Monday, September 24, 2007

Differentiated Instruction

For the first time in my career, I find myself seriously wondering "What do I do with these kids?" After receiving fifty percent of my seniors' Post High School Goals essay, I quickly realized that for this group, a three to four hundred word essay is difficult. Well, not just difficult, but well beyond their range of skill.
Knowing that I couldn't just forge ahead, I regrouped to have them write a one paragraph response to a short story. At this point, still with only fifty percent having done the assignment, I again found myself confused. Half of the group wrote decent content (though their grammar was atrocious), and the other half didn't seem to have a clue about how to approach the prompt--their grammar even more atrocious.
This morning I had them copy a paragraph from the board. Our purpose: to examine the elements of a well-developed paragraph. Many refused to do such a simple task because the paragraph was "too fucking long."
On the way home, my wife asked me what she should do with her students who refuse to do any work. I gave her two answers. The theorists would say that it is our job to convince, persuade, or motivate those students to learn; and, that if our lessons were only relevant, there wouldn't be these issues. We should differentiate our instruction for those who care about and value the assignment and those who don't give a shit.
The other response, coming from a teacher who is agonizing over ways to convince his seniors that the ability to write a paragraph is necessary said to inform them of their right to fail. I mean, if the police are required of our right to remain silent so that we don't say anything stupid--thus getting us into trouble, we should also be required to inform our students of their right to remain ignorant--thus relegating them to a life of poverty.
I am only a few weeks into this new position and I am anxious about my ability to succeed here. I have never failed as a teacher, but here, I feel like a failure on a daily basis. The theorist in me blames my inability to connect or motivate or whatever; the realist in me blames the students' parents for not creating an environment that values education.
So, because this blog is also a way to learn from each other, I am truly asking for words of advice on how to approach low achieving students in a high poverty area. I don't know that I have the skill set to succeed.


At 7:08 PM , Blogger Royanne Baer said...

I don't know that I am the best person to be giving you advice. I am a relatively new teacher (3 years) of Middle School students (also a mid-life career-changer). Having experienced the same issues you are experiencing, I asked advice of people wiser than me. First and foremost, you have to build a rapport with your students. They need to understand that you genuinely care about their future and who they are as a person. It sounds like Hollywood dreck, but it is true. These are the students that truely need someone to care. Once they understand you are on their side, they will be on yours. So, I am working on building the rapport. Many of my students cannot read near grade-level. In this era of No Child Left Behind, they were dropped off a few miles back. We chunk everything, use a tremendous amount of modelling, graphic organizers, visual cues, etc. Believe it or not, you might try very simple diagramming (which is a form of a graphic organizer). These are just some thoughts, maybe not even good one. I am new to blogging and trying to pull myself into this arena so that I can teach my kids real-world writing. Thanks for giving me the chance to participate.

At 11:00 PM , Blogger Ms. V. said...

Here are a couple of ideas.

1) At the end of every period, my students do FMOF (Four minutes of formulation). They have composition books, and write whatever they want for 4 minutes. I read them, and write back to them, and I don't judge what they wrote. They can write how angry/sad/hurt they are and know that I will not correct them. Seriously, this has been the biggest help to me this year. The students are now writing coherent thoughts to me and we write back and forth to each other.

2) Paragraphs. Bah. Make them write their goals in a poem. Start with random phrases, and let them be creative.

3) Put on the board the difference between a showing and a telling paragraph. Write the sentence *The house was a pretty crummy place.* Then, have them give you random phrases such as, cockroaches running everywhere, peeling paint, dirty diapers in the yard, green mold in the shower. We did this last week, and I got some amazing paragraphs AFTER that. It's all about scaffolding, or whatever the kids are using these days.

4) My student blog is Click on the right side of the blog to the page *Weekly Writer*. There you will see an example of Carlos' telling paragraph. It's a scream.

5) Be patient. Start writing with them in a writer's workshop format. If you want to email me, I'll tell you the best writer's workshop book I have in my class. The above idea came from it.

