Learning isn’t a privilege, it’s a right

silhouette photography of DJ mixing a music

I need to come clean with all of you. I’m embarrassed and somewhat ashamed about what I have to reveal. Please refrain from chastising me or rolling your eyes. I hope that you will not think less of me because of this information which I am about to bestow upon you. Okay, here it goes…

I cannot remember how to start up the lighting board and sound system in my school’s auditorium, even though, for the last ten years, I have been shown EVERY…SINGLE…SEMESTER.

red and yellow stage

That’s right folks. Your assessment savvy educator who can drum up slick PowerPoints about how to go gradeless cannot figure out when to flick the switch downstairs in the control room and when to flick the switch on the sound and lighting board. Wait, I know there’s another name for it. Control panel? Ugh.

Every semester, I do a big Drama 10 show in Vanier Hall, our school’s auditorium. It’s not as big as a senior class’s show, but there’s still the same thrill and excitement shared by all the students: costumes, make-up, the big stage, lights, sound effects, and anywhere from 100-600 people in the audience.

I am  plagued, semester after semester after semester by the same conundrum as I prepare to begin my week-long stint in the theatre. The proverbial lighting and sound board: how to turn the system off and on. It may seem like a pretty simple task. You would think that after ten or so years, I should have the hang of it.  But no. I have to ask for help because I never remember the order of things. Is it turn on the lighting board first, or is that last? Do I turn on the system downstairs first and then turn on the board? Even now as I write this post, I cannot, for the life of me, remember. Hello shame spiral.

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My amazing friend and colleague, Kevin O’Brien

Every semester I feel like an extraordinary fool when I have to email my colleague, Kevin, pictured above, for help because I cannot remember what I learned five months ago. Patiently and even enthusiastically, my dutiful and kind colleague, Kevin, walks me through the steps, and even gives me the chance to practice with his supervision until I get it right. Because of his expert-level tutelage, I get a handle on it for the five or so days I’m in the theatre, and I rarely have to ask for help during show week. I feel very fortunate that Kevin doesn’t view me as completely obtuse and with a memory like a sieve (at least I hope he doesn’t).  I also feel, upon being given the reigns of the technology, pretty proud of myself when I successfully work the controls without a hitch over the entire week.  With every flick of the switch and control of the lighting board keys, I smile to myself and my confidence booms.  To my students, they think I’m a pro at it and I prefer to keep them in the dark about my denseness.

 My theatrical challenge reminds me that learning cannot be confined to a particular space and time.  Learning is something that needs to be retaught and reinforced. Now, I take responsibility for not trying harder to embed this learning into my long-term memory. I could go into Vanier Hall and practice retrieving the steps every week or two. I know, as research tells us, that the act of retrieval, spaced and interleaved, is a must to retain information and create memory connections in our brains.  Pardon the pun, but I just never seem to think about it.

boy wearing gray vest and pink dress shirt holding book

When students come into our classrooms, it is the norm to assume they at least have the basic skills to be ready for the current grade level. But this is simply false information. Students who have not been exposed to learning experiences in our subject area may have learning gaps that stretch from three months to seventeen months depending on when they last worked on that subject. Consider this, if we are in the quarter system again next year, a student taking Science 10 in September 2020, may not walk into another Science classroom (Life Sciences, Chemistry, or Earth Science 11) until April 2022. Whoa. Also consider that a student taking Math 9 who finishes the course in June 2021 may take Math 10 in September 2021. Another whoa.

So how do we accommodate learners who have significant gaps in learning? Let’s imagine this scenario.

Once upon a time… (I ask that you lend me some creative license here. I’m using a fake course, a fake curricular competency, and fake content all in the name of getting my point across without using my biased tilt towards subjects I specialize in. Here we go…)

I have been asked to teach Unnamed Course 9. I’m an eager beaver teacher. I have the curriculum in front of me and I’m ready to build the first unit. I’ve decided to focus on the curricular competency, “Build houses that serve a purpose” and the content, “Parts of a house that make structures functional and livable.” I am aware that the “parts of the house that make structures functional and livable” include doors, windows, and chimneys, but I am also aware that as a department, this information has been designated to different grade levels allowing teachers to scaffold instruction from grade 7 to grade 9. In grade 7, the focus is doors, in grade 8, windows, and in grade 9, chimneys. Each of these functional and livable parts are connected to each other (Okay, in reality they aren’t connected, and one could, in effect have a chimney without a door, but let’s pretend that one needs doors before windows, and windows before chimneys.)

