Part 3 of a 5 Part Series.

A great lesson for all first year teachers to learn…and learn early…is that when it comes to what our students can do, we should expect more.  Students are awesome and they can handle more than we think.  Feel free to push them to their limits.  It helps you to know what they can do, while letting them know what they are capable of doing.  

I’m a teacher and a nerd.  So when I observe things in the real world (that world outside the classroom) I observe it from a teacher perspective.  I’ve dedicated my life to education, so it kinda makes sense that my view of things come from an educational standpoint.  My daughter’s dance competitions are no exception. 

As I observed dances, competing schools, event planning, coaching/directing, even my daughter herself, I couldn’t help noticing some similarities between the dance world and the teaching world.  More importantly, I noticed some important strategies and pedagogical standards that all teachers (especially new teachers) should be using within the foundation of their learning environment. 

I’m real big on refreshers and reflecting, so this series has really been more of a, “this is what I should be doing and if I’ve drifted over the years, I need to get back on track” sort of thing.  We all need refreshers that remind us what we should be doing and we all should be constantly reflecting on our actions within the classroom to see if there is ever anything we can do better. 

That brings us to this week’s observations.  This one really hits home with me, because many times I’ve pre-judged a student’s ability only to be hit square on the nose with the reality that the student is capable of so much more than I thought.

The Table

So, my wife and I volunteered to take dance props to competitions this year.  No biggie right?  Well this year, one of the props for the middle school dance team was a table.  We got stuck with the table.  When my wife informed me that we needed to take the table to the various competitions I was totally OK with it.  After all, it was just a table.  HA!

I should have known that this was much more than a table when my wife called from the school (she teaches at my daughter’s school) and said, “OK, I just had the boys in weight-lifting class load the table.”  Hmmmmm…boys as in multiple…weight-lifting as in boys who are strong…Hmmmm.

Y’all…this table weighed a good 500 pounds.  The girls had a dance where they were sitting around a table playing the cup song (think Pitch Perfect) and at various points, there are girls dancing on the table.  I was thinking folding card table when I should have been thinking of a table used by 8th Century Vikings as a dining table.

When we arrived at the first competition of the year, my wife and I were tasked with unloading the table.  I threw my back out and my wife smashed her toe…but we got it out of the truck and ready for the “prop guys” to come take it.  My texted my daughter to tell her that we had unloaded the table and that they needed to find the “prop guys” to come and get it to take it to the staging area.

My wife got a text back from daughter telling her that there were no “prop guys” and that we had to move all of our props by ourselves.  Meaning the team had to move the props by themselves.  That’s when I remembered that my daughter had mentioned that the table was being used by the middle school dance team.  Little girls.  Weighing (I don’t know) 85 pounds each?  I did not see how in the world they were going to move the table into the staging area…let alone onto the dance floor and off again after competing.   This was nuts!

Suddenly I was surrounded by about 5 tiny girls who were supposedly in charge of moving the table.  That’s when it hit me.  CRAP!  I was going to have to find other dads and pack that big @$$ table to staging areas and onto the dance floor then off again…every weekend.  Uncool!  There was no way those little girls were going to be able to handle that table.  I was kinda upset.  My wife could tell I was upset and was probably only seconds away from putting my foot in my mouth.  That’s when she gave me the, “If you say a single word, I’ll castrate you here in public” look.

That’s when it happened.

Those 5 five little…tiny…itty-bitty girls picked that hulking table up and took it inside as if it were nothing.  Not only that, but when they reached the door, they had to flip it on its side, maneuver it through, and then flip back upright.  Then they were gone.  HOLY COW!

As my wife walked past me, she reached up and closed my mouth, which was hanging wide open in disbelief.  Those few little girls had not only picked up the table, they had “man-handled” the table.  They were like little Xena Warrior Princesses.  I was amazed. 

Truth

The truth is, we teachers do that more often than we’d like to admit in our respective classrooms.  Sometimes we take differentiation too far when trying to decide how much a student can do or take.  We need to truly observe our students to see what they are actually able to accomplish, before we make up our minds as to what they can and can’t do.

