A close-up look at NYC education policy, politics,and the people who have been, are now, or will be affected by these actions and programs. ATR CONNECT assists individuals who suddenly find themselves in the ATR ("Absent Teacher Reserve") pool and are the "new" rubber roomers, people who have been re-assigned from their life and career. A "Rubber Room" is not a place, but a process.
My sixth graders sat up a little straighter when they saw the pink sheets in my hand. One asked, “Are those our verb contracts?” As I handed the papers out, students began calling out to each other. Questions like “What was your score on the pretest?” and “What does it say you need to work on?” rang through the room.
For many students, grammar is boring and irrelevant. In my classroom, much of what we do with grammar is embedded in our writing and reading; however, I handle some of the basics by giving pretests and then assigningactivitiesand reviews for each student’s specific needs. This form of differentiation has worked well for my students and me for several years.
So I was surprised to read Dr. Jim Delisle’s column inEdWeekentitled"Differentiation Doesn’t Work."(link is external)This column shared Dr. Delisle's thoughts, along with supporting research, on why differentiation is NOT the cure for education's woes.
I'll admit—when I first read it, I found myself thinking, "Great. So what I've been encouraging and supporting colleagues in doing, as well as implementing myself, is really a waste of time and effort."
But here's the thing: it's not.
Ideally, in theory, differentiation is an amazing tool with powerful potential. Teachers identify the needs of their students and then plan tasks and activities at varying levels to meet the needs of the wide range of students in theirrooms, and help those studentscontinueto learn and grow through these differentiated activities. This is the ideal.
However, the reality can be very different.
What Delisle was pointing out is thatif we rely solely on differentiation to meet the needs of every single child, in every single classroom, we're doomed to failure in this effort. And he's exactly right. As Delisle notes, “Although fine in theory, differentiation in practice is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back.”
The reality is this: the spread of needs in general education classrooms is huge. Given the economic realities of the past eight or so years, most general education classrooms are larger, not smaller. Teachers know that in a class of 28, there is likely to be a huge range of skills, abilities, and needs. And it’s more challenging to implement strong differentiated lessons and activities for 28 or 30 kids than it is for 18 or 20.
Of course, most teachers are going to do their very best. That’s who we are. When kids need something, we do what we can to help meet that need—whether it’s adjusting or adapting classwork, or providinglunchmoney so they aren’t hungry all afternoon. Wework hard.
Those of us who have been striving to routinely implement differentiated strategies in our general education classrooms probably know better than any of us that this approach is not the cure-all for education’s woes. It can be useful for certain students and certain lessons, but it is not a “magic bullet” in education.
My point is this: if weviewdifferentiation as the one cure, the one “fix” that will allow all students to grow and achieve their maximum potential, we’re going to frustrate ourselves, our colleagues, and our students.
However, there are times and places when it’s effective and useful. Classroom teachers need to carefully consider their students, their students' needs, the standards they're working with, and how best to bring all that together. There is research that supports the use of differentiation and points to some very specific situations where it is most effective, such asthis study(link is external)about high-achieving third graders in low-achieving schools.
Resources and Supports:
There are resources and supports available to help teachers use differentiation as one of many strategies. And teachers don’t have to do all this on their own. In fact,a study(link is external)by the National Research Center on Gifted and Talented points out that it takes a great deal of time, support, and the right kind of educational community to make differentiation happen in a diverse middle school. Teachers who are still working to use differentiation with high-ability students can find somegood suggestions and strategies here(link is external).
One of my colleagues whose expertise includes strategies for teaching students with Asperger's once told me, "Once you've met a child with Asperger's, you've met a child with Asperger's." Just because a particular set of strategies works with one student doesn't guarantee that set will work with another student.
That's not true only of students who have an Asperger's diagnosis—it’s true of all students. The strategies that work with one class and subject will not necessarily be as successful elsewhere. It takes time to set up differentiated activities and lessons, just as it takes time to get to know those students and their strengths and needs.
Perhaps the solution isn't to give up on differentiation. The solution may rest in how we structure our schools, classes, and teachers' work days. Perhaps with some innovative new thinking, we can arrive at solutions that will make differentiation and other teaching strategies more powerful and effective for students and their teachers. What do your experiences show you about differentiation? What do we need to make differentiation better?
the protests and listening to the chants of "Hands up, don't shoot"
following last summer's fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson,
Mo., fueled an argument that I have been making for some time with my graduate
students and colleagues.
almost two decades, I have been coaching and mentoring first-year teachers in
Chicago's public schools; however, in the last few years, I have noticed a
cultural shift in those schools with predominantly African-American
enrollments. Some are turnaround schools that Mayor Rahm Emanuel'sofficehas taken over because of low student test scores, as well as
other complex challenges, including weak leadership and ineffective
enter these turnaround schools, there is often an eerie silence. You never hear
children's voices in the hallways. Rather, you see lines of African-American
children crossing the school with their hands behind their backs or their
fingers pressed against their lips to indicate silence, and their eyes always
monochromatic lines of uniformed children mimic prison lines, and the teachers'
efforts seem focused on ensuring that students do not talk to each other and do
not walk outside the line.
long, an immense amount of time and energy is spent making sure young African-American
students are taught to obey.
