responses to “Cycle Two: Challenges and Opportunities in Building Classroom Communities

  1. Melissa Hocking

    Dear Jeff,
    I really am interested in your comments about differentiated instruction as I struggle with those issues in my classroom. I also wonder if we are differentiating instruction in the classroom are we still not separating students by intellect? Is it just another form of tracking? When I ask those questions I then begin thinking about my classroom over the past year where I really began to try and differentiate within in my own classroom through stretched learning, remedial work, formative assessment and technology. While there were times when the same students ended up in the same groups and there were other times when they didn’t follow patterns and some students who were normally successful were doing remedial work, and others who were normally doing remedial work were working on the challenge assignments. Many times it depended on the topic and their interest in that subject or how much math was involved in our current area of science study. So it seemed that while sometimes groups feel along GPA or intellect there were also times it did not. So what I see is that the concept of differentiated instruction and community are actually two separate but essential ideas.

    Everyone wants a classroom where we are all for one and one for all, where students use each others strengths to help each other out, where there are strong relationships and as a class we work together. I agree with you and the article by Johnson and Johnson that at the secondary level it’s difficult to build a community with short class periods, teachers and students going their separate ways and semester long courses but I think there has to be a way to overcome this. At Webster City High School, where I teach, I teach 9th grade general science and 10th grade biology. Our 9th grade students our divided into teams so that each team has half of the 9th graders and we watch over them their 9th grade year. We also team on curriculum and other 9th grade issues. Since we implemented the team system our 9th grade failure rate had dropped dramatically. While this was great news our 10th grade failure rate was still too high. As a 9th grade science teacher I was very frustrated that I would meet and spend a year developing this relationship with these 9th graders only to never see them again. This year I approached my curriculum director with the idea of looping my 9th grade students so I would have them as 10th graders for biology. With a little schedule tweaking mission accomplished. So this fall I will have all my 9th graders back as 10th graders. If all goes well and data shows improved grades, etc this same looping my take place in English the following year. I had built a community with these students but since I only see them 45 minutes a day it took almost a year but now we get to continue our community this year. I think this idea of looping can have real benefits for building communities at the secondary level.

    Here are a couple very interesting articles on looping:
    http://www.openeducation.net/2008/01/06/looping-in-education-time-to-make-it-a-fundamental-practice/
    http://www.edutopia.org/looping-multiage-classroom-grouping-benefits

    So what I really envision is differentiated instruction for knowledge building and learning skills and content, and community as a relationship and culture piece. I believe that once a solid community is built then differentiated instruction can take on more of a community feel with those of all different skill levels and interests helping each other.

    I really enjoyed reading your blog. I am glad to know that there are others who have the same questions as I do.

    Melissa Hocking

  2. Dear Jeff,
    I really am interested in your comments about differentiated instruction as I struggle with those issues in my classroom. I also wonder if we are differentiating instruction in the classroom are we still not separating students by intellect? Is it just another form of tracking? When I ask those questions I then begin thinking about my classroom over the past year where I really began to try and differentiate within in my own classroom through stretched learning, remedial work, formative assessment and technology. While there were times when the same students ended up in the same groups and there were other times when they didn\’t follow patterns and some students who were normally successful were doing remedial work, and others who were normally doing remedial work were working on the challenge assignments. Many times it depended on the topic and their interest in that subject or how much math was involved in our current area of science study. So it seemed that while sometimes groups feel along GPA or intellect there were also times it did not. So what I see is that the concept of differentiated instruction and community are actually two separate but essential ideas.

    Everyone wants a classroom where we are all for one and one for all, where students use each others strengths to help each other out, where there are strong relationships and as a class we work together. I agree with you and the article by Johnson and Johnson that at the secondary level it\’s difficult to build a community with short class periods, teachers and students going their separate ways and semester long courses but I think there has to be a way to overcome this. At Webster City High School, where I teach, I teach 9th grade general science and 10th grade biology. Our 9th grade students our divided into teams so that each team has half of the 9th graders and we watch over them their 9th grade year. We also team on curriculum and other 9th grade issues. Since we implemented the team system our 9th grade failure rate had dropped dramatically. While this was great news our 10th grade failure rate was still too high. As a 9th grade science teacher I was very frustrated that I would meet and spend a year developing this relationship with these 9th graders only to never see them again. This year I approached my curriculum director with the idea of looping my 9th grade students so I would have them as 10th graders for biology. With a little schedule tweaking mission accomplished. So this fall I will have all my 9th graders back as 10th graders. If all goes well and data shows improved grades, etc this same looping my take place in English the following year. I had built a community with these students but since I only see them 45 minutes a day it took almost a year but now we get to continue our community this year. I think this idea of looping can have real benefits for building communities at the secondary level.

    Here are a couple very interesting articles on looping:
    http://www.openeducation.net/2008/01/06/looping-in-education-time-to-make-it-a-fundamental-practice/
    http://www.edutopia.org/looping-multiage-classroom-grouping-benefits

    So what I really envision is differentiated instruction for knowledge building and learning skills and content, and community as a relationship and culture piece. I believe that once a solid community is built then differentiated instruction can take on more of a community feel with those of all different skill levels and interests helping each other.

    I really enjoyed reading your blog. I am glad to know that there are others who have the same questions as I do.

    Melissa Hocking

    WordPress.com / Gravatar.com credentials can be used.

  3. Hi Jeff,

    Thank you for your work in this post!

    I really, really appreciate the in-depth thinking you brought to this subject. I myself, like you, have gone around and around on the issues of tracking, differentiated instruction, AP classes, and the like.

    I can only share with you some of my current thinking.

    First, people are different. They are unique beings. Everyone is good at some things, bad at others. I always return to this insight. Whenever I find myself labeling larger groups, I stop, and remind myself that we are dealing with individuals. That helps me. It reminds me that Joe probably won’t be able to do the same work as Jamal on assignment x. This is just life. The push to act like all kids can do the same work at the same time ignores the rich diversity of life. What is important is that I cultivate respect and a type of love for each child under my care.

    Second, intelligence is not fixed. Intelligence is not uni-dimensional. I can’t fix my car when it breaks. I am hopeless with many things around our house. I am not good at small talk. As I get older, I see how many different ways there are to succeed in life. To excel. I get angered when I think how little schools value the many talents and gifts people bring with them. I want my classroom to try to move in that direction.

    I think Melissa’s example of differentiating leading to surprising outcomes is worth thinking about, and playing with. We have to keep creating those tasks, as you note, that maximize the greatest number of talents of the greatest number of individuals. Then we are moving in the right direction.

    We have to teach all people to deal well with success and failure (see cycle 1).

    You show a lot of wisdom in your slogan for your coffee cup–I am with you on this. It’s a life-long endeavor.

    I have some faith that we could take what is awesome about that AP class and move it to other settings–kids who know each other, trust each other, and enjoy acting smart and letting others act smart.

    Thanks again for your work!

    Kyle

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