Years ago, I had a student with autism.  She was extremely fascinated with cartoons, and that was all she could talk about.  I was teaching video game design at the time, and I assumed that the process was too much for her to handle.  If you know anything about creating video games, you know there is a part of the process where you get to create the characters (called sprites) that will be used in the game.  Since this was a lot like creating a cartoon, I just assumed that I’d focus her assessment on the creating of various characters and that she would not go past that part because there were many steps that I thought would confuse her and cause her to have a meltdown.

She mastered the character development stage in about 30 minutes whereas the rest of the class was still trying to create their own characters.  On a whim, I thought I’d challenge her a bit with a simple game design process that would either show me her true abilities OR give her something that would keep her engaged until the end of the unit.  I introduced her to the next stage of video game design and let her know that it might be a tad difficult, but that I believed she could handle it.  I walked her through the process and she mastered it almost instantly…the other students were still creating their characters. 

OK…I began to see where I might had underestimated her abilities.  So once the other students had caught up to her, I taught them all the same basic and detailed principles of video game design.  For the Unit (and rubric), I had them create a video game with 10 level and at least 3 actions per level.  After 4 weeks, all of my students had completed their 10 levels…except the girl.  She had completed 40 levels. 

More importantly, once others saw her work, they were asking her how she made her character do certain things and she would TEACH them.  Bottom line…I totally miscalculated her ability.  I took past events and simply assumed that learning code would be too much for her.  Boy was I wrong.  I caught up with her parents a few months later and they had told me that they had installed the software we used in our classroom for video game design on her home computer and that she was designing away.  How cool is that.  A blessing that was almost lost because I didn’t expect more from here.

Takeaway

When deciding what a student can and can’t do, we definitely need to take into consideration what they’ve done in the past (it is a crucial part of the differentiation process), but we also need to at least give them a taste of the overall Unit goals.  You will be surprised what students can and can’t do.  Like the dancers and the table, they can accomplish more that we sometimes give them credit for. 

Here are 3 steps to take to make sure we are expecting the most out of our students.

1) Challenge Them.  Don’t assume you know what their abilities are, challenge them to see what they can actually do.  You might be surprised.  If you fear that a student won’t be able to handle unit objectives and you’ve already identified different assessment targets, then it’s not going to hurt to at least challenge them a little.  You can always go back to your previously differentiated assessments if it is indeed to much for them to handle.

2) Model For Them. This is something we should be doing with all students, but especially with students that we expect more from.  Be it a special needs student or a student who scores off the chart, we need to model our expectations.  When I witnessed the dance girls flip that table over and maneuver it through the doors and halls at the events, I was amazed.  I then found out that the dance director actually showed them how to get the table through various obstacles.  She actually lifted the table with them the first few times to help them understand how to do it.  Likewise, when I worked with my student and introduced those initial steps of video game design (after she quickly mastered character design) I actually showed her what to do from her computer.  I hopped on and modeled the actions she needed to take to be successful.  Student need to see us do the stuff we want them to do. 

3) Support Them.  Sometimes, all a student needs is to know that someone is in his/her corner.  That there is somebody who believe in them.  Sadly, statistics show that support isn’t something all students get at home.  As teachers, we need to understand that we probably spend more time with our students per weekday than their parents do.  That’s nobody’s fault, it’s just how it turns out.  So we need to be there for support…cheering them on…picking them up…mentoring them…as much as possible.  We are not a substitute for their parents, but we need to be there for moral (and educational) support.

Whether you are a first year teacher or an old guard veteran teacher, these basic steps will help as you strive to expect the most from your students.  We should constantly be pushing them to discover their own boundaries.  The very word “Student” comes from two words, “Studere” which mean applying and “Studium” which means painstaking application.  Are your units, lessons, and rubrics designed to achieve painstaking application or simple application.  Expect More!

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