Friday, February 12, 2010

Starting Where Kids Are

A few months ago, I became a member of ASCD (the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development).  One of the benefits is to receive a publication called Educational Leadership, which is like a magazine for educators.  I recently got my first issue and I love it!!!  I'm really enjoying all the articles I've read so far, and I just finished reading one that I'd like to reflect on for a moment.

It's called "When Student's Don't Play the Game" by Jessica Towbin, and it talks about students who are disengaged with school.  Towbin's vignette centered around her experience in an urban high school classroom with students who did not want to do the work required in her class.  This hit home for me as I've come across many kids, even at the elementary level, who exhibit a similar disinterest.  Sometimes they're bored with the material, other times the concepts are too hard so they simply give up. A few of my students have also convinced themselves wholeheartedly that they are not as intelligent as the others in their class.  All of this leads up to a lack of motivation that I have been trying to tap into and change all year.

The article highlights a pedagogical philosophy that most teachers are familiar with: "start where the kids are".  I've always looked at this statement from an instructional mindset to mean starting at the level of the student's background knowledge, skills, and abilities.  This could mean that if I have a student who is in 3rd grade but reads at an early Kindergarten level (which I do), then my time spent with him will be working on building his reading level starting at beginner's phonics, while the rest of his class is entering chapter books.  It's focusing my instruction on the child's immediate needs rather than forcing him to produce work that is way beyond his current abilities.

However, the article has also given me a new idea to think about when it comes to starting where a child is: his/her interests and views about his/her own education.  I conducted interviews at the beginning of the year to get to know my students better and learn about their interests, and I also try to buy books for them to read based on what they've told me they like.  But there are still those days when getting through a lesson seems painful because they're just not into it.  This shows me that I still need to do more to motivate and engage them.

One of the things Towbin did, which I believe to be a necessity for teaching, is to tell students why the work is relevant.  Kids need to know how schoolwork matters to them in the real world.  There are times when it's easy for me to build those connections and times when I honestly have no idea why they need to learn it other than there's a standard that says I have to teach it.  Or I may have a reason for why it's important, but the student still doesn't buy in to that explanation.  Let's face it, my real world experience is very different from theirs and I need to think even deeper about why the material matters for their lives.  This is a challenge that I am choosing to give myself for this reading unit we are about to start next week.

Another thing Towbin tried was to let one of her students do a writing assignment in a way that interested her instead of how the teacher wanted her to do it.  I thought this was very interesting and now I'm wondering how I can apply the same concept into my own practice.  My position doesn't offer the flexibility needed to do big projects with my kids (another reason why I really want to be a gen ed teacher), but there are a few students that come to mind who would probably appreciate me asking if there's another way they'd like to do something. 

As we go through the rest of this year, I'd like to make more of an effort to have a dialogue with my students about the learning we are doing, why it matters, what keeps them interested or makes them not interested in it, and how can it be more engaging for them.  This way, I can really see where the students are at that given moment.  Since their level of knowledge and experience is always changing, their starting point for a given lesson will always be changing as well, and it's my job to stay aware of that. 

I encourage you to check out the article (linked above) and have a similar conversation with your students.  Keep Towbin's words in mind as you reflect on your efforts to start where your kids are:

"When I am effective, I don't meet students where they are just once at the start of the year, or even just at the start of each new unit.  I meet them where they are every day, and rarely as an entire class.  To engage these students in learning that matters to them, I need to repeatedly ask the question, 'Where are you?' and be prepared to step back and listen." 


  1. I really enjoyed reading your blog post. I think it is imperative that we as teachers, are vulnerable and transparent when expressing our struggles with our educational practices. You do an excellent job at expressing your challenge, and I am transparent in saying, that this is something that I struggle with also.

    I am 12th grade English and Advanced Placement educator for Prince George's County Public Schools. One of my major goals and pivotal aspects of my teaching philosophy and pedagogy is relevance. It is very difficult to engage students, if they struggle with making a personal connection to the instruction provided or if the material is not relevant to their personal/educational goals.

    As an English educator, their is space within the subject/curriculum for the the students to make personal connections to their lives, and feed off of their personal experiences. However, it is difficult for me to engage the students in terms of the literary elements of prose narrative, MLA format, analysis papers, etc.

    I guess the over arching questions that I struggle with, is will everything that is taught in the classroom, be relevant and engaging for the students? Is it alright for their to be some mini-lessons, where the students are not engaged, but they master the skills? Should relevance be utilized to build the bridge for students to cross in preparation for rigor?

    Really enjoyed reading your post, look forward to reading more.

  2. One of the problems I have with an educational system that focuses on standardized tests is that it takes away from teachers who would like to really help those students who are behind. Many educators are afraid to have students at lower levels, because they do not want to have it reflect poorly against them. However, these are the students that need the instruction the most. If we do not realize where are students are then I think it is difficult to get them where they need to go. We have to know which basics they are missing and build off of this.

  3. I too loved this article and sent it to many of our teachers. Students come to school every day with different needs. We need to step back and consider where students are every day of the school year. Great blog post.

  4. Yes! We must meet kids where they are in all of the ways we can. Understanding their context, daily lives and interests helps us build relationships and momentum in exciting them about learning. Thanks for a very thoughtful post :-)

  5. I wish there were a way to directly reply to comments. Thanks everyone for your comments!

    Ms. K.M. Woods - I do think there are times when not ALL content will be relevant to ALL students in our class. I also think that relevancy can change...what might be important to them now may not be later in life and they may stumble across something they ended up learning in your class but didn't care about at the time (i.e. MLA format when they decide to go to college...even as an adult). Loved your reflection and questions!

    Shelly - What you've said about having students at lower levels negatively affecting standardized test scores is soooo true! It really bothers me when I'm told to focus on grade level standards with students who are not ready because you're right...they need my focus and attention the most and I may not always be able to teach them when they *really* need. There is one student who I am going against the grain with though (the one I mentioned in the blog) and he's seen so much success in reading. Just to see him more confident, participate more in class, and have a favorite author now is HUGE!

    Patricia - thanks so much for passing on my post!

    Joan - you know I always appreciate hearing from you! Our dialogues thru blogs, emails, and Twitter have been most enjoyable :-)