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"This is the most exciting day of my life...and I was pulled on stage once to dance at a Bruce Springsteen concert."
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Monday, February 20, 2006

Dark Sarcasm In The Classroom: Part Three

Sharpen those pencils everybody because it's week three in my ongoing assessment of underlying problems in education. You can read the first and second installment here and here. Today's topic will be the all important aspect of Grouping/Placement. This week's post is of particular importance to me because I believe this is the biggest challenge I currently face in the day to day education of my students.

Last week I told you all about how so many of my students have been pegged as low motivators, behavior problems, or both. I also told you how I had the largest ratio of this population for the third grade in my classroom.

If I were you, my next question might be, How can this happen? How do all of these children end up in the same room? Of course, I wouldn't put the question out there without being prepared to answer it.

In my school this year, there are six, third grade classrooms. One of these classes is bilingual. Two others are Gifted and Talented (or G&T) while the other three are regular ed. My class is included in the latter.

Like I have stated in the past, I teach in an Abbott district. So the cream of the crop in my school would be the kids who are average in a wealthy surburban district. Still, with this knowledge, my principal insists on having TWO classes of Gifted & Talented students in both third and fourth grade. To me it's more than coincidence that the severe behavior problems and lack of motivation also start in these grades.

That is not to say that kindergarten, first and second are without their share of low motivators and behavior problems because they are not. But those problems are equally dispersed amongst ALL of the classrooms, making one or two lower kids seem much more manageable than nine or ten.

At the end of second grade, however, the teachers have to sit down and make recommendations for children in their class who would be best suited for the G&T program. Most of the time this includes kids who get concepts a little more quickly than the rest, but sometimes it's just the kids who are trying their hardest that fill out the rest. Yes in my school, G&T doesn't necessarily mean Gifted & Talented. Sometimes it just means Good & Tame.

Case in point, G&T "pullout" programs we have for specials such as music or gym. You will never see a talented singer who is ALSO a behavior problem in one of these programs. It is always the students who are well behaved. Any actual talent is a pleasant surprise, not a necessary prerequisite.

When all is said and done, you have half or nearly half of the population getting placed in a G&T room. Even in the wealthiest of districts this is an insane percentage.

Anyone who has been in education for any amount of time now knows that there has been a strong pull for heterogeneous groupings in classrooms across the country. Heterogeneous groupings make it much easier when conducting group work, partnered activities or even a whole classroom discussion. This is because there are children who are getting it and there are children who are not sitting side by side. The children who are getting it have the opportunity to help their peers and their self esteem, while the children who aren't getting it, can look to someone their own age, or even extra attention from the teacher, for guidance.

Only problem is when you take a lower performing group and then pullout the majority of kids with any promise, who is left over to pick up the slack? In my room heterogeneous grouping is next to impossible because they are all the same. In fact, I'd be willing to be that at least half of my students, if placed in another district, would be classified as special education.

On any given day, I have under 5, what I would call "go to kids". These are the kids who usually get it. They are my informal measuring stick of how to assess if a lesson is on target or not. Most of the time, 75% of my students don't get, can't apply or won't care about what is taught. But if those "under 5er's don't get it" then I know the lesson itself needs to be reassessed. If they do get it, I know that as sad as it sounds, I probably have done the job to the best of my ability.

Having everyone be on the same level of lowness also breeds a whole other set of problems. In any heterogeneous classroom, there will always be students who get concepts easier than the rest. When this happens it is easy to pull out the five or so who don't get it and try to work with them one on one. But when the low group is the majority, you can't possibly provide individualized attention. Not to mention most of these students are already getting extra help via a mandatory afterschool program four days a week and optional morning tutoring for an hour before school. Recently I've even gone as far as to offering extra assistance to the students who need it during my lunch one time a week. I would love to offer more, but I have so much work to do and no time or help to get it done, it is next to impossible.

This is when having extra help in the classroom is a HUGE asset. That is of course, if you have it, which I do not. Right now I have one teacher who comes in for one 45 minute period to work on SSR or Self Selected Reading with my students. This is not really an instructional time, but more of a time we use to conference with the students individually about what they are reading. I also have another teacher coming in for 45 minutes but just for the next few weeks in part of the efforts to boost low morale and underachievement, like I was talking about in previous installments. Other than that there was no extra help assigned to my room this year.

Now that in itself wouldn't be as big of a deal if there was no extra help in the school. If the money or help isn't there, it isn't there. However the problem is IT IS. We DO have paraprofessionals working in our school district, however the paraprofessionals on the third and fourth grade levels are, are you ready for this, PLACED IN THE GIFTED AND TALENTED CLASSROOMS.

Now I don't know about where you come from, but I'm a firm believer that if a child is in a G&T classroom chances are that is because they don't need that much extra help. They are pretty self sufficient learners. So why, place extra help with them while the other students (and teachers) are so obviously drowning?!

Although my principal hasn't come right out and said so my theory is this. She knows that the population we teach is overwhelmed with low achievers, so she is taking all of her resources and banking on the 48% or so percent of kids who at least have a chance of succeeding. So what message does that send to the rest of the kids?

No mater what you think, never underestimate the intuitiveness of a child. My students might be lower, but they are most certainly not stupid. They see the division in the classrooms. They know who is considered "smart" and who is not. And it only gets worse when they go from third to fourth grade. Why? Because I will be forced to take those "under 5er's" I was talking about earlier and recommend them for G&T for the following year. So by the time these students get to fourth grade, they have been picked over not just once, but twice. This is why the general ed population in fourth grade this year is literally, hanging by a very delicate thread.

The bottom line is no matter what group you have we all the same job to do- to teach these kids to the best of our abilities. All of these kids will be assessed by the same standards and the same tests. Factors such as placement and background are not taken into consideration when they look at the scores of tests like the NJ ASK. As a result, all of these teachers are blindly misguidedly assessed as well.

I know most of the time my students cannot, will not or won't want to get assessments such as these, but I don't decide what they need to know when. I am just the person who was hired to try to get them to where they should be. I also know my students well enough now to know to differentiate between who can't get it even if they are trying or who won't get it because they don't care.

For the most part, the staff at my school has remained quiet about this problem. It was like the elephant in the room that no one ever talked about. However this year the feeling is that the division is becoming too big to ignore. So teachers started bringing this to the attention of our principal who is still in large part, in denial, that the split is as off balance as it is.

As a group who is dealing with a very stubborn administrator we have come up with what we feel are, at the very least, reasonable compromises. For one thing, we have suggested that next year she consider creating one G&T classroom, not two. This way we have more of the kids who get it dispersed with the regular ed population and thus acting as good role models. This also allows the G&T class to be a truer representation of what G&T means. As of now, she is refusing to consider this.

Another alternative was that the G&T program itself be pullout. This way the children who get things more would leave the classroom for core subjects such as reading and math working with a G&T teacher. Then you would have half of your class, the struggling half, to work with more closely in small group instruction. This is another alternative that she will not go for.

The only compromise we have gotten her to cop to so far is giving the general ed teachers more assistance during the day. So for half a day now I sometimes have a paraprofessional who comes in my room. I share her though with another general education teacher in third grade. The paraprofessional in G&T in third grade remains firmly planted as is. I share the para with the third grade teacher who has resource kids, again the group that needs it the most.

If you made it this far, I hope you swing by next week for the final installment in Dark Sarcasm In The Classroom where I'll talk about one more important piece, parental involvement and culture.



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