Saturday, February 28, 2009

Post #10 - Discussion Response

Question: Is it correct to separate classes by perceived skill level, i.e. "honors" and "standard"? Do you think schools should differentiate between alleged achievement levels? Or do you think all classes should reflect a variety of these levels?

I let the post wait 5 days before providing my own response; I could try and do what one teacher once told me to do: wait 'em out and SOMEONE will eventually respond (I actually pulled up a chair during my 2nd period last year! That's a story for another day). Sometimes even teachers are afraid to raise their hands in the classroom, I suppose! However, I want to keep in a habit of updating this blog more than once a week.

I'll first admit that I didn't word the question perfectly. I didn't want to show bias towards one side or the other; I didn't like that word choice of "correct" but couldn't think of another way to phrase it without bias.

Here's my initial reaction to this question: it's unfair to say absolutely one way or another. Idealistically speaking, class sizes would range from 10-15 students per class, providing the students with equal teacher attention. Idealistically speaking, then, it would be acceptable - nay, favorable - for classes to reflect a diverse range of skill levels. Upper level learners could use their advanced understanding to help support weaker learners, leaving the teacher free to focus on the weakest learners.

But that one word trips us up: Idealistically. Realistically, schools aren't like that: teachers are fortunate if they have less than 25 in a class. For example in my school next year, the school board has designated that each class must be initially scheduled for at least 20 breathing bodies. I don't intend to deliver a woebegone statement of over-crowded classrooms, but my response to the posed question does hinge on class size.

My experiences last year largely shape my opinion on this. I taught "standard" and within those classes, I had anywhere from 2-6 English Language Learners. I was never entirely sure how much of the material they were actually absorbing. A month before the state test, I gathered these precarious pupils during "study hall" for group tutoring (13 students) focused on passing the Gateway*. Even though I tried to help these students whenever we had classwork, they needed more individualized attention than I had time for in 50 minutes. Besides, they weren't my only weak learners; they were just the weakest. I had to also help other struggling classmates. If I'd had a roster of 15 or fewer, my attention wouldn't have been so divided; then, yes, I could have helped them. I was able to assist them best in that small group tutoring of 13, when we could all go at the same pace.

In class they were falling behind because I couldn't go slowly enough. I had 23-25 other students who couldn't go any slower; after all, didn't that other 25 deserve to be challenged? When we have that many students, we are forced to teach to the majority. What is that majority? Well...the average.
By tossing those outliers into that majority, we then end up leaving behind lower learners and failing to propel the advanced. Wouldn't it be better to differentiate between the levels somewhat, allowing each to push themselves on a conceivable scale?

Perhaps that's the issue at hand here: somehow we've said "just because they're average/below, that's okay, we don't have to expect much." Not true! We can still hold them to higher standards, challenging them appropriately without expecting an impossible or overwhelming ideal. They don't have to be THE HIGHEST standards -- just sufficiently pushing them toward the next level. What we need to set ourselves to do, then, is to make each class appropriately challenging for the skill level recognized. The importance is that we are continually challenging; we must support what they are capable of, all the while pushing them just a little further. Our job, after all, is to become progressively unnecessary (ooh, plug!) by teaching them how to think.

Are there benefits to incorporating these different levels? Yes, for reasons I think any decent educator can recognize. Ultimately, in our current educational structure with our current restrictions (i.e. teacher numbers), I don't think it works. If schools integrated ALL learners and had NO honors classes, upper and lower level students would be cheated; we wouldn't properly push or support those who needed it. Given a class of 25-30 students, a single teacher doesn't have time to keep advanced level students properly challenged, develop average level students' knowledge, and support lower level learners. Realistically, there just isn't enough time to properly address all the learning levels when you have 50 minutes and 28 learners; you wear out your teacher by "scraping butter over too much bread." I'd still be skeptical of this in 90 minute classes if the class size remains the same. Until schools can do right by their teachers and students by providing smaller class sizes, I support the idea of having "honors" and "standard" classes.

*Just because I'm so proud of them, I wanted to share: all of those students passed the state test, and 12 of the 13 passed "Advanced"! I danced down the hall when I got results; I'm still so proud of them.

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