When I was a “lower level” student.

Featured

How teacher language impacts student achievement.

I have recently come to the realization that, yes indeed, there are some words that actually “trigger” me. I don’t need a time out when I hear them and can recover on my own, but now being back with educators in person certain words definitely stand out as triggers for me. Before I get to those, a story.

Prior to matriculating to junior high, my sixth-grade teacher decided that I was a “lower level” student in English and shouldn’t be able to be in the “advanced” English class. Years earlier, thanks to my parents filling our house with books, I entered kindergarten reading at a third-grade level. For years my English teachers sent me to different classes at reading time because I had already read all of the books in kindergarten, or first, or third grade, and so. In the fifth grade, I tested into and was able to attend my district’s gifted-and-talented program. So, in sixth grade, it wasn’t that I wasn’t capable. Instead, I was pretty social in class (okay, very social) and an excellent procrastinator. I believe I could claim I was an “advanced” student of procrastination. Therefore, my sixth-grade teacher labeled me “lower level” and sent me on.

The “lower level” English class—technically the “intermediate” class—was a dramatic and, I would argue, a damaging experience. It would have had tremendous, long-term negative impact on my school career and beyond if it had not gone through a course correction two years later. It didn’t show up as a problem on my report card, as I easily earned the highest grades possible in that class. However, my seventh-grade English teacher, thanks to my being labeled “lower level,” subsequently had much lower expectations for me and all the other “intermediate” kids.

It’s not like I didn’t know what the students in the “advanced” class were doing. They were all my friends! We had been hanging out together for years, and I spent most of my day with them outside of English. They would tell me what they were learning in that class and I would think, “Wow, we’re not doing any of that!” They had the very same teacher I did, just one period earlier.

I remember distinctly when they told me about the phone lessons at lunch one day. One of the skills my “advanced” friends were taught was how to answer the phone—using a classroom set of rotary phones. Maybe they were expected to be…what? Receptionists? Legal assistants? Do CEOs have to answer their own phones? Maybe. I don’t understand why answering the phone was in their curriculum, but I was jealous.

Imagine my joy one day when I walked into my English class, literally as my friends were leaving, and the phones were on the desks! I actually told my English teacher, “Finally! We get to use the phones, too!” Her reply was that they had run over in the previous period, so she asked me to pick them all up and put them away. No phones. No fun learning. Back to being “lower level.”

I was automatically assigned the “intermediate” English class again in the eighth grade, my guess is with no consideration from my current English teacher and no influence by having top grades throughout the year. Luckily, in the eighth grade, I was assigned a more free thinking teacher. She pulled me aside at one point after class and asked me, “Why are you in this class? You definitely shouldn’t be in this class.” I told her the story of my sixth-grade teacher. She tried, but she wasn’t able to change my assignment that year. She did, however, work extra with me and assign me additional work to prepare me to re-enter the “advanced” track in the ninth grade. I am tremendously indebted to this teacher. Her willingness and courage to buck the system probably saved not only my academic career but led to the things I’ve accomplished in my professional career.

It took me several years to get caught up. My friends had actually learned a LOT of different skills in their “advanced” classes that I had never been exposed to. Many of the most notable were related to grammar. It wasn’t until my ninth-grade English teacher pulled me aside, heard the story, and helped me try to catch up to my friends. That work continued throughout high school. Again, it wasn’t that I wasn’t capable, it’s that the well-accepted cultural norm of one person deciding I wasn’t “advanced” pigeon-holed me in a place where I wasn’t expected to know some things or develop some skills—skills like using conjunctions and the proper use of the semi-colon.

There’s a coda. Because of a scheduling conflict, in the 10th grade I was put in a “basic” English class. Oh my word! If you thought the expectations for the “intermediate” kids was low, “basic” was like a different planet! I attended one class, immediately went to the principal’s office, and told them I wasn’t leaving until they put me back into an “advanced” English class. They could call my parents. They could assign me detention. I didn’t care. I wasn’t leaving until I knew I never had to go back to that class again. Luckily, one English teacher agreed to add one more student to her already full “advanced” English class. She became one of the mentors in my life.

With those experiences in my own education and having the realization that if I had stayed in the “lower level” classes, even the “intermediate” class, my life could have been much different. I might have gotten into college, but not with the scholarships that I received. I wonder if I would’ve believed I could earn a Ph.D.? Maybe I wouldn’t have written the chapters, books, and research studies I’ve published. I certainly wouldn’t be asked to teach teachers! How could someone “lower level” have any credibility with teachers?

That’s why, when I am working with teachers, and one of them says to me, “This real-world technology stuff is fine for my advanced kids, but my lower-level students…” I am triggered!

I’ve heard statements like this so many times in districts across the country. We need to remember that the language we use has consequences. When educators use terms like “advanced” or “lower level” we immediately set up barriers for some students. When we describe a student as “lower level,” we are limiting our expectations for that student. And our students know it! They lower their expectations, as well. They know we don’t believe in them. I knew my teachers had lower expectations for me and so they didn’t even expose me to basic foundational knowledge and skills—like grammar!

