Ruth’s Truths – Ruth Morris

Matson+art+postIn my last article, I promised to reveal my special “formula” for how to build a successful enrichment and intervention program within the normal bell schedule of a school day. If a school has committed to doing this, and has already created the time to do it, which is no easy task in itself, I have a recipe for how to utilize that time. My “special sauce” may differ from what most educators’ first impulse might be, and that’s why I am writing about it.

One of the issues in providing much needed services for our most gifted and talented, is that we usually start thinking about serving them after we have assured ourselves that our struggling students have been taken care of first. I believe in inverting that matrix, and planning for the enrichment first. I say this, because I know that it takes longer to detect the source of a student’s exact disability without first prioritizing standards, and then developing assessments that pinpoint the problems with the exactitude of an iron dome defense. Identifying students who have attained mastery of requisite skills, however, is relatively easier, if you are watching carefully.
As we set about helping ALL students, from the neediest, and through the majority middle, let us remember not to forget about students who may have already mastered the material.

Through years of experience, observation and study, I am GATE’s Yoda, and I believe that we have the resources to serve our best and brightest too, and they should not have to flee to private institutions to obtain the type of attention they may not be able to receive in a public school setting, which necessarily must serve all students on the ability spectrum?

So here’s my four-step “recipe:”

1) Consider ALL students in the school to be YOUR students (not just those assigned to a particular classroom)
2) Begin by planning for the enrichment classes first
3) Start with the students’ interests, add in teacher preferences, mix together, and make adjustments as necessary
4) Encourage staff to “host,” “advise” and/or “supervise,” as opposed to “teach” enrichment classes; teachers be comfortable letting students take the lead

I will paint a rudimentary picture, by illustrating what might occur in, for example, a kindergarten classroom. A particular lesson for twenty students might consist of coloring a picture within the lines (developing fine motor skills that will lead to writing; an assignment that also integrates the arts). A teacher may, given prior experience, allocate twenty minutes for this task.

One or two students might complete the task in ten minutes, with accuracy, and attention to the use of appropriate color for the objects in the picture. Another two or three students may not do the work at all, may scribble with one color all over the page, or may not complete all of the coloring within the given amount of time. The majority of the students will complete the assignment to varying degrees of accuracy. Some will color a little outside the lines, some will color zebras purple, but it will take them just about twenty minutes to do it.

The point I am making is this: it will take us longer to figure out remedies for teaching or re-teaching appropriate coloring techniques, but we will know sooner that two students completed the task at mastery level ten minutes prior to the rest of the class. If we wait, say, the first five weeks of a school quarter that it will take before we can roll out intervention programs, we are leaving our students who have already mastered the tasks at hand in the lurch. Hence the need for my “inverted” support model: you hit the ground running with several enrichment activities in place, and later overlay intervention programs parallel to them. We have an opportunity to change the order of operations.

Anybody can patiently tolerate a first lesson, maybe even the first whole week of school. Using this plan, however, starting week two, time already must be carved out to gather students into groupings, according to level of mastery. Teachers can already be aligned to provide services. Using the above kindergarten example again, if there are four kindergartens in a particular elementary school, probability would reveal similar numbers in each of the four classes: a handful master the task immediately, a handful do not, and two handfuls do the task acceptably enough, but can use more practice. Although the support activity needs to be flexible, fluid and changeable for each “standard” attempted, I would, in this case, have one teacher take the mastery level students, have one take the struggling students, and have the two other teachers divide the remaining students into a coloring-within-the-lines workshop, and a life-like coloring workshop.

For the students at mastery level, even five-year-olds, I would start by asking them to brainstorm what they would like to do, and vote on activities that can be done within an elementary school classroom. The students would be working independently, unless they specifically requested the teacher to teach them something, or help them with something. Students might ask to read books, they might ask to draw, they may ask to dance, sing, play or even create games. All of this would be acceptable use of instructional time. The types of activities they choose ultimately assists the teacher in establishing a framework for what other students may enjoy doing as well, as determined by peers, not adults twenty or more years older. This is an early elementary school example, but I have given detailed accounts in earlier articles in the column of how it works at the middle school level.

Many teachers think the students they receive on their rosters for the year are “their” students for the year. We must instead get our heads around the idea that ALL students at a school are ours to share together, as a learning community. Some think that enrichment activities are an unstructured waste of time. Some will also argue that separating students into enrichment and intervention groups causes a culture of “haves and have nots.” To this I say, that may indeed be inevitable in a pluralistic, democratic society. There have been societies in history, like China during the Cultural Revolution, to name one, where they attempted to minimize differences by eradicating tradition, culture and art, in favor of a society where everyone contributed in an equal way, with allegiance to the country, instead of to the pursuit of excellence.

To those who might complain, “why do only the smart kids get to do the fun stuff?” This is a misnomer. Kids who have already mastered the material deserve the right to move on to something else. Depending on the outcomes of each subsequent lesson taught, participants in standards-based groupings may vary, and opportunities for any student to join the enrichment activities will exist. The activities can and do become incentives to do better, motivating factors to complete work, inspiration for the emotionally blocked to break out of their funk and participate.

I know my ideas work; I have tons of successful anecdotes to show for it, and not enough time in this one essay, although I have written many times before on this subject. I also know many excellent educators who think the way I do, and have tried some of these ideas out already, whether they were mine, or their own, or those of administration, or consultants. I realize how fortunate I am to have been able to try out so many of my ideas, and get to see them bear fruit. Still, nothing’s ever 100% perfect when you are dealing with human beings, from our students to teachers, administrators, non-teaching staff, counselors, parents, and our government – ALL of whom must get into the act. It will always be a work in progress, but this is the beauty of education, an art very different from a widget-driven business world.

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