The Right Fit

One night this past week I awoke at 2 A.M. thinking about the Parts of Speech Notebook I produced when I was in the 7th grade. Sounds like a school kid’s nightmare. But it wasn’t—then or now. In fact, for me, it was quite the opposite.

The Parts of Speech Notebook was, naturally, eight pages long. Mine was bound in a green presentation folder with brass fasteners. Each page was labeled at the top—Noun, Pronoun, Verb, etc.—and illustrated with words and pictures cut from magazines and glued down with white library paste. Mine was messy and aesthetically unpleasing, I am sure (I was not a neat child), but no matter. The task served its purpose: Suddenly, unexpectedly, sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor, sticky with paste and covered with the colorful confetti that cut-up magazines generate, I got it. Parts of speech, I mean.

What I remember is that electrifying moment of revelation when all the bits of information (not the paper) coalesced and the whole thing made sense. And then came the worry that my grasp on the topic would slip. Did I really understand? Could I rely on this new knowledge? Would the clarity continue? I remember reciting the definitions over and over again in my head. Yes! The mystery had evaporated!

Next day, I sprinted up the stairs to the second floor of my junior high school, raced through the classroom door with my finished notebook, and nearly knocked over my teacher, Mrs. Moeller, a rather stern individual who was, I thought, as old as Methuselah’s wife, demanding that she affirm my brilliance—and more importantly—share the excitement of my epiphany. I remember that she did.

Once I had the building blocks, the rest of it came easy—sentence patterns, clauses, phrases, verbals. I caught on quickly to diagramming—we did that in my day—and eventually I became an English teacher.

But this is not a story about a 7th grade assignment sparking my career—heaven knows, I had been on the path to becoming a teacher since I’d learned to read. Nor is it a story about how a single teacher sparked my love of English—no, I already loved English when I entered Mrs. Moeller’s class. Rather, it’s a story about a galvanizing moment in my education and how it happened and what I hope for, for every child in every classroom: Revelations that last.

I have been thinking a lot lately about differentiation, the term we use in the education world to describe the purposeful design of instruction to meet the varied needs of our diverse clientele. That is, the need to provide instruction that will help all kids have “notebook moments.”

No doubt some of the kids in my class understood the parts of speech just by reading about them in the textbook and identifying them in sentences. Some had luck with the “drill and kill” workbook that accompanied the text. For some, diagramming—that elaborate and either cherished or despised graphic organizer—did it. And for others, like me, it was the notebook. Today we’d label all that cutting and pasting a “hands-on” learning experience, designed for kids who are kinesthetic learners—the ones who can’t sit still, the ones who need to touch things and move them about, the ones who like to learn by doing.

I can’t begin to know if Mrs. Moeller was ahead of her time in realizing that not all children learn the same way. Did she know instinctively that children have learning preferences, ways of comprehending information that are as complex and various as children themselves?  Maybe she required the notebooks because she was tired of grading papers or maybe just because she thought they’d be “fun.” I rather doubt it was the latter, remembering Mrs. Moeller, but whatever her motivation or pedagogical reason, the notebook was the right fit for me.

As teachers, we’ve been schooled for a long time in the need to structure tasks that appeal to visual learners, auditory learners, and kinesthetic learners, but differentiating our instruction is so much more than that. These days we think about grouping strategies, about whether a child understands things that are laid out logically and sequentially or understands them in non-linear ways, about attention spans, about creativity and conformity, about reflective learners versus action-oriented kids. We think about multiple intelligences and ask ourselves if a student is analytical or verbal or musical or artistic. We even think about the learning environment we create in our classrooms and the impact our seating arrangement might have on our students. Round tables encourage collaboration, but not every child wants to work in groups. Rows represent order and calm—but they can stifle learning for very social students.

The task of the teacher is to know every child’s learning profile well—and then to capture each student at the point of readiness and offer content that challenges but is not too much of a stretch to be defeating. Of course, we have to interest students in the first place in the topic we are studying or the skill that we are teaching. An uninterested student won’t learn much and won’t carry the lesson beyond the classroom walls or past the perfunctory quiz on Friday.

Knowing the students, structuring the lesson and designing activities that appeal to all these variations is no mean feat. Sometimes we “mix it up” serially—something for the visual learner one day, something for the kinesthetic one the next. Other times we provide a number of activities simultaneously—through learning menus or learning stations—sometimes we group kids and sometimes we have them work alone. Computer programs offer variety—though they’re no silver bullet for learning—and so do games and art activities.

But it’s not just mixing it up for “fun,” and it’s not just mixing it up for variety. Differentiating instruction is about intentionally designing learning activities to offer all the kids in the class the chance to experience those “notebook moments.”

If Mrs. Moeller had only had us do workbook pages, I might never have learned the parts of speech. Oh, that’s not true. I would have learned them, but painfully, slowly, and without that wonderful moment of sudden clarity when everything fell into place. If she’d only done diagramming, three-quarters of the class would have been permanently lost in space and rolling their eyes to this day. But she didn’t. And even though the Parts of Speech Notebook sounds today like a pretty conventional assignment, it wasn’t conventional then and it wasn’t conventional for me. For me, it was the avenue to understanding.

Mrs. Moeller, you weren’t old at all. You were wise. More likely related to Solomon than Methuselah.

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