The Deeper Issue

This experience forced me to ponder why the dynamics of these two classes were so different.

I realized that the composition of these two classes was different. The first period had some of the best students in the school. These were the leaders in the FFA program and the student council. They were the kids who were expecting to go on to college. While there were some students who were struggling in that class, there was a cohort of confident learners that defined the atmosphere of the class.

They expected to learn. They wanted to learn. They were a natural learning community.

Not so in the other class. There was no pre-existing learning cohort. The class felt fragmented. Most of these students were either struggling or, at best, apathetic. They were the ones who were just showing up for school. They didn't think of themselves as successful learners.

What I was seeing was a segregation of students similar to what I had seen before at my daughter’s high school. This segregation happens largely because of math class.

Those students who are confident learners are often put into accelerated math courses. The scheduling of all of the other classes, then, often has to be done around those classes. As a result, these students tend to have all of their other classes together. They also become labeled the smart students.

Then there are the other students, ones who are either average or struggling. They go to the grade-level math classes, or below, and are grouped together for their other classes.

So my first class had several students who expected to be successful in high school and beyond. The other class largely comprised students who might, at best, simply graduate.

And the students all knew their labels – they had internalized them.

But then I began to notice a larger dynamic – an implied classification of students in every class.

Particularly classes that had a diversity of students. Many times a teacher would have two or three high achieving students, that might be labeled as Talented and Gifted (TAG) students, and two to three kids who were struggling and disrupting the learning of others.

The daily challenge typically faced by teachers was to keep the TAG students engaged, keep the struggling kids from disrupting the class, while incrementally moving the learning forward for the rest of the students. It often felt like they were pushing a mound of jello.

When I used that metaphor to describe what I was seeing to other teachers in the building, we locked eyes and they let out long, deep sighs. Yes, they would tell me, it’s exhausting.

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