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How to Make School a Better Place for Struggling Learners

by Sarah K Major February 03, 2016

How to Make School a Better Place for Struggling Learners

I read a couple of articles this morning, one from Ed.magazine, the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School o Education, and the other from NPR. The central topics had to do with how to go about improving teaching in our schools. The Ed.magazine article focused on improving the quality of walk-throughs (visits to classrooms by supervisory people) by improving the definition of what they are looking for as they observe. The article from NPR focused on the quality of teaching college programs. Here is an excerpt from that article entitled What Should Go Into A Teaching Degree? by Claudio Sanchez:

“Christenbury [professor at VA Commonwealth U] knows all too well that some education professors are clueless about kids and just about everything else that happens in classrooms these days. She once taught at a university in another state where students were baffled that some of their professors had never set foot in a school.

It's that disconnect that makes Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, want to blow up some colleges of education and start over. "Education schools have, in many cases, become irrelevant and often of very low quality," Levine says. Levine has spent the past five years studying what he calls the "crisis" in the preparation of classroom teachers.

"The curriculum at schools of education has little to do with practice, what goes on in schools," says Levine. "There's a gap that's a mile wide. Senior professors don't participate in schools. There are universities around this country that place their students for student-teaching in failing schools with failing teachers. That's a major problem."

Camille Zombro, president of San Diego's teachers union, says she's surveyed teachers and found that it doesn't matter how good their training was. Many are still underprepared and overwhelmed. "I was stunned by the amount of paper-pushing, mind-numbing, meeting someone else's requirements," Zombro says. "That's what's pushing people out the door. It's not the kids — it's the frustration. Fifty percent of teachers are turning over within the first five years. I mean, yikes!"

Trying to make it better

We are all trying to make education better for our children. Funds are allocated for various special needs, new programs are launched, new approaches to teaching mandated and scripted for us, new textbooks to replace the ones that were the newest and best just two years ago, more and more paperwork and meetings required of teachers, SO much testing, so much required “planning” written and displayed for the frequent walk-throughs, and the list goes on and on. Announcements come on the classroom TV, intercoms buzz with questions from the office, special needs personnel tap on the door with questions, children are pulled out mid-lesson for sessions with other staff members…. Truly, when I taught in the classroom it was exceedingly difficult to have the presence of mind to do much more than get through the day.

Considering how interrupted my days became and how full of extraneous demands from above that were supposed to raise our failing school out of the ditch it had fallen into, the truth is that the “good stuff” with my children happened in small handfuls of minutes squeezed in here and there. I have had occasion to look back and really scrutinize all that went on, to honestly pinpoint exactly what helped my children learn.

Where should our focus be?

The critical question here is: “How are we going to determine where the problem lies?” In my opinion, the problem of poor education in our country is never going to get fixed no matter how much money is thrown at it, no matter how many new programs are initiated – unless we first stop to figure out exactly and in precise detail where the problem really lies. Where are we really failing? If we don’t identify this exact spot, nothing will improve.

In my opinion, the exact spot for focus was hinted at in the first paragraph I quoted above. “…some education professors are clueless about kids…” The article from Harvard also hinted at where focus should be but I had to really read between the lines. They were saying that supervisors are not in agreement about what they are looking for. Many focus on the performance of the teacher. They are warm but not hot; they have not hit the spot right on.

It is my belief, and the belief that fuels us at Child1st Publications, that the very specific target we should focus on is the child. If we do not look at the child first, we will not have the wisdom to know how to remedy education in America.

What is in a look?

There was a specific time in my life I can point to when my attention turned to the child and I see that time as pivotal in my life. I was sitting on the floor with some preschoolers and it suddenly struck me. Why are these particular children having trouble remembering what we are “learning?” I intuited that they were bright children, smart, capable, confident – but they were not learning.

From that moment on, everything I did, read, wrote, observed, and studied was motivated by my need to answer that question. I became a passionate observer of children and the more I tried to get inside their heads, the more clearly I could see what was working, what was NOT working, and what in my teaching was so much unnecessary clutter. Like any other skill we develop, the more we practice, the better we get at it. And so it was. Because I was convinced that children CAN learn and that even failing kids are smart, the onus passed from the failing kids to rest squarely on ME as their teacher. I realized that if any one of my kids failed, it was on me to find something that would jive with their brains.

It was not quick

The process of studying children was not quick. It was very long, laborious, intensive, but also thrilling, amazing, rewarding beyond belief, and life changing. It all comes down to what we focus on. PhD’s all too often spend their time exchanging brilliant deductions and studies within their rarified world. Studies are conducted, articles written, new initiatives launched. Papers are published, books written, and you know what? Kids are still failing. Nothing is getting better! Dare I suggest that maybe the focus is misplaced?

In my experience, my own best learning happened on the floor at eye level with kids I viewed as the fount of all my information. Instead of asking my profs all the questions, I asked the kids most of my questions. “How did you remember that?” was one of the most frequent questions I asked as I was learning. If I tried a little strategy with a child, I would ask him, “Did this help you understand?” My grades were assigned by the kids themselves in that when I saw the lights go on, I gave myself an A. I followed their lead. I did what worked for them, and stopped doing what seemed to yield little or no benefit.

Raising the bar

The most exciting outcome of these years spent with my eyes three feet off the ground is that I have seen scores of children go from failing to way above grade level expectation. That is what happens when we get it right. When we teach in a way that we have learned from our kids, miracles happen. Rather than cutting the spelling list in half for failing kids, teach spelling a new way and increase the list by 50%. Then raise the expectation to 100% accuracy. Does this sound outrageous? It truly is not. In my little Title 1 room, I saw upwards of 70 kids every week, 2-3 times a week, grades K through 7. This approach worked across the board. Reading scores soared.

Best of all is that the cure is not rocket science. The remedy does not lie in intricate, carefully scripted new programs. As a teacher in schools, I became incredibly stressed each time administration announced a new program we had to train for. It seemed so sad to me that we had yet another program to spend time learning. I just wanted someone to say to the staff, “Take the time to study your children first.”





Sarah K Major
Sarah K Major

Author

Sarah's absolute belief in every child’s ability to learn, and her passion to empower the child by supporting his/her own unique giftedness have fueled her life’s work and provided a new pathway for children to succeed academically.


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