This September, as most of you know, I am about to leave my classroom to work with basic skills students. It has me thinking about how very different this will be from my current teaching position. Let’s backtrack for a minute.
When I first started teaching, I had multi-level classes. Within my classroom there was always a wide range of abilities. Because of this, I’ve had classes mixed of students with the following designations: special education, basic skills, regular education, enrichment, and gifted. Not sure what’s left! The mix was always different every year. One year, I had a class that was exactly half enrichment students and half basic skills students. It was challenging to say the least! I was always trying to find the balance between moving too fast or too slow. I wish that at the time I had more knowledge of how to effectively differentiate. Looking back, I see how I would have done some things very differently.
After a few years of this, I was assigned a position as an enrichment teacher. My classes consisted solely of the top ten percent or so of students in the grade level. Talk about a change of pace! I have since been teaching enrichment students for several years now. I want to take a minute to dispel some misguided beliefs about teaching enrichment or gifted students.
Here are three of the most common remarks I get from other teachers (Yes! Other teachers!) when they find out what my student population is:
Oh, they teach themselves!
Lucky you, no discipline problems!
You sure don’t have to worry about test scores!
Okay, let’s look at these one by one.
1. “Oh, they teach themselves!”
Ahhhh, NO THEY DON’T! Yes, my friends are high ability students. Yes, I could put some worksheets on their desk and let them work independently while I kick back at my desk. There’s just one thing. THAT’S NOT TEACHING! That’s not what I do! I teach! My students may have the basics down that other students may still be working on, but my job isn’t to keep the status quo. My job as an enrichment teacher is to make them think, to take them beyond what they already know, to tap into their higher level thinking skills. This is interactive teaching. This is lots of conversation. See, here’s the thing. These kids need to be challenged and that’s the challenge I, as their teacher, have to meet. It would be a disservice to give them anything less. And frankly, it’s a bit insulting to have other teachers tell you your kids could teach themselves.
2. “Lucky you, no discipline problems!”
I’m sort of torn on this one. I have to concede that I do see more severe discipline issues in classes with larger numbers of lower ability students for whatever reasons. I actually think there are a myriad of reasons for this (many of which are NOT the fault of the student) which I won’t go into now. However, I do have my fair share of discipline issues just as any other teacher does. Enrichment student does not equate to an angelic student! They are kids. Kids think like kids. Kids don’t always make the wisest decisions. Kids don’t always realize the consequences of their actions. Kids will be kids. There are bound to be discipline problems in every classroom. I also firmly believe that most, not all but most, discipline problems can be tamed with established routines, consistency in enforcement and expectation, and praise for the positive behaviors. Those are nonnegotiables in my room.
3. “You sure don’t have to worry about test scores!”
Yeah, I do! These children are at the top of their game. While they definitely show growth over the course of the year, they generally don’t show huge gains in benchmark testing. This past year, I had some 5th graders who were reading at 8th grade levels. When taking a standardized test, they often test so high to begin with that the growth they show is small. I’m not teaching them a basic reading strategy that will make a big difference if they apply it on the reading test. They generally have those down. Yes, we continue to practice and refine the skills but once you are beyond your grade level by a few years, the gains you make don’t really show as much on these types of test.
Here’s what those same teachers never seem to say:
1. Wow, you really spend a lot of time grading. Yes, I do! Let me tell you, enrichment students can write! And, almost every test they take in every subject has some open response c component. I don’t have the problem of getting them to write enough. I have the problem of them wanting to write too much! Give them an essay on a test and they will write and write and write! No matter what test they are taking, they will always ask if they can get more paper to finish their writing. When it comes to writing, I have been known to say on occasion that I will stop reading after five pages. Teaching these students to be concise in their writing without killing creativity and attention to detail is one of the most important lessons I do.
2. Those poor kids really put a lot of pressure on themselves! Enrichment students are often kids with an inner drive to do well. They will put more pressure on themselves to do well than either their parents or me will. I have had children burst into tears because they got an A- rather than an A on numerous occasions. I have 5th graders get very angry when they don’t understand a concept the first time they see it. I see hand wringing, hair tugging, and many other assorted nervous behaviors. Being an enrichment teacher is often being part teacher and part counselor!
