Recently I was on an interview for a new teaching position. After questions and answers, the interview team said they were going to give me a scenario to address. "Half of your class is reading below grade level," they said. "What do you do?" I paused to gather my thoughts and then jumped into a rather long answer. My answer did not have a lot of specifics. Mainly because my basic premise was that first I would need to become familiar with each reader to know what he needed.
That experience has continued to feed my thinking. I think I said this to the interview team but I've certainly turned it over and over in my mind: When teaching, you do not teach a class; you teach a group of individual students. Two students can be on the same or similar levels when we assess them. But they probably get there in two different ways and have two very different sets of needs.
I think this is where we run into problems in the educational arena. We want all kindergartners to come into school knowing the alphabet and how to write their names and a whole host of things. We want them to venture into first grade reading basic books on their own. While worthy goals, not all students will be reading by the time they finish the kindergarten year. Previous educational experiences (or lack) can play a role. Family circumstances can play a role. Sometimes a particular child's brain is just not ready to read yet. Not every five- or six-year-old is the same. I should not expect them to learn at the same rate or in the same way.
We can easily group kids and give them a label. They are high achievers or struggling learners. They are above or below or at the right level. They are low economic or gifted. They are learning challenged or English language learners. With that label, we assign particular characteristics or needs or expectations. We may see them as a group and less as individuals.
In a second grade class, I had a few ELL students, students that spoke languages other than English at home. These students needed some additional explanation of vocabulary words and sometimes additional background knowledge to understand what we were reading or discussing. I would make sure to explain anything that I thought may trip up these students.
On the day after a break, we found a note in our classroom that our flag had been moved; its fluttering during the break had set off the motion detectors in the room. This elicited a lot of discussion. I pointed out the motion detectors in the room and explained their purpose. We talked about the need for them. (To let the police know when people were in the school at times they should not be there) I explained that they were off during school time and turned on at night or other times when the school was empty. I tried to answer all the questions that arose from this suddenly very interesting device. "If someone comes into the room when the detectors are on," I said, "then the alarm will go off." One of my ELL students raised his hand: "Mr. Wiley," he asked, "It will turn off or it will turn on?"
Here was something that surprised me. English is a crazy language. (Well, that I knew.) We turn the alarm on and we turn it off. But when it engages it goes off (which means its sound turns on). I had assumed through my explanations that students understood how I was using the language. I had to stop and reword what I was saying to make sure my friend (and all of his friends) really understood what I was saying. It made me wonder how often I said other "commonplace" things that went misunderstood. I assumed I knew what was difficult to understand for ELLs and what was not difficult. Instead I needed to make sure I knew where each individual student's understanding was...or at least how to check individual understanding in our lessons.
We must ask questions, talk to students individually and in groups, and listen to them. Really listen. Pay attention to what is said and what meaning lies underneath the words. We must understand who our students are...no, we must understand who each individual student is.
As you return to your classrooms this year, look at the faces of your kids. See each one as the wonderful and unique individual he (or she) is. Look for ways to help each one be successful in ways that only he can. We teach individuals, not a class.