So, I’ve got my unit all set up. On Monday, I am set to teach chimneys and I have a great learning opportunity in mind to see that they can show me they understand it. They’ll sketch out houses with doors, windows, and chimneys. Wahoo! I’m pumped.

Tuesday. In class, students began their houses, but I notice that student 5, 6, 7, and 8 are struggling with windows. It soon becomes apparent that these four cannot work on chimneys until they don’t understand windows, so I ask them to come in at lunch to work on windows. I’ll get them caught up and then they’ll be ready to work on chimneys. Makes sense, right? They need to know windows before they can work on chimneys.

Wednesday. At lunch, the four students who I asked to come in for extra support have arrived, and I’m reteaching them windows. As they plug away on their work and I sit with them all, supporting their progress, I notice that student 7 and 8 are still struggling with windows and upon further discussion, realize that the culprit to not understanding windows, it is they don’t have a grasp on doors. Oh boy. Okay, no problem. I taught Unnamed Course 7 last year and when learning was primarily being done at home because of the pandemic, I created a slick package about doors for students to complete at home. Quick as a wink I copy the package and send it home with student 7 and 8.  Meanwhile student 5 and 6 aren’t quite where I want them with windows by the end of lunch, so I ask them to continue working on windows in class today and when they are done, they can begin chimneys.

That afternoon, I am fortunate enough to see that students 2, 3, 4, 11, and 12 have a good handle on chimneys. They came to the course knowing doors and windows well so thanks to that prior knowledge (and fact that they had just finished Unnamed Course 8 only three months ago in June), are busily and pretty much independently, working on their houses with chimneys. Life is good.

Thursday. That lunch, 5, 6, 7, and 8 are supposed to be in my room to work on doors and windows.  Student 5 and 6 will be ready for chimneys that afternoon I was sure of it, but 7 is still working on doors having not started the package I sent home with them because they had to babysit their two younger siblings while their mom worked night shift. Student 8 is nowhere to be found, but I soon learn from 5 that 8 is next door with another teacher because he is behind in that class as well and was asked to come in for lunch support. Double oh boy. Now what? Hmm, I think I better document that student 8 seems to have deficits in two classes and might need outside support. I’ll put in a request for a school based team meeting.

In class, as I float around the room trying to reteach doors to some, windows to others, and chimneys to others, I also notice that I haven’t even paid much attention to student 1. Student 1 is my little sweetheart who comes with a frigen rock star of an Education Assistant (because EAs are frigen rock stars!). He was put into my class as part of an inclusion initiative. He requires one on one support from his EA and the EA has been using most of each class to unpack this whole chimney business to her student. I feel badly that I haven’t had the time to focus on student 1 and decide to swoop in and save the day. I tell the EA, who looks pretty frustrated by the assignment, that it’s okay if 1 doesn’t do this assignment. In fact, I suggest to her, student 1 loves to build sandcastles, right? Why doesn’t the EA go out to the beach and build sandcastles with 1?  And so, the EA and student 1 go off to build sandcastles. Problem averted.

And student 9 and 10, what about them? These two are actually done their houses.  They were fortunate enough to have been taught chimneys last year. Student 9, a self-starter and methodical worker, is now sitting with a book, reading quietly, but student 10 is being a bit disruptive, tipping back on his chair and trying to chuck little wads of paper into the garbage can, groaning at each failed attempt. I suggested that he sit with student 5 and 6 to help them with their houses, but I find that more socializing occurs as a result.

Friday. In class, I let the class know that their structures with chimneys must be completed by Monday at the start of class because we are moving on to second levels of houses. It’s a 9-week course and I have a lot of content to get through. Update. Student 6 is not in class because they have a hockey tournament. Student 8 spends the good part of the class playing a game on his phone until I confiscate it. He then proceeds to doodle in the margins of his worksheet.

On Monday, after school, I prepare to put the following grades into my grade book and move to the next unit.

See what this scenario should show is that I set up the students who didn’t come with the prior knowledge I expected, for failure. The kids who got decent marks (8/10, 9/10, 10/10) were effectively rewarded living up to my expectations, while the others were effectively punished for having a different starting point. And student 1? Student 1 hasn’t been included at all in the learning experience because I simply didn’t know how to include them.

man writing on paper

You see, I have nothing but respect for the teacher who tries to fill in the gaps. Nothing but respect. They have the best interests of students in mind. They are proverbial Action Jacksons, diving in and meeting the needs of learners who seem to have deficits and totally on their own watch. They’re chugging protein shakes at the start of lunch so they can offer tutorials and holding their bladder while they photocopy packages for students to take home. Respect man, respect.

