I am not “low level”

If you were a teacher in the 80’s, you might’ve been around when we “got rid of tracking.” Uh-huh, yeah, right. Here I am, sitting in another meeting when multiple teachers say to me, “Well, this might be o.k. for my higher-level kids, but my low-level students just won’t be able to do this.” Uhm, tracking anyone?!?

Yes, many school schedules no longer include groups like: Basic, Regular, and Advanced. But did that really eliminate tracking? Maybe on paper, but not in the perception of many teachers I come across. I’m more than a little tired of teachers telling me that the reasons students don’t succeed is because they are “low level,” because you know…I was one of those kids!

Being a pariah

You see, I was one of those kids that didn’t fit the mold. I was a big reader and could read well above my grade level early on, but it wasn’t until the third grade (with Miss Vandroff who later became Mrs. Harrison) that someone realized that my fluency level was well above my comprehension. Sure, I could get through a book lickety split, but remember what happened? Why should I do that?

Having some well-deserved constructive alignment at that point was tremendously helpful, but by the time I was in the fifth grade I had comments on my report card (hand-written, of course) like, “John tends to socialize more than is necessary. John can’t seem to stay in his seat.” That was me, the social learner. My fifth-grade teacher understood that was how I liked to learn and tolerated it, but not the next year.

Despite testing into and being admitted to a “gifted” program, my sixth-grade teacher decided I was unworthy. I couldn’t stay in my seat. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. He would see to it that that would stop. So, when all of my friends and I were being promoted to the junior high, he suggested that I be relegated to the “regular” track in English. (We were still tracking then.) All of this because I just liked to talk too much. It could have been devastating.

The problem was, I had the same seventh-grade English teacher all of my friends had, and they would tell me about what they were learning. One poignant lesson involved simulated telephones. My friends had told me about this. The phones were put out on desks and the teacher would “call” them, and they were supposed to answer with appropriate phone etiquette. They were going to be the doctors and lawyers and who-knows-what-all that would require proper phone etiquette. I walked into the classroom one day and saw the phones left out on the desks from the previous period and said, “Finally, we get to learn about the phones.” My teacher looked down her substantial nose at me and said, “That’s for another class.” Really? I don’t need to know how to answer the phone? Thank goodness I learned that at home.

If not for the grace of…

I remember many of my teachers’ names—going back to first grade (Miss Ishii) and of course all of my high school teachers, especially those who had so much impact on my life. But there’s one whose name I don’t remember who probably had the greatest impact on my academic career. She was my eighth-grade English teacher.

Despite my interest in phone etiquette, my seventh-grade English teacher (I remember her name but won’t post it here) didn’t see me as anything more than the supposed chattel she saw day to day. That changed in the eighth grade. At one point, my eighth-grade English teacher said to me, “Why are you in this class?” I don’t know, I was just here. Luckily, she saw I just had a different learning style, and back into the advanced track I went in the ninth grade—thanks to her. (At some point, I can talk about how much I missed with just two years out of the advanced track, but that’s for another day.)

The lesson here is that she saw potential and did what she could in the system we had at that time. Right or wrong, at that time we tracked kids, and she knew I was on the wrong track. Her suggestion to move me to a different track probably had more impact on my academic career than any move any other teacher had in my life. Honestly…I now have a Ph.D. I’ve written two books, contributed to others, and have presented at numerous national conferences. She might not have seen that in my future, but that is what she helped make happen. Ultimately, I really wasn’t in a different track, I just learned differently. And luckily she understood that and trusted me enough to take a chance.

Don’t bring me down

It’s a gazillion years later (or about 35) and I’m sitting with another group of teachers in a workroom talking with them about designing curriculum. The differences in kids inevitably come up. I’ve been there. I was you. I was a teacher, and I know the different way kids learn. That was difficult because that meant I had to present material in different ways to address the needs of all of my kids. At the end of the day, or the semester, those kids were going to have to perform—for their friends, or their parents, or for a judge. They all had to be on task. It was also easier, because I taught music, or at least I think so. No worksheets or bubble tests in my class!

But I’m sitting in this workroom and I hear it again, “This is fine for my upper-level kids, but my low-level kids just won’t be able to do this.” Unfortunately, I’ve just done another round of classroom observations and have to pinch myself to stay awake because the class is just so boring. Worksheet number what?!? Fill-in-the-blank again?? If I can’t stay awake in your class, why would your kids? Remember, I’m that social learner. I’m not low level. I just learn differently. And so do your kids.

One of the great accomplishments of public education is that we now engage more students from more backgrounds. One of the great challenges of public education is that we now engage more students from more backgrounds. That includes me. I need action. I have to be entertained. I like to be involved. Worksheet 756B isn’t going to do that for me.

Don’t count me out just because I can’t sit still. Don’t count me out because I can’t be quiet. Don’t count me out because I like to share with others. I’m not low level, because I do like to learn. Hint: start by believing in me, no matter what label you want to use.