Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Differentiating for High Fliers

True Life Dialogue:

Student: “How strict is the five page minimum for the research essay?”

Me: “I’m looking for at least one line on the sixth page; it’s a full five page minimum.”

Student: “Really? Because I’ve completely exhausted my argument in three and a half pages…I think I’ve fully addressed the issue.”

Me: “Well, feel free to pose a deeper, more complicated argument if you need to…”

Student: “Oh, really? I didn’t know we were allowed to exceed the parameters of the assignment. It seemed pretty basic.”

Me: “Teaching you is an endless source of pleasure.”

Okay, so I didn’t say that last part. I said something like, “Absolutely.” My memory gets a little fuzzy because my blood pressure rose in response to the student’s last comment. Exceed the parameters of the assignment, indeed…

I could blame this issue on the fact that I’ve drafted off beat assignments in an effort to side step plagiarism. I could defend the fact that my off beat assignment is vague enough to permit deep and thoughtful answers for those who seek them. However, I’ve decided to confront myself with a more uncomfortable truth this student put a finger upon: I differentiate better for developing students than I do for high flying students.

As a student, I flew high academically. I know, no one wants to see my transcript now, but for a good portion of my life, I drew considerable self esteem from that sucker. I know first hand that high fliers can provide teachers with a challenge, and quite frankly, I’ve shied away from said challenge. In my experience as both a student and a teacher, high fliers are often tracked. By deciding not to teach honors classes, I mostly avoid high fliers and the challenges (and rewards, to be fair) that they present. I’ve focused my energies on teaching “average,” “on-level, “parallel,” or whatever a school district calls the “regular kids.” In those “regular” classes, I often teach developing students, and I’ve worked hard to develop content and methods that meet those students’ needs quietly and effectively. In those “regular” classes, I sometimes teach high flying students, and I’ve not addressed their needs as effectively.

High fliers usually show up in my classes because of choices that took them off the honors track when they were younger or because they don’t want to diffuse their energies from their high level math and science classes. Why haven’t I differentiated effectively for them? Well, for the most part, they do well. It’s easier to ignore the unmet needs of students who earn A’s.

Besides the fact that their boredom and lack of challenge doesn’t manifest in a measurable way, I’ve gotten this far without successfully differentiating for high fliers because I don’t know how to do it covertly. They’re wily, these high fliers. I don’t want to give them “extra” work. I don’t think they’d roll over for more difficult variations of essay assignments. My differentiation for developing students happens in collusion with the student: “Pssst. Here, do this extra worksheet and meet with me after class, and we’ll make sure you pass this class.” How do I make the work more challenging without it seeming punitive, especially if a student has purposely taken my class to avoid English class challenges?

Ugh. I need to give this one lots more thought. I know that challenges make me and my teaching grow, but sometimes complacency looks soooo much more relaxing…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher


Shannon said...

I teach at a small school, so I teach the full spectrum, including some kids who I'm pretty darn sure were brighter than me (and I'll show off my transcript in a heartbeat, too... trust me!). I think the best way to appeal to these kids is twofold: 1) acknowledge the knowledge that they have that you don't, and don't get in a wad when they correct/challenge/or question you (that builds their trust), and 2) appeal to their innate sense that they are thinking on a higher level than their classmates. One of my truly brilliant students (who I was afraid would be bored silly with my typical Amer Lit research paper topics) was intrigued when I suggested to him (quietly, of course) that he might enjoy the challenge of researching TS Eliot's "Wasteland." I told him I'd never assigned that topic before (truthfully!) because the poem is dense and packed with allusion and symbolism beyond the reach of most high school students. He was hooked. He did enough research to write a dissertation on the poem, talked with me about it after class several times, and finally condensed it DOWN to a 10 page paper (the requirement was 4 - 6 pages).

Hope that helps a bit!

Kate Kellen said...

Thanks, Shannon, that does help. I can flatter students into taking on bigger challenges...

Take care,