Sunday, March 29, 2009

Differentiated instruction vs. tracking

Mayo Writes:
A conversation at lunch in 318 on Friday got me thinking. I need to clarify a few things in my mind, and perhaps others could help me in my thinking. Usually tracking is something that keeps kids locked in place for their entire academic experience. Those of us that went to school in NYC remember there was the top class, the bottom class, the middle class—and I, for one, know I had the same kids in my class from 1st grade to 5th grade. Same in tracked high schools—you’re in honors, AP, or regents track. There isn’t much movement among the tracks.

When we all first started to work in this untracked school, we worked under the premise that mixed ability meant we grouped kids by putting one of the top level kids, one of the lower level kids, and two in the middle (or some such combination). And sometimes, for some work, that is a good way to group. And other times it is not. And we’ve all felt the frustration of trying to challenge the higher achievers while still meeting the needs of the struggling students, and trying not to forget the middle. Like everything else, there are arguments for and against tracking. I think the arguments against are stronger because mixed ability classrooms give us the flexibility to take advantage of what both tracked and untracked classes offer.

When we talked about classroom structures like Literature Circles, people started questioning whether that isn’t a form of tracking. The funny thing is that I feel like some of the people that are questioning that are people that might actually favor tracking. It’s like a whole language vs. phonics argument—it’s not an either or. Mixed ability classes allow us to vary the way we structure groups according to our goals. Virtually, it’s an easy way to accomplish differentiated instruction AND allow for movement. So the kid in Dana’s class that’s reading Roll of Thunder rather than To Kill a Mockingbird might progress to the more difficult book in the next round of reading. But let’s be honest…the kid that can’t read To Kill A Mockingbird isn’t getting anything out of that book so why put it in his hands other than to reinforce the idea that reading is not for him? How many of us have read Cliff Notes (those of us too old for Spark Notes), gotten by on a test by taking notes during class discussion based on what the teacher thought was important in the text, cheated?

As we are starting to assess our 9th graders, we are finding that even our strongest students are reading below grade level. And that affects their ability to succeed in other content areas. It’s a bit scary, but also a bit of a relief to admit that same old, same old isn’t going to work. Is it going to be easy? Hell no! The best line so far has been one from Mike Lieber when Jamie asked what he thought of literature circles. Mike, in his inimitable way, said “it sounds like an awful lot of work.” And it is. Like any good student-centered work—a lot of work ahead of time in setting up the structure, and then an easier type of facilitating groups, listening in, pushing them with deeper questions, taking notes, asking kids that are doing well to model what works.

I’m reading a book by Nancie Atwell called The Reading Zone. In it, Atwell talks about kids that were avid readers in middle school and how they lost their love of reading. Some of us have kids that this is true of, some of us may have been kids like this. Atwell asks high school teachers to re-consider how they teach English, to think about what will make a true difference in the intellectual lives of their students. I think putting books in their hands that they can comprehend is one way to help them become better readers and have a love for reading. I will never forget the first time I attended an Open School Night at my own child’s school. Parents were asked to complete an interest inventory. Do you know how many were stumped when they were asked to name their favorite book? Do you know how many relied on answers like Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby because they hadn’t read a book since they were assigned the classics in high school? Isn’t our goal to have some of what we do carry over into their adult lives?

This is not to say that we will never do a whole class text. It’s just to say that if we want school to be more authentic we need to look at life. I’m in a book club with people that like the same type of books that I do. I don’t see the harm in providing that opportunity, that choice for our students. We can teach them what they “need” to know about literature through whatever they’re reading. It doesn’t need to be taken from the Uniform Lists, published in 1894, that teachers in NYC were already resisting in 1911 after they were persuaded that the differences in their diverse students should be valued over uniform requirements.

And this isn’t only about English. It just may be easier than it is in a content driven area. However, I think moving between groups of mixed abilities and groups of similar abilities can work to the advantage of the students in front of us.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

In a Part of Queens With Crowded Schools, Opposition to a New One

In a Queens school district that is one of New York City’s most overcrowded, a plan to replace an old restaurant supply store with a gleaming $70 million high school for 1,100 students might seem irresistible.

Not so fast.

The proposal has instead become a flashpoint of contention over how public school enrollment should be determined, and if a compromise is not reached before a critical City Council vote that is expected later this month, it may be scuttled.

Residents of one neighborhood in the district, Maspeth, a blue-collar area with a small-town feel in western Queens, have long lamented the lack of a high school there, and they want to give local children a leg up in getting into the new school. But that aspiration runs counter to a central tenet of the Bloomberg administration’s education philosophy: that giving certain students an advantage threatens to further splinter the sprawling system by class, leaving families lacking savvy and resources to attend some of the worst schools.
“We always try to respond to residents, but not to go counter to our beliefs,” said Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott, who oversees education and community development. “We don’t want students blocked out, which can lead to a have and have-not type of society. We want to build an inclusive society.”

Seven years after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took control of the city’s schools, the feud in Maspeth reveals the sometimes prickly neighborhood realities that education officials still face as they try to centralize admissions to give all 1.1 million students access to the best the system has to offer.

Already, the city has agreed to give preference in admissions to students living in three of the seven Queens districts. But it has refused requests from Maspeth community leaders, including City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, to give first choice to students now attending five specific schools.