Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Why change anything if we're doing well?

During our Marratech session, the observation was made, “If 50% of New York City students are dropping out, something’s not working.” The problem for most of the rest of us though, is that we are shielded from the worst consequences of such outcomes because we work in districts where such numbers are safely far enough away from our outcomes. That reduces the pressure to try something new, anything, in order to address those devastating outcomes. As long as our students score in the 90th percentile, who will ask if anything better can be done? What’s missing is a sense of comparison, that if we only measure our students against each other, then a general consensus of failure will insulate us, which is what I think is happening.
Many times in my classroom-teacher past, I have performed miraculous demonstrations of incredibly complex concepts, leapt across great chasms of misunderstanding, and landed on the opposite cliffs of understanding,* only to look back and see the empty looks of students who didn’t get it. At that point, I could of course resort to blaming the students, since my own performance as a teacher was beyond reproach, but one thing kept nagging me: The sense even as I was performing that this wasn’t going to work, no matter how great I performed Why? In simplest terms, because you can’t tell everybody everything, you can’t tell everything to somebody, and you can’t tell some things to everybody. I knew that something else needed to be tried. Luckily for me, those reflections came while teaching in East Harlem, where I was not shielded from the knowledge that many of our students weren’t making it, even out of 6th grade.
At about this same time, I had experience while working in various international banks with tools called computers, which I knew had the potential to help with some parts of the teaching and learning in my classroom. So I started emptying out the closets filled with Apples and Macs and set them up in my classroom and began the imperfect, still-under-way transition from non-differentiated instruction, sage-on-a-stage, single modality of my first classrooms toward a vision of differentiated instruction and activities, and a place where students were valued as having their own knowledge, understandings and abilities that could be valued and could contribute to the success of my classrooms.
My current work mostly in the computer lab of Center Street School seems to be all over the “Paradigm Map,” depending on the class, circumstances and goals. Some days the students search for information themselves, create their own content, questions and solutions to problems. Other times the instruction is more directed, the goals more modest. But compared to my earlier forays, this at least most times has the feel of being real, of connecting to the needs of my students and eliminating the blank stares so often encountered in my classroom teaching days.

*(Tongue planted firmly in cheek here)