As awful as this sounds, I’d be lying if I said that moments of teacherly satisfaction were a regular experience for me.
Until recently, I’d been teaching a multi-level class of grades 3, 4, 5 and 6 – the entire primary English sector. As one might imagine, this is a near-impossible grade combination, and, as far as I know, I’m the only teacher in all of Nunavik to have such an assignment.
My class is small, comprised of a whopping 9 students. However, consisting primarily of boys aged 8 to 13, it’s by no means un-energetic.
Further, with complex behavioural issues exacerbated by a lack of much-needed supports (student assessments, special education, teacher’s assistants and other such services that are either hard to come by or entirely nonexistent in the north), I’d spent the better part of the past 4 months struggling to find a way to merely make my classroom function. And I’ve encountered many a frustration – to be honest, I’ve often left the school at the end of the day quite perplexed as to what it was, exactly, I was doing.
For the longest time, my goal for the end of the day was for everyone to leave the class unscathed and smiling, as well as, I hoped, having learned at least a little something new (no matter how minuscule). I took each day “one at a time”. I prayed constantly for patience and compassion, as well as the humility to take nothing personally. And, I made a point to regularly “wipe the slate clean” for a new beginning – be it at the end of each period, after recess, after lunch, or at the end of the day. Don’t get me wrong – I do have a wonderful group of students (6 of whom I’d taught last year), and there has certainly been no shortage of effort on their behalf. This is just a challenging pedagogical circumstance, and it would be regardless of the teacher and students involved.
In any classroom – even in a single-level one – differentiation is essential. In any group of students of roughly the same age, any teacher knows that each is bound to work and gain understanding of content at a different rate. While some of the class will remain just the right amount of challenged, some will fly through with barely a sweat, while others will struggle to understand. Strong teaching, in part, entails accommodating this.
In a multi-level class, differentiation is the cornerstone to functionality.
Differentiation necessitates students’ ability to work, to some degree, independently. And problematic, in my situation, is the fact that this is something that my students, until now, haven’t really learned to do. In the south, the ability to work independently is mastered as early as in kindergarten. Here, in contrast, it’s something that I see unmastered, even at the secondary level. As far as I understand, this stems from a few reasons:
1. In a school such as the one I teach in, classes are small enough that much of the work can be accomplished together. For example, the students I currently have in grade 5 began their second language learning (in grade 3) together, and it was just the 4 of them. I only started teaching them last year (when they were in grade 4, but I knew that working independently is not something they were asked to do very often). In the south, on the other hand, classes larger than 30 students are possible, and the need for differentiation (and, thus, independence) is greatly increased, and the effectiveness of whole class group work decreased; and,
2. Much of the schoolboard-devised curricula in Nunavik encourage group work and cooperative learning, with very little emphasis on independence – be it in Math, English, Science or Social Studies. This, I believe, is because:
A) Students are learning in a second language. In ESL teaching, it is common that much of the content and language is taught through games and conversational activities so as to work students’ oral competency, and reading and writing activities are designed to be completed together; and,
B) It seems that the Inuit cultural need for cooperation and collaboration (which was essential for survival historically) is translated into education. This is reflected in the curricula – much of which is culturally adapted.
I was inspired to write today’s post of awesome in the middle of a Math class I was teaching yesterday.
Striving to establish as much routine as possible, a typical Math lesson in my classroom involves: oral recitation of one of the times tables/skip counting/anything else that can effectively be learned by rote (yesterday was the 5 times table), review of recently learned content where I ask my stronger students to help explain the steps to solving a set of problems (yesterday was translating Arabic and Roman Numerals), completing an activity together (yesterday was filling in a clock using Roman Numerals), playing a game together or in small groups and then, independent work.
Given the multiple levels in my class, the independent work that I assign is differentiated accordingly. This is something I’ve been attempting to put in place since August, but I have been posed with a significant challenge given the strong need for scaffolding (or, teacher support) in the group. Usually, my students barely have their respective worksheets in hand before my name begins to chime from virtually every direction. They immediately call to me for help, regardless of how well they know the content – it’s like a reflex.
This is something that would be easily manageable provided that patience were a virtue in the room. But, until recently, it was not. In my attempts to answer each student’s question chronologically, I’ve faced many a flying desk or temper tantrum, and, when then forced to play the role of a bodyguard, I’ve had students give up completely when they needed a teacher. I’ve also been told by exasperated students that I’m a bad teacher, despite the 9 to 1 student to teacher ratio.
Yesterday, we’d finished steps 1 through 4 of our Math lesson, and were preparing to spend the next 20 minutes working independently. I handed out students’ worksheets and explained the task, then sent my students on their way. I braced myself for the bombardment of questions I was sure would come.
I waited. Not one student called my name.
I took a sip of my coffee (which usually sits untouched), and I looked around. Each and every student sat deep in concentration as they solved the problems on their worksheet – alone.
The room was quiet, save for the sound of manipulatives swishing along the floor, pencils scratching across paper or students counting under their breath. For the first time ever, they completed their entire assignment unaided – entirely independently. Now, it’s altogether possible that yesterday’s independent work was just an easy assignment – that my experience was simply one of luck. But, really and truly, I’d seen this coming for a few weeks and I think it’s safe to say that my students have grown.
Needless to say, this was a huge moment of teacherly satisfaction, and it was absolutely awesome.