On differentiated instruction and being mental

There are four students in my class with learning disabilities. They can handle the content and skills required of every fifth grader, but they need a little extra help to get there.

On a daily or weekly basis, that help might look like a lot of different things including hands-on activities, small-group work, as much one-on-one work as possible, or extra time to complete assignments. Often, they are allowed to have their tests read aloud to them, so their reading difficulties don’t interfere with their ability to prove their science or math knowledge.

Simple enough. Still, what sounds simple enough to implement is often actually much more difficult to pull off well. What happened today was a good example of this.

I called the group aside to read their quiz to them.

“I don’t need your help,” one student scoffed. “I can do this myself.”

“Well,” I replied, “that’s fine. But I’m going to sit here and read it, and I’d like you to follow along.”

“I’m not MENTAL! I don’t need this help!”

Ouch. Those words sting. Not only me, but the girl next to her who sheepishly admits, “Well, I do.”

I was sad that for any reason whatsoever, she had come to doubt her abilities. Even more so, I was sad that our students clearly have come to an understanding that students who get pulled aside to work with the teacher have done something wrong. Students who need extra help are stupid. As a result, their goal has become to never make mistakes and never need help.

This afternoon, we had a professional development in-service about inclusion. And I realized this: our system has taught our students that some are smart and others are stupid. Stupid people get extra help and different teachers. Sad.

My student and I talked. We fixed it, we’re good. She’s good. But still, it’s sad.

On a practical note: my homework today is about differentiated instruction. I’m learning that in my classroom, my students should be working continually in groups with different peers, of different sizes, and with and without teacher assistance. Always. Teaching and learning should constantly look different, exciting, and full of student choice. Then, when I do need to pull aside some students because they need a little extra help…it’s normal. It’s expected. And most of all, it’s ok.

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