All means all…doesn’t it?

When I was a student in public school many moons ago, it was the time of obvious and blatant tracking. Students, parents, and teachers knew full well whether their kids were in the advanced, regular, or basic track of classes. In that situation, all didn’t mean all. There were different expectations for different groups of students. At the time, I didn’t give it much thought, until junior high.

While I was a bona fide participant in my district’s elementary school gifted-and-talented program—a status only achieved after taking a paper-and-pencil forced-choice test—my sixth grade teacher was quick to discern that I had other talents that might not have been measured in that test, procrastination being chief among them. But what he recognized as lack of ability was merely my misaligned priorities, with socializing seeming much more important at the time. As a result, I was put into the “regular” English class in the seventh grade. It was like traveling to a different world.

All my friends would go to English one period before me—the advanced class—and tell me what they had learned. Funny. I was in the same class, at the same desk, and yet my class couldn’t have been more different. We didn’t read the same materials. We didn’t have the same assignments. And I never got to use the fake telephones to hone my phone etiquette—a slight I live with to this day, although I think I do an exceptional job in that arena, despite any past perceived failings.

In my opinion, perhaps one of the most important philosophical beliefs educators can hold is that “all children can learn.” My seventh grade English teacher didn’t espouse that belief, or at least she didn’t act on it. I was deemed lesser simply by my class assignment. I don’t think it was her fault, so much. That was just the way schools were run.

If it wasn’t for the observations of my eighth-grade English teacher who set things right and got me, well, “back on track” in the ninth grade, I might’ve never had much success beyond high school. Well, my parents wouldn’t have accepted that, and the threat of the military had I not made it to college was pretty big motivation for me. But even in those two short years, I developed gaps that continue to plague me, mostly around grammar. I remember the “i before e” song from the movie “A Boy Named Charlie Brown,” but I still struggle with its versus it’s. Other gaps in grammar surface now and then. I can quantify the impact of all not meaning all, or at least not including me, even for just two years.

No more tracking?

As a teacher, the schools I worked in had abolished the idea of tracking, at least in terms of overt terminology. We weren’t even allowed to suggest that students were tracked into different types of classes. As far as I can tell, this practice continues today in the schools I visit. No tracking. Really?

Now that I visit schools across the country, I’m not sure we’ve truly bought into “All means all.” “Well, yes,” some will say, “except for…” and then there is a litany of those in whom some don’t really believe can learn. Very often, they’re described as “those kids” or “that class,” they may come from different parts of the district, be in certain classes, or otherwise embody some difference in some other way that suggests maybe our “all” is not as inclusive as it’s intended to be.

So, what’s this got to do with technology? I’m a firm believer that technology is a great equalizer. I’ve witnessed story after story of kids who use technology to perform above expectations. There are some especially powerful stories about special needs kids, especially, which are most often narrowed out in terms of “those kids,” in terms of being able to perform up to and beyond expectations. “Just like the other kids…” (another moniker of all not meaning all—that there would be “other” kids.) My students, who are teachers, just finished work on differentiation and Universal Design for Learning, and some of their stories resonated with me, so I thought I’d share my thoughts.

Technology is often immediately engaging and, for many, challenging. And that challenge can help promote learning. And in many of the classes I visit, kids are starving to be challenged! They’re bored! I’m bored, too, sitting in some of those classes. Outside of school our kids chatting and playing games and using social media and still learning, whether we like to think of that as learning or not. And they’re all learning.

I appreciate that change is hard. And, really, when we talk about “those kids” or “that class,” we haven’t really changed our expectations. But maybe we can. I believe it’s an exciting time to be a teacher. Tough for some reasons, yes, but with so many more possibilities to engage and reach all students through technologies that are becoming ever-more prevalent and the high quality learning resources they give us access to. I believe we do have the potential to truly reach all students.