What separates teachers who advocate for their students from those who do not?

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We become advocates, then, against placing students based on IQ or single-placement tests. We know some of them learn at a higher level but not always for reasons related to intelligence. While we support advanced-level courses for those who have learned the prerequisites, we cannot deny equal opportunities to others. We will remind our colleagues that less capable students and athletes can (and do) outperform their talented counterparts. We will also remind them of the crucial role of teachers and coaches. Ask any successful coach why good teams thrive with players of mixed abilities. The research also shows that mixed-ability classes are beneficial for all learners. And, as Richard Lavoie points, out regular students always benefit from being in inclusion classes.

Janice, a participant in one of my workshops, recounted an instance in her graduate class when she had forgotten to put her name on a paper. When the professor asked two of his best students if the “A” paper belonged to one of them, his jaw dropped when he saw it was hers. She realized not only that he had assumed she was probably incapable of such a paper but also how badly this made her feel—and, more importantly, she recognized how she and her colleagues assumed, as did her professor, that some of their students were less capable.

Other times, labeling creates tragedies. In one instance, an elementary special education teacher assigned her students reading books, which they enjoyed. After several weeks, however, the supervising teacher discovered that she had given them “advanced” books by mistake and immediately replaced them with “more appropriate” materials. This incident reminded me of an episode of The Simpsons in which Bart was placed in a remedial class and wondered how working slower would help him catch up to the other kids.

One more example: I overheard Jessica, a ninth-grade history teacher, say in a loud voice to her colleagues after a workshop, “I don’t know if I could teach this concept to my ‘lower-level’ kids.” No one challenged her assumption and instead nodded in agreement. I was struck by the finality of her statement and how unaware she and her colleagues were of the implications of what she had said. They all believed her “top” classes would be able to discuss and debate while her “lower” classes could not. How sad.

Such comments recall Jerome Bruner’s famous declaration, “We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.” Few disagree with Bruner when they take time to think about it, yet teachers and schools largely ignore it. What if, instead, we took Bruner’s words to heart and used them as a mantra, as Tom Vreeland, a volunteer tutor who had unwavering optimism about students’ potential to learn, did when tutoring students who twice had failed to pass the Massachusetts high-stakes test.

Do you believe Bruner?

For more on seeing students at they are, See Chapter 11: Abolish Tracking in Teaching from the Middle of the Room: Inviting students to Learn from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Teaching-Middle-Room-Frank-Thoms/dp/0615358918.

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