3. Gee, they can be a bit stubborn! When you are a smart cookie, and for most of your school career work has been easy, you’ve gotten good grades, and you think you are always right, a funny thing happens. You begin to think you ARE always right! As a 5th grade teacher, I find that this is the year where they start to see that they really don’t know it all. The curriculum gets a bit tougher and the demands a bit more rigorous. Some handle it well while some really struggle with it. So many times I’ve had students argue why I marked something as wrong, tell me the book is wrong, tell me they KNOW they are right, and simply try to
wear me down persuade me into thinking
their wrong answer is correct. The idea
that they might not be right is inconceivable to some of them. As I wrote, some are able to handle it well,
but some don’t (see number 2!)
Here’s what I would like to tell those other teachers:
1. Enrichment parents can be tough! In a good way! I never have the problem of parents not being involved. There is a reason these children are successful. More often than not, they have very involved parents. These parents know exactly what I am doing in my classroom. They look at every paper that is sent home. They ask questions. They don’t hesitate to call me on a grade or a lesson. These parents come to conferences. They come to conferences prepared. They have questions. These parents are willing to do the work at home. They will ask what they can do at home to help their child better understand a skill. They support what I do in the classroom. Now, sometimes it can be a bit much. I can tell you that for every test I send home, there will always be one or two notes or emails that come back asking a question about the grade or a particular answer that was given. I will often have to remind a parent that their child is ten and that low grade they got on a test will not keep them out of college! However, I will take involved parents any day!
2. My enrichment friends are funny! These children often have a very quirky sense of humor. They often find humor in the oddest things. Have you ever had something completely ridiculous said by one student, and you just want to say, “REALLY?!!!” You wish there was another adult in the room to commiserate on just how ridiculous it was? Well, enrichment kids get that. Not that I say a word, but they will! I’ve often had one kid call out another on ridiculous statements or behavior. Many times it is like having little adults in the room! And, as mature as these children may seem, they are often tickled to death at the most silly things. They are, after all, just kids! I should say, kids that love to spew odd facts! I think Discovery channel is going to be the death of me. These kids love shows on the Discovery channel. Because they are by nature inquisitive, they have a schema jam packed with random nuggets of information. Whenever I ask a question, the response is generally, “I have three things to say about that.” Umm, yeah, we could be there forever if I let that happen! Many times I will have to say, “Well, pick the most important to tell me.” But, I have to say, I love those odd facts! I can’t say they are always factual, but they can be fun to hear as they are sometimes so obscure and weird you can't help but laugh!
5. You do a lot of curriculum work! My district does not have an separate curriculum for enrichment students other than placing them all in the same class. Then, it's up to the teacher to enrich. This means that I have to take the regular curriculum and decide what I can skip, where I can compact, where I need to add content, where I need to infuse projects and technology. Now, I know that all teachers do this to some degree, but I believe you can do it more as you want to. In my case, I have no choice. If I want to keep my friends engaged and learning, I have to modify almost every aspect from what I'm teaching to how I teach it, as do, I believe, teachers of lower ability students.
This is really what I had intended to write about today, how similar it can be to teach basic skills students and enrichment students. Next year, I will be teaching those students at the other end of the spectrum, which is the level of students I am currently working with in summer school. And, that is what started this post! It was going to be about how working with my skills summer school kids has been very helpful in preparing me for September. Then, I started to think about how teaching enrichment children is different, yet still very much the same. Then, I totally got off on a tangent thinking on the misconceptions about it. Hence, the blog post above! I do plan to get back to those similarities in a different post.
A quick disclaimer: It seems to be the nature of education these days to categorize children based on their ability, i.e. basic skills, enrichment, etc. I’m never really comfortable with this and think there must be a better way, but I use the categories in my post as it seems to be a common vocabulary we all know and understand. Also, the post above is based solely on my personal observations, thoughts, and opinions and not on any scientific data. So, take it all with a grain of salt! It's just one woman's opinions!