How well do we know our learners? What can they teach us?
I moved house recently. Repacking boxes (especially some not touched for the years I’ve been in Thailand) has surfaced some interesting memories.
I found a class photo from my first year of teaching. The beginning of a long and fabulous journey, a career I wouldn’t change for anything.
The class was the middle streamed (that’s another blog post on it’s own!!) Year 6 group, and an ‘interesting’ bunch. I loved them and they have all indelibly marked my career.
There, among the gorgeous, energetic group (that apparently no-one else wanted!), stood Andrew (not his real name); tall, years older than the others, and staring intently into the camera.
His gaze triggered off many memories. One of the first things I was told, after being shown into the classroom next door to the principal’s office, ‘Because most new teachers can’t cut it here’, was that I’d need to send Andrew to the Special Ed teacher every day. Curious, I was told he couldn’t and probably wouldn’t read. He’d been held back once already and this was the last attempt to ‘fix him’.
Andrew was a fish out of water in that group; older, serious, intense, worried (who’d be surprised about that?) and unable to meet any of the literacy demands of the classroom.
Dutifully I sent him off to Special Ed every day, even when he told me it wasn’t doing much good. I coordinated with the teacher, tried to support him to learn the material covered out of class and worked on finding out more about him. My curiosity was well and truly peaked.
The crux of the story comes, a couple of months into the year, when he arrived one day toting a huge manual. He waited patiently until I had a moment and asked if I’d help him with a problem he was having with it. I was fascinated to see that it was a wheel chair manual. Turns out that his sister was wheel chair bound, his parents couldn’t read or write, repairs were expensive, and he was trying to fix the broken wheelchair but having difficulties with the manual. Apparently his wheel chair repairs usually went really well, he could just ‘get it’ from the book, but this time there was an idea he couldn’t understand in the manual.
Despite a madly racing mind, I calmly asked what word, and together we deciphered the intention of the complex sentence that had stumped him. It was obvious that Andrew was extracting a great deal of information from the book. How that was possible, when he seemed unable to read at school, was a puzzle.
We had a talk about what he was doing with the manual, and Andrew described it as ‘just getting it’.
He was stunned when I described it as ‘reading’.
Somehow, over 8 years of schooling, teachers working intensely to support him, had missed the skills he did have, and had impressed upon him the importance of phonics and decoding in the process of learning to read, such that he was convinced that he was a non-reader and that reading was something mysterious and beyond him.
That he was actually able to read, just unable to learn phonics, was a revelation.
We went on to tackle his spelling (an absolute tangled nightmare of splintered skills) and built strategies for working out what unknown words meant in texts, especially as he couldn’t access decoding strategies. By the end of the year, he was confidently reading age appropriate texts, but spelling continued to elude him. He was no longer eligible for Special Ed support, and had greater confidence in his own abilities.
What do I attribute to connecting with and being able to support Andrew?
I think it was a deep seated belief that I needed to understand each and every one of the young people in my care. Not just their standardised test scores and academic skills, but their interests, motivations, passions, fears, dreams and learning dispositions. I needed to be able to connect the curriculum to their lives and to modify it to include their needs and interests. This was the beginning of my focus on individual students; differentiation strategies, student involvement in, and then initiation of learning and student voice opportunities.
Initially, I had an intuitive understanding of the power of knowing students well; but as I undertook further study, talked with my colleagues and took feedback from students, I gradually built my toolkit, confidence and capacity, honing the ability to connect and build.
A conversation that I had a few years later, with a Year 1 teacher (Jane), added greater clarity about the benefits of understanding students’ misconceptions. By this stage I was an advisory teacher and had been working with Jane for some weeks, aiming to help her understand the challenges many of her students were having in getting started with reading.
Jane had finally worked out why one of her students wasn’t reading. He was trying to read the ‘white around the words’. Jane said the ah ha moment came when she questioned the student about how the word ‘looked’ to him. His response, ‘big’, triggered off a series of inquiries and finally it dawned on her that all the tracing and sand drawing activities hadn’t reinforced the need to attend to the lines. Amazing progress was made when attention was explicitly redirected there!
This was one of many situations I’ve encountered during my career, each reinforcing my belief in the utmost importance of knowing our learners and using that information to shape the classroom learning environment and curriculum.
Not only do we need to know our learners, we need to allow them to teach us. Allowing reciprocity in our teaching, magnifies its power. My own son, and the many students I’ve come into contact with, have opened my eyes to endless learning experiences.
I learned an enormous amount from my ‘first’, Andrew, and that set me on the path of continuously refining my beliefs about education.
Andrew was the first source of my absolute aversion to deficit thinking. He was SO much more than the sum of his challenges. Committed to supporting his parents, adoring brother and enthusiastic environmentalist. He was a loyal class mate, standing up for his younger peers and offering cogent advice about many of life’s difficult moments. He was a young man to be proud of, sure, his spelling was a disaster, but that was a small issue in the context of his life, his experience of schooling to date and the amazing maturity and innate common sense and wisdom he had to offer to the world.
Jane’s student opened my eyes to the assumptions we can bring to our teaching, and the traps laid for unwary teachers. Misconceptions, attitudes, disposition, skills, interests, passions sit alongside achievement and need to be understood if we are to successfully facilitate learning.
I am immensely grateful to the Andrews of my life. I have learnt enormous amounts from them all, and am a better educator and person as a result of having had them in my life.