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I think teachers can often fall into the trap of teaching content instead of children. Howard Gardner says, “When students cannot learn the way we teach them, we must teach them the way they learn.” That’s a powerful statement. But even if we know, in theory, that differentiating our instruction to match the needs of each student is an important key to success, it’s still challenging in practice.
Many of us have the attitude that “we will put the information out there, and if they don’t get it, it’s on them.” We tend to be resistant to the whole idea of differentiation. I believe it starts with the teacher’s attitude and expectations. We’ve got to be willing to entertain the idea that not all students will learn the same way or at the same rate, nor will every student respond every time. We’ve got to be willing to keep trying to reach every student.
One incident in my personal history springs to mind. I was teaching 12th grade English that year, a curriculum mostly centered on writing and British literature. I was certainly not the paragon of teaching excellence I am today (insert smile here), and I was struggling to find ways to make the content interesting.
Though Jeremy was classified as gifted, he slept in class every day. He’d come to class, stay awake for about 15 minutes, and then down he’d go on the desktop. It didn’t matter what I did. Since British literature can be a little dry, I really tried to spice up that class. I used lots of cooperative learning, visuals, and let the students have lots of choices. Jeremy didn’t care. During his standard 15 minutes of awake time, he’d stare into space, grunt when spoken to, and cultivate a general look of disdain. I began to get really frustrated because I couldn’t pique Jeremy’s interest. I even began to harbor a little resentment toward him for not liking my class.
I was thinking, “OK Jeremy, if you want to fail my class, FINE. I’ve tried everything.” As time went on, I sort of gave up. I just started to ignore Jeremy. I didn’t ask him questions, or even make eye contact with him most of the time. I didn’t expect anything from him, except snoring and an occasional puddle of drool left on his desk.
It was quite by accident that I came to realize that Jeremy was capable of much more than I had given him credit for. During my planning period one day, I went downstairs to the TV broadcasting classroom to edit some film. I was in charge of homecoming, and each year I took the footage from homecoming week activities and put together a montage with music for our school TV station to broadcast during homeroom.
Several students were working on an assignment while I sat in the corner at the editing machine. I was focused on editing and not paying much attention at first, but then I heard a voice I recognized. I looked up and saw Jeremy, not only awake and standing upright, but teaching his classmates.
He was moving about in an animated fashion while explaining how to film a fight sequence. My first thought was that Jeremy must have a twin brother! I sat there staring with my mouth agape, struggling to reconcile the Jeremy I knew with this stranger. Suddenly he realized I was sitting in the corner by the editing machine.
When our eyes met, he said, “Mrs. Duff?”
And I said, “Jeremy?”
He asked with surprise, “You know how to edit video?”
I almost said, “You’re walking upright?” but then I caught myself. “Yes, Mrs. Bernard taught me. You really seem to know your way around that camera. I had no idea you were a videographer!”
He beamed with pride and proceeded to explain the project his group was working on. It was clear he had earned the respect of his classmates. And it was also suddenly clear that I had not really made an effort to know Jeremy at all.
What happened after that day was nothing short of amazing. When Jeremy came to class the next day, he not only stayed awake, but he completed his work, and even participated in the class discussion. In fact, from that day on, he was totally different. He volunteered to film some projects we were doing in class, and even completed one himself. He ended up passing my class with a B.
What happened? When Jeremy encountered me in a situation other than English class, it changed his perspective of me. He realized that I wasn’t just some weird lady trying to force him to learn British poetry. Equally important, my perspective about him was altered. He wasn’t just the kid who slept in my class.
I’m not proud of the fact that I didn’t make a better effort to know Jeremy long before this incident. He was just desk two in row three of my second-period class. It was easier just to see him that way. I told myself I had tried everything, but I had not stepped outside of my little English-class world at all.
When I think about what caused me to underestimate Jeremy, I see that it is related at least in part to my own school experiences. You see, I’m a “teacher pleaser” from way back. Since I saw teachers as magical beings, I can get offended when my students don’t perceive me that way—especially when I’ve tried so hard to make the subject matter interesting for them.
I did learn from that fortunate accident. Now I make a great effort to cause more of these “accidents” to happen. I try harder to discover the many facets of my students. And I am happy to report that Jeremy now works for a television station in Tennessee.
In the end, it’s all about attitude. It may be a teaching strategy, a timely smile, or a fortunate accident. But if we’re determined to reach our kids, we’ll eventually find a way.