6) Trust the process. Rome wasn't built in a day. :)

At 11:04 PM , Blogger Ms. V. said...

There's the link. Good luck.

At 5:17 AM , Blogger Sunny said...

I think the other posters are right on. I believe that you must build relationships with any students--high or low SES.

Other ideas:
1. Have them write about something they want to write about--themselves, an experience, etc.

2. Begin with a manageable length--poem, paragraph, or even sentences. You may need to really back up and begin with the basics. If they don't know how to write good sentences, then they don't know how to write something longer, and they know they don't know how.

3. If they like music, you might be able to use a song they are familiar with as a starting point.

I'll keep thinking and may come up with some other ideas...

At 7:53 PM , Blogger GVWP Teachers said...

Count me as one more vote for "learning only happens in the basis of a relationship."

And one great reading that I hope changes your view of teaching writing the same way it changed mine: James Moffett's Bridges. See it at the National Writing Project site:

It's Occasional Paper 9. Feel free to write me if you want to discuss it. I am having a tough year with some tough kids and so I hear you.

At 3:49 PM , Blogger Tom said...

Here's the thing that always gets me: most of your students are seventeen or even eighteen. What they need to understand is not that they have a "right to fail" but that they have a responsiblity to complete their work. They're at the age where you can't even blame their parents for not raising them right because that kind of crap isn't going to fly.

That being said, I get to be in the same situation from time to time, teaching juniors who would waste as much time as possible rather than finish a paragraph.

I'm all for trying to establish some sort of rapport with my students but that's something that obviously builds over time, and very often it's hard to establish individual relationships with 30 people in a room, especially when 10 of them are loud and obnoxious.

I've had mixed luck with my students and their writing as well. The one thing I can hold over their heads is the full-length essay they are required to write on March's Virginia SOL writing exam, but even them it's sometimes like getting blood from a stone.

My best strategy? Basically flat out calling bullshit on every little excuse they give me. "This is too long," "I can't come up with anything," "I'm not good at this" ... it may crush their fragile little souls but they know right away that a) I don't pay attention to that crap because unless their hands are broken, they should be able to give me SOMETHING and b) my feedback will be extensive and helpful (even if it is with self-esteem-destroying red pen).

Touchy-feely only works so much, and it only works if that's the person you are. I prefer to be on the level and lay it out there. It sounds like I don't give a shit, yes ... and to an extent, I can only give so much of a shit especially since they're the ones shirking their responsibility.

At 10:36 AM , Blogger Joe said...

I can tell you're a real teacher. I see that because when you see a problems you don't start tossing out blame, instead, you ask, "What can I do about it?"

So here are some thoughts. First, if at all possible, get in touch with your closest Writing Project site. There is one in Seattle (Puget Sound W.P.) and one in Ellensberg (Central Washington W.P). These people are smart about ways to engage students in writing tasks and to improve their skills. Next, Tom's idea of getting them to work by "laying it on the line" is likely to have as much success for writers as it did for me in math class--I squeaked by on the tests but learned little math. Students learn when they are given assignments that allow them to understand the value of what they are doing, that give them the supports they need to have a reasonable chance of success, and when they perceive that their particular struggles are understood and addressed by the teacher. Your instinct to back up and bring them along to where you want them to be is a good one. However, students are sensitive about being given "baby work." It's important to get juniors and seniors writing from passion--they've got serious things to say about life--and from there to begin to help them find the forms that will help them communicate their passion to the world.
Once again, the Writing Project can really be helpful.


At 1:57 PM , Blogger Joe said...

By the way, you might be interested in my blog at Take a look at the Journal section, a lot of it is about teaching in the Bronx.


At 3:37 PM , Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

Joe, thanks for the good advice--and the compliment.

At 8:24 PM , Anonymous klonopin vs xanax comparison data said...

too fucking long...

it remind me on my teacher that want me to do a 1000 words of essay, what he think back then... with a lot of other work, that is just too many ..

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