Unfortunately, the grade book tells a less than positive story. It sends the message that this learning has been confined to a finite period of time and that students who don’t have the appropriate entry point must work overtime to catch up with the rest. Every student has to work hard. Students with deficits, must work harder, extending their workday, working overtime.

When the bar is set unrealistically high, students feel powerless. If the bar is set too low, students become bored.

What if the bar fluctuated? I mean seriously, why are there even “grade level expectations.” I don’t go into a book store and ask for 47 year old reading level books. I do think that with each grade level, learning should be more complex, obviously. But we must still meet students where they are at. Why not honour the learner and celebrate growth, any growth, instead of standard growth or growth dictated by a grade level?

Imagine a different approach to the same scenario for Unnamed Course 9.

(Cue…Wayne’s World dream sequence)

What if I chuck out the timeline including that chimneys have to be taught in a week. Instead, after seeing the dynamic of the class, I decide to reteach the basic house and offer time in class to practice that. Then, I teach doors and offer time in class to practice that, then windows, and then chimneys, and… just to be prepared for the student who already knows chimneys, oh heck, I’ll teach decks.  Reteaching doesn’t harm the student who already gets it and supports the students who don’t get it. The magic happens, my friends, after all this teaching is done, then, a learning opportunity presents itself in the form of this.

In this sequence, students begin at NEED TO DO, and move as far along the sequence as they can.

Every student uses the same sequence.

Every student has a starting point and a goal.

Every student has access to all goals.

Every student has agency over their learning.

Every student!! Every student…even student 1 with an EA. They can build the house. They will be building houses alongside their peers. Maybe they need supports? Then that’s when I would enlist the help of the Resource teacher and check out their IEP. But they have a goal alongside their grade level peers. Maybe they’ll use blocks to build their houses. What the heck? Maybe I’ll bring in that support for all students to see if they want to build houses with blocks instead of using the standard paper and pencil. Maybe student 1 needs to orally explain their ideas while the EA scribes. Maybe I’ll partner up students and have all of them build houses together in a collaborative way. You know, the supports that work for the students with disabilities, often work for a lot of the students in the class. (I learned that from Shelley Moore.)

But what if they don’t get to chimneys?

do not cross police barricade tape close-up photography

My knee jerk reaction is who cares? But I’ll be fair with this question. A few things can happen.  Another learning opportunity could be presented until they do, or one could simply look at the language of the competency in the first place and realize that there are no curriculum police that suggests that every kid must know chimneys (I also got that from Shelley Moore). In fact, the details hammered out by the department can be hammered back in and rethought. The curricular competency is, after all, “Build house that serve a purpose.” So, if we’re really going to worry about what is passing and failing (Ugh) then let’s get every student to MUST DO. Then, then, let’s move on to the next goal, the second level of the house.

Can you imagine if we all used this model and presumed competence, taught to the range, used non-deficit language, and focusing on what students can do instead of backpedaling and constantly trying to fix what we presume they can’t do? Can you imagine, saying the following speak over and over in a classroom, “Follow the sequence as far as you can,” and “What’s your goal?” How cool would it be to say this, “What’s your goal, student 8? MUST DO? Awesome. What do you need to get there? And when you get to MUST DO, let’s see if we can get you to CAN DO.” So flippin’ powerful!

I want to turn the learning that happens in classrooms on its head. I believe we must turn learning on its head. We cannot afford to be teaching to unrealistic norms. We’re burning ourselves out and our students are giving up on themselves. The achievement gap is widening, not shortening, when we insist on catching up students instead of meeting students where they are at and moving them forward. Our classrooms are become more diverse and it is up to teachers to use strategies to be inclusive instead of pushing students out of room because we’re not ready for them.

Image result for change your lens change your life

You know, there’s a big misconception about our jobs. Our job isn’t to teach. Our job is for students to learn. Teaching is simply the means to that end. So, if learning is the real objective, then let’s widen our lens like Dewitt Jones suggests in the powerful Ted Talk, Celebrate What’s Right with the World. Let’s view students for what they can do, not what they can’t. I have to say, since I began creating proficiency sequences and providing opportunities for the range of learners in my classes, I am a happier teacher. I cannot help myself but smile from ear to ear when a student sets a goal and meets it, and then sets another one. No marks involved. No grading. No levels. Goals. Feedback. Repeat.

Learning is not a privilege, it’s a right. It celebrates all students. Let’s give them every opportunity to blossom and improve. Set the bar to just the right height for them. Then, move the bar again as they grow.

So say it with me you beautiful educators.







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