We are all “advanced” at some things, and there are some things that all of us have to work harder at. If we want our students to do better, perhaps like getting higher grades or doing well on things like high-stakes assessments, let’s stop limiting them. To do this, all we need to do is stop saying a few words, like “advanced” and “lower level.” Removing these words from our vocabulary can remove limits to our expectations as well as barriers to every student’s potential.

New Edition Published!

Technology Integration for Meaningful Classroom Use. Third Edition.The third edition of Technology Integration for Meaningful Classroom Use: A Standards-Based Approach is now available from Cengage. If you’re familiar with the book, you know those standards are the ISTE Standards for Educators, which were released in their third edition last summer. I attended ISTE to learn as much about the new standards as possible, but my co-authors, Kathy Cennamo and Peg Ertmer, have been keeping tracking of trends and research in technology since the last edition, so we were able to pretty much completely revise the book over the rest of the summer and fall.

One of the aspects I like most about the new edition is the inclusion of lots and lots of stories from reach teachers, coaches, and others–many of whom are people I’ve worked with across the country. They share their stories of success and even some challenges they’ve overcome with technology integration. I’m deeply indebted to all the great educators who shared their stories with us so we could include them in the book. There’s even an index in the back, and Kathy created guidelines for how you might use the stories as you explore the book and reflect on your practice.

There are some things that remain the same, like the emphasis on our self-directed learning model, The GAME Plan (shown to have statistically significant impact on improving self-directed learning habits as determined in my dissertation), and lots of tips and tools. The new ISTE Standards for Educators focus on empowering student learning, and that’s the spirit we took with this edition. I hope many educators find it helpful.

 

What does your P stand for?

I’ve just returned from my final coaching visits with some great teachers in Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver, WA. We’ve been exploring PBL together. They’ve been developing and implementing PBL units and we discuss what they’ve learned and how that will impact their practice in the future. This last visit was the third in a series of three, and I’m so proud of the work these teachers have done—and their administrators. This has been such a rewarding experience because not only have teachers taken risks and tried new things, but their administrators have supported and encouraged them. They’ve become learners themselves, and have explored PBL right along with their teachers, acknowledging they have questions and want to learn, as well.

Steve Doyle PBL

Steve Doyle connects history with current events through his PBL unit in his social studies class.

I was also fortunate to share some ideas with the full faculty of both schools—Legacy High School and Harmony Elementary. We explored some of the characteristics of PBL and what that might mean for their lessons. I also got to showcase the work and experiences of the great residency teachers I’ve been working with, who have really dug in and have the best stories to share.

You’ll notice I just use the term “PBL” and don’t elaborate. That’s because the P in PBL can mean different things to different people. Both in the textbook I’ve co-authored and in many schools where I’ve embarked down the PBL path with teachers, I like to acknowledge this. And often I ask people what they think the P should stand for?

For many, the P in PBL stands for project. I’m good with that. A really good project can be an engaging source of deeper learning—especially when that project requires students to develop new knowledge and skills that they can then demonstrate through that project. In this case, the project is the learning, and not just something students do at the end. It’s not that they won’t need some guidance, and even directed learning, as they work on their projects, but the project isn’t just something tacked on at the end of other learning. Teachers don’t have enough time to add on projects after the learning, so the best projects are the learning. But for me, simply engaging students in a project is not enough to make it good PBL.

With the changes in the summative assessment landscape over the past decade, some people also suggest that the P in PBL stands for performance. I like that one, too, partly because almost all of the learning my own students did led to some kind of a performance—a public performance. I was a band director. So whether it was Friday night on the football field, in a concert hall or cafeteria, or performances of soloists or small ensembles, my students engaged in PBL activities that led to a performance. My work in developing performance tasks is actually, in part, an attempt to accomplish what my last principal suggested I help him with. He asked me to help him figure out how to get other teachers, whether math, science, English—whatever—to get their students to “perform” their content. PBL can do that, but again, just adding a performance doesn’t get to the best PBL.

Laura Buno, Harmony Elementary

Principal, Laura Buno, explores PBL by visiting and learning with the faculty at Harmony Elementary.

For me, the one P that I think should be in every PBL unit is a problem. A real problem. A complex problem. Real-world problems help kids get to the level of strategic thinking unlike academic problems that can be fairly sanitized and yield only one correct answer. These are what Wiggins & McTighe would refer to as exercises, not problems. They’re important, because they help students develop knowledge and skills, but what for? To tackle real problems, of course, and so in my PBL, I try to ensure there’s some real-world problem students are investigating. You can have a project with a problem, and you can include a performance at the end of a project, but without a problem, your students are going to miss out on the greater benefits of PBL and not reach those higher levels of cognitive demand that lead to deeper learning and transfer. What does your P stand for?

When asked to reflect on what makes good learning memorable, some of the faculty and staff at Harmony Elementary reported that memorable learning is:

  • Authentic
  • Provides student choice
  • Builds on individual strengths
  • Promotes independence
  • Hands-on
  • Engaging
  • Not limited by time
  • Fun
  • Group-based
  • Thought provoking
  • Connected to things outside the classroom
  • Collaborative

Sounds like great PBL to me!