The Ultimate Challenge

I just read a fantastic article by the great Chester Finn in Education Next. Having worked in a traditional public school and a charter, with low-income and middle-income students, downtown and in the suburbs, I feel like I have a gotten a more diverse experience in my four years than most teachers.

However, I think almost every teacher can speak to the issue of whether or not our young students, especially our minority and low-income students, are being challenged enough. The answer is a resounding no.

During my first three years in the classroom, I taught Language Arts in the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme. Most people are familiar with the Diploma Programme, which students participate in during their last two years of high school. IB is recognized worldwide for its academic rigor; parents and teachers love IB because it builds character, fosters a love of learning, and teaches students to respect all people and cultures.

While the majority of our school’s population was far below grade level in reading, math, and science, the cohorts of IB students were generally proficient and many were far above grade level. This made my job difficult. Teachers of standard or mixed level classes often complain that teaching advanced or gifted kids would be “so much easier.”  As far as classroom management goes, it is much easier. But when it comes to your students making learning gains, it seems an almost impossible task.

As an English instructor, how much can I teach a sixth grader who reads Frankenstein for fun and is co-writing a 200 page novel with her best friend? Of course I can go deeper into literary criticism, and there’s always more vocabulary to learn, but this is time-consuming for a teacher with 28 other kids in the class. I had fun finding creative ways to push these students academically, but it was difficult to give them the level of one-on-one instruction they deserved.

Our school leadership team understood this dilemma, and created a lab for students to receive high school level instruction through Florida Virtual School. Out of approximately 800 kids enrolled in the school, we had around 15 7th and 8th grade students participate in English I that year. Not only were the kids accessing high school content and receiving high school credit, they were given more responsibility and independence than their peers. Other students, many of whom had been held back previously, were enrolled in elective courses like Driver’s Ed. to help get them caught up when they moved into high school.

Sadly, all FLVS online programs were shut down when a new school leadership team moved in this past year. Those seventh graders who should have been taking English II were placed in regular 8th grade Language Arts classes with little to no differentiation. The school was smart enough to keep the Algebra I and Geometry classes going, but only because they had teachers on campus who could teach them. If it wasn’t for the advanced math courses, those kids would have had zero opportunities for growth.

One of those bright 7th graders, we’ll call him Johnny, told our instructional coach that he wanted to be a brain surgeon. This was back when he was in fifth grade, just visiting our middle school. The kid knew more about electrical impulses and brain waves than I ever will (are brain waves even a thing??) Sure, lots of kids say they want to be a doctor, lawyer, or president…but Johnny actually could be a brain surgeon…IF he is placed with teachers and a school that recognize his potential.

Johnny and his class will graduate high school in 2016 and college in 2020. I hope that when I get in touch with him then, he is adequately prepared to do whatever it is his heart desires. And secretly, I hope that he’s too busy preparing for medical school to talk to me. :)

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