A Look at: "Deciding to Teach Them All"

One of the most enjoyable things about the courses I have been taking recently, besides getting to converse with other educators and soon to be educators, is the variety of articles and reading materials that we are required to read.  One of those articles is called “Deciding to teach them All”  by Carol Ann Tomlinson.  The article is about one teacher's decision to move from teaching at a school for children with IQ's of 140+, and her return to a regular ed classroom.  At the heart of this article is differentiation and excellence for all. From this article I chose a word, a phrase and a paragraph that spoke to me.

I found the Tomlinson article to be inspiring and thought provoking overall, beginning with the first page, second to last paragraph, where I will look at the word, “adaptations”.   I chose this word because I think it is an important one to consider as a teacher and because it applies to both my chosen phrase and paragraph as well.  Who do I expect to do the adapting in my class?. . .(or even in my family?)  For me I feel like the thing that has helped me develop my skills working with children, particularly challenging ones (either behaviorally, or academically), is that I have accepted that it is my role to do the adapting to the greatest extent possible, just as the teacher in this article accepted that she would need to make adaptations when moving to a new kind of class.  I am aware that not all teachers feel this way, or perhaps they share that view to some extent on a continuum.  I know that my oldest son struggled at our small school, where the expectation largely seemed to be that he needed to change, something, anything, everything in order to succeed there or receive positive feedback.  That may seem a harsh interpretation, but if we truly think about how very often we require children to bend in a school setting to begin with and then multiply that by a million for how that feels for struggling, emotionally fragile or at risk students.  For my son to succeed in school, I found an environment that first adapted to his needs, that had to happen first before he could work on some of the adaptations he needs to make to create success in school and overall in life.  This experience has inspired me to adapt my thinking and my teaching, to learn as much as I can to supply myself with the tools necessary to create a learning environment with a growing level of differentiation and understanding of diverse learners.

The phrase I picked up on was, “’excellence’ devoid of challenge and sweat” in the last paragraph pg. 3. I love that she points out the crippling effect of letting kids coast along without true challenge or thinking work.  If we are truly to seek equity and excellence, we must allow, enable, challenge (ie. Teach) all our children.  My second grader was placed in a group of 3rd and 4th graders this year to work on a special math project for the school.  It had purpose, it was hands on and he was working with his cognitive peers measuring areas to determine how much garden space the school had available, and thus how much room each class would have for planting.  He was so incredibly proud, he about bubbled over telling anyone who would listen about his privilege.  It was the single most positive academic experience he had encountered so far and it took moving him to an Innovation School to make it happen for him.  I agree with her decision to move to her new position as a way “to ensure that a maximum number of students see themselves as worthy of wrestling with ideas and issues, just as adults do.”  I think it is important to remember that the best teaching ideas and innovations for the brightest of the bright will benefit ALL kids.  (of course realizing the added structure and support for struggling learners) This is for me about adapting my teaching for kids who are at the high end as well as the low end.  It is about adapting my thinking to include great expectations and outcomes for children all across the bell.  This is the kind of teaching I will strive for when I finally get my own classroom once again.

I chose this paragraph, second to last paragraph on pg. 4.
“If we reframe the questions that we ask, a tectonic shift might occur in how we make decisions on behalf of academically diverse learners.  Not, What labels? But , What interests and needs?  Not, what deficits?  But,  What strengths?  Not, how do we remediate?  (or even How do we enrich the standard curriculum?) but How do we maximize access to the richest possible curriculum and instruction?  Not, How do we motivate? But What would it take to tap the motivation already within this learner?  Not, Which kind of setting? But, What circumstances maximize the student’s 
full possibilities? 

I loved this paragraph.  I felt it truly summed up the article and what children need teachers to be asking.  I discovered how useless labels feel, after trying to find the right one to fit my oldest son, only to find that didn’t really help teachers help him.  His new school doesn’t use labels.  I started reading Ross Green and Mel Levine to find the lagging skills that were in the way of his learning.  Strengths are crucial to keep in mind, they are the root, the seed, the sprout of a source of confidence and further learning and growth.  “Richest possible curriculum and instruction?”. . . life and the world is the Richest, how can we bring that to our classrooms?  That is how we tap into the motivation already within this learner! J  Once again, the idea of adapting, “what circumstances” can I the teacher create, to “maximize the student’s full possibilities?”  This paragraph will be posted on the cover of my planning folder every year, on my door, on my steering wheel.  It is something I want to keep in mind as often as possible while teaching and planning.

Of course then I read the last question on Page 4 and immediately wanted to choose this one as the most important as well, because it has to be considered.  “What can we do to support educators in developing the skill and the will to teach for each learner’s equity of access to excellence?”  This is what every community, school comittee, administration should be asking themselves and their teachers.  I can see a parallel between children needing to wrestle with real ideas and teachers being given the autonomy to wrestle with real teaching issues as opposed to imposed issues of rotation of new curriculum every few years, or teaching steered by a higher power, testing, administrative decisions and so on.  Educators need to have opportunities to develop the skill.  Teachers all begin with will to teach, just as children begin with a will to learn.  Another question is how do we best make decisions that can sustain that will, and encourage it’s growth?


Lori said...

What a wonderful time to read this article, just as I anxiously careen toward second grade with my son.

We did not have a very positive experience with out first grade teacher. Our mix of autism and Tourette's can challenge a person either positively or negatively. I found myself pouring resources and pointing in the right direction, but stymied by a well meaning but stubborn administration and an unenthusiastic teacher.

Reading your posts revives hope. I will expect more and see what I can do to build a better environment for my son. We need more than accommodations--we need challenges.

Amy Boyden said...

Lori, thank you for your response. I am glad you found this helpful. It can be such a struggle as a parent to get an education for our kids who are out of the box. The biggest roadblock is that differentiation is a mindset, a way of thinking about teaching. No one can give a teacher that in a handout. The plus side is that it is also on a continuum and there are teachers all up and down it, and many of them are trying to move up in their proficiency. You are absolutely right that challenges are necessary. Thank you for reading! Amy