K-12 school, when one of my graduate students had to go to the restroom, I
walked her students to the cafeteria. Even in the cafeteria, children were not
allowed to talk to each other.
the foolish mistake of having a conversation with a table of 1st grade girls
when another teacher came over to me and yelled out, "You do not talk
during lunch." At first, I thought the teacher was being sarcastic, but it
was disheartening to realize after a few minutes that this young teacher, who
was white, had been indoctrinated by her school to think that African-American
and Latino children should not be allowed to talk at lunch. When the students
were given time to actually act like children on the playground, they were
often admonished for "acting like animals" when they returned to
course, my first-year teachers do notbuyinto this ideology of repression. But when I asked them whether
their schools would have the same rules if the children were white, the young
teachers responded with a unanimous no, coupled with the fear of losing their
jobs if they, too, did not obey.
I asked them whether their schools would have the same rules if the children
were white, the young teachers responded with aunanimous no."
between educational theory that advocates for the whole child and a school
culture that resembles a prison's, my first-year teachers have to make
strategic decisions daily about what is best for their students and what rules
they may need to subvert while avoiding the administration's gaze.
front, one of my graduate students, whom I'll call Angela, stayed after my
class one day, quite upset.
taught my first-year teachers a literacy technique in which students come to
the board and circle letters and sounds they recognize in a message written by
the teacher. Then the students are told to put a square around a word they
recognize and a triangle around a piece of punctuation, and to underlinesight wordsfrom their classroom's "word wall." The interactive
nature of the technique is what leads to its success.
when Angela was implementing this technique one day, aschool administrator walked
in and informally observed her teaching.
Angela was finished, the administrator pulled her aside and told her she liked
how the students identified the different parts of language, but that they were
not allowed to come to the board to do so. Why? Because 1st graders make too
much noise while at the board. Angela knew the suggestion was counterintuitive,
and she knew that the noise her students made was from the joy of learning—a
sound missing in turnaround schools. She came to me torn about what to do next.
days, after supervising my first-year teachers, I drive less than five miles to
pick up my own children from their schools in Oak Park, Ill.—a middle-class
suburb known for its diversity.
In the hallways of my
daughter's elementary school, there is the cacophony of children laughing,
running down the hallways, and slamming lockers.
On the floors, winter wear is strewn all over the place along with
forgotten worksheets. In the cafeteria, the noise of children eating and
talking can at times become overwhelming; so, too, the sight of discarded food
on the floor.
Do we find this chaotic behavior tolerable and less threatening
because the school is majority white? If these were mostly African-American and
Latino children, would many administrators in the Chicago public schools and
elsewhere not have tolerated it and perhaps even found it threatening?
Finally, when will turnaround schools take school culture into
consideration and produce a school that enriches the whole minority child?
Samina Hadi-Tabassum is an
associate professor of education at Dominican University, in River Forest,
Ill., where she directs the English-as-a-second-language/bilingual program and
works with cohorts of first-year teachers. She is writing a book addressing
race relations in public schools.
this year, I was invited to speak to a few hundred African-American male high
school students in Jacksonville, Fla. The young people there were searching for
answers in the untimely death of their fellow Jacksonville resident Jordan
Davis, 17, who was shot and killed at a gas station in November 2012 after
playing what perpetrator Michael Dunn called "loud thug music."
shooting earlier in 2012 of Trayvon Martin, another unarmed 17-year-old black
male, this death represented a shocking example of some teens' sense of being
trapped by a new kind of racial optics, what I call the "hip-hop
gaze." This is when signs, symbols, and images in hip-hop (e.g., language,
music, style of clothing), associated with urban youths in popular culture,
unfairly convey trouble or criminality about black males to the mainstream
emerged from my previous research via a series of focus-group conversations
with African-American male teens at a hip-hop-based youth center. The young
students I spoke with felt teachers unfairly judged them with suspicion and
fear based on the sagging of their pants and their wearing of do-rags on their
heads, hoodies, and puffy "bubble coats."
students argued that their sense of style and aesthetics prompted teachers'
overzealous efforts to suspend them even as they gave other students lesser
punishments for the same offenses. After August's deadly police shooting of
Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., legions of disaffected young people who also
embodied a hip-hop style protested in the streets, facing off against heavily
armed law-enforcement officers as the world watched. All of this suggests that
these young people have perspectives we need to hear.
tragedies of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Michael Brown remind me of what
young people in places like the youth center in Jacksonville have been saying
for years. They remind me that distorted racial representations in popular culture
can influence a culture of punishment toward black males.
challenge to educators, I offer the following questions: How do we weigh
hip-hop youth culture in relation to the punishment of young people's identity?
Where do we, as educators, learn the stereotypes, prejudices, and biases toward
students that need to be unlearned? What proactive, practical strategies might
we as educators take in writing new scripts for how we think about
African-American males, different from what the mainstream media tell us? What
is the role and critical awareness ofcultural contextin relation to lessening punitive practices against
African-American males in K-12 schools?
Preserviceteacher educationprogramsmight be a great place to start addressing these questions. I
offer the following recommendations:
racial representations in popular culture can influence a culture of punishment
toward black males."
race and masculinity. The study of race and masculinity in relation to the
punishment of black males must become an integral part of preservice teacher
education curricula. There is a documented, patterned history in government,
academia, and news media of developing racially coded narratives of black males
being aggressive, dangerous, and menaces to society. These packaged narratives
exacerbate negative practices toward minority youths in schools and the larger
policies, stand-your-ground laws, and suspension and expulsion practices that
filter students into the school-to-prison pipeline are examples of this.
Subsequently, a historical analysis in thesocial constructionof race and masculinity in relation to past and present punishment
practices toward black males would give preservice teachers insights into the
differential treatment of this population.
critical media literacy. A majority of the education students I teach at the
university level come from isolated, segregated, affluent, white communities.
Many desire to be teachers in urban school settings, but have had limited
contact with communities of color. Subsequently, much of what they know about
the black community comes from the radio, music, movies, or television. These
media often provide a narrow characterization of black male identity related to
crime, sports, and entertainment.
teacher education programs should offer opportunities for students to engage in
critical media literacy. Students should learn to examine how representations
in the news and popular culture can intentionally or unintentionally reinforce
stereotypical representations of black males as criminals in our subconscious.
When preservice teachers develop the skill set for critically reading how the
media as an institution possess the power to distort racial identities, they
gain a new consciousness that counters the image of black males as thugs to
humanize their perceptions.
community engagement. Given the de facto segregated living conditions of many
preservice teachers, social interaction with diverse populations becomes
extremely important in urban teacher education programs. Unfortunately, the
term "urban" has come to mean "black," and the term black
has come to mean all that is dangerous, poor, and dysfunctional. Therefore,
schools in urban areas have come to mean teaching dangerous poor black children
and teens. These cultural-deficit labels come to typify how black boys and men
are viewed within mainstream society.
counter these narratives, I have developed relationships with community leaders
in some of the poorest areas of Pittsburgh and host many classes and community
forums in these areas. At these classes and forums, black youths become
"teachers," sharing their experiences of institutional racism; the
aftermath and effects in the trauma of poverty, violence, and racial profiling;
and the impact of these challenges on their education experience in schools.
Preservice teachers come away from these discussions developing empathy and
understanding the emotions that emerge from institutional and societal neglect.
These narratives become the unofficial curriculum to guide my students'
thinking in how to develop positive pedagogical relationships with urban
with hip-hop learning communities. For better and worse, many students see
themselves through the prism of hip-hop culture. To disengage with it is to
disengage with the soundtrack to their lives. Hip-hop is a culture upon which
the very best of the social-political tradition, rather than its gangsta
proclivities, can be mobilized into an educational medium. Being socially and
politically conscious means expressing discontent with institutional
inequality; promoting peace and unity; and empowering youth voices for social
young people recognize that teachers know something about their culture in a
way that does not denigrate or demonize them, an immediate pedagogical bridge
is made in the teacher-student relationship. For example, I have invited
socially aware hip-hop artists from the community into my classrooms and
students from my classes into local hip-hop communities. These invitations
create co-learning opportunities. The artists perform, relate their lyrics to
contemporary issues, and discuss the music's impact on urban education. These
learning experiences open preservice teachers' minds about innovations in
teaching and how to make the curriculum relevant to the lived experiences of
urban youths. They also increase these future teachers' familiarity with the
language, culture, community, and social and political context from which
forward, the challenge is to utilize contemporary events in popular culture as
a canvas to educate preservice teachers about how race, representation, and
masculinity in media can affect how we treat others, such as black males in
urban education. When we do this cultural work in urban education, perhaps the
Trayvon Martins, Jordan Davises, and Michael Browns of the world will not die
in vain, and we will keep kids in schools rather than push them out.
Prier is an assistant professor in the Duquesne University School of Education,
in Pittsburgh. He is the author ofCulturally
Relevant Teaching: Hip-Hop Pedagogy in Urban Schools(Peter Lang International Academic Publishers,
2012) and is a consultant and speaker on youth leadership, popular culture, and
urban education. He is working on a forthcoming book,The Media War on Black Male Youth in Urban Education.