A challenge I didn’t expect during this school year is the number of students who are absent on any given day, and the students who will be absent for multiple days…

We have protocols in place for when a student enters with a fever, a runny/stuffy nose, coughing, sneezing, etc. However, this is also the time of year that locals start to burn off agricultural waste, light their wood stoves, etc. AND with the end of summer/start of autumn there are pollens, mold spores, and various types of dust floating around. Some students come in day after day with respiratory issues related to allergies rather than an infectious disease. I call the nurse if I have any questions, and to be honest I am glad I have her expertise as a fall-back! Whether it’s something like a cold (infectious, must go home) or allergies (not infectious, can return to class) a student who is sniffling, wheezing, etc is going to experience more difficulty learning (including just retention – they might get it today but have forgotten it completely by tomorrow).

Students are also more unused to sustained academic effort than ever, as well as being unused to working independently, as well as unused to sitting still. They are behaving at LEAST a year younger than their chronological age, and showing academic/vocabulary development that matches their behaviors. In some cases it is because families were willing to step in and support students with reminders to start/keep working; automatically answering harder questions; or able to be more flexible in allowing breaks and/or timing of learning. Add in that third graders are generally starting to pay attention to what other people think of them… and for many students (not just the ones in my own classroom!) they are starved for positive attention – or any attention – and this adds up to near-constant management of behaviors while trying to teach.

The teaching “style” I use has increasingly been informed by Slingerland methodoligies over the year – it is a range of strategies and structures for teaching whole-class language arts. It is based on the famous Orton-Gillingham approach which is currently considered one of the better “research based” instructional methods for reading instruction. I gravitated toward Slingerland after watching my mother use it in her classroom; and more and more I find myself using similar methods for mathematics instruction and other areas as well. “Good teaching is good teaching” is something I always hear in my head when something just seems to work.

Fortunately I am confident enough in my abilities as a teacher that I am willing to bend these structures/expectations as needed – but this year being able to think about lessons and classroom procedures through the lens of “multi-sensory instruction” has been a boon. It hasn’t eliminated many of the behaviors (and yes, I am exhausted and have some nightmares that are doozies!), but it provides regular changes in position, a set of common expectations for participation, and structures the students can rely on.

So, why this post? Almost universally across our school, state, and country, students are not ready for the material that is considered “grade level.” In some areas (social studies, science, specialist/electives) this is something that can be heavily scaffolded or modified for the entire class without losing the ability of students to perform independently at grade level.

However in “core content” (language arts and math), specific prior knowledge of skills and information is necessary to begin to work with and competently understand the grade-level material. This creates a very real bind for most public school teachers (and possibly charter and private schools as well): We have a mandate to teach grade-level core content, but we know our classes – not just individual students – require significant re-teaching before we begin. Re-teaching is not just quick review, it’s actually teaching from the beginning on necessary standards.

Of course, most experienced teachers begin each school with a couple weeks of purely review material, but we expect it to be actual review — just a re-igniting of the spark of previous knowledge. This year, there is no re-ignition, there is no spark, there is no sign that a fire was ever lit! What are we to do?

For the last couple of weeks, I have dug into the reading curriculum (a new one, we are part of a handful of schools in the state using it the first year it has been available as other-than-beta), finding lessons that are recommended for students a grade or two below level – a feature I LOVE about the new curriculum, btw – it anticipates that in any given classroom there will be some students one or two grade levels below who need specific (targeted) instruction in prerequisite knowledge before attempting a grade-level lesson. Because I have a great deal more experience teaching reading (and have demonstrated, certificated knowledge of reading remediation), I felt more confident using an “accelerated” process that incorporates whole-class instruction using the remediation and then a rapid, “essential ideas only” focused grade-level lesson. It will slow us down, but perhaps by second semester I won’t need to do as much background prepping!

NOTE: structured, deliberate reviewing/reteaching will not hurt students who do not need it; skipping this step and moving directly into grade-level content can cause long-term harm to students who do need it. There are many ways to differentiate: in a normal year I teach “to the middle” and differentiate for the students who need extra help or can work more independently on more complex material. THIS YEAR I am teaching to the “mode” and differentiating for the students who are able to do more.

Math? Back to basics… the last two weeks I was “holding space” for diagnostic testing (benchmarks) and had significant numbers of students “out.” And I wanted to establish clear procedures for our reading and writing, which took more time than usual (see paragraph 3!). So we didn’t do the review/preview lessons I intended to do – which is just as well as the diagnostics showed significant gaps in concepts necessary for the lessons I initially planned! We continued to work on some basic addition and number sense, and that was good enough: We had some time to work with the idea of even and odd; and used counters (in this case beans) to start experimenting with “sets.”

Next week we’ll have a late start followed by four full days (and a new student who will get to learn our procedures and routines), and we’ll be working on concepts of “numeracy” – what numbers are, what numerals represent; how we can compare, combine, and separate (decompose) numbers to aid in calculations, and the basics of using mathematical tools such as “ten-frames,” place value charts, and numberlines. We’ll also work extensively with addition “fact families.” This is all kindergarten-first grade thinking, but too many students are unsure or unskilled with these things to be ready for more complex work involving “regrouping” across tens or hundreds which is a second grade skill that is necessary for grasping third grade addition and subtraction.

The following week I’ll re-try some second grade work, with the hope that by the end of the first quarter we will have at least half the first unit of third grade math under our belts. Having taught with this specific curriculum for many years I am more confident about what third-grade lessons can be shortened without significant loss of learning in key standards. There are some lessons that we almost never “get to” in third grade even in a normal year, and I also know what will be automatically retaught (not just reviewed) in the fourth grade so I can skim or even skip some of the more-introductory concepts if needed.

It will be a long year, but I am feeling more relaxed earlier in the year than usual (nightmares about managing behaviors aside!). The students in my class are good people – they care about each other, they want to do the right thing (when they know what it is), and they have a very good sense of humor.

I am going to control the things I can… and advocate for others to step up for the rest. Nationwide, statewide, guidance for what must be taught and what will be tested in high-stakes tests needs to change. Students who begin a grade well-below grade level are not well served with inflexible standards followed by high-stakes tests that do not result in changes to their instruction the following year. For example in third grade, the first year our state tests students in the spring, we have no previous normed assessments that show how students were doing the previous year. This means that there is no clear indication if a student who is not at grade level in the spring simply failed to make progress, fell further behind, or made a year’s (or more) progress but remained behind their peers.

What would be better? FEWER REQUIRED (in most schools “testable”) STANDARDS in each grade, delay “high-stakes” tests in elementary (through grade 5) in favor of using the freed-up weeks of test prep and testing for instruction in the grades where the foundation for all later learning is laid, and if high-stakes tests are given make them useful for diagnostic and retention purposes – some students who are behind are simply immature and another year in the same grade would allow that student the time needed to progress (make retention less of a “big deal” in the early grades when kids don’t care as much what other kids think of them!) at the very least initiate evaluation for physical or learning difficulties that might be getting in the way of the student’s learning. What would be better? Stop giving “lip service” to the idea of differentiation and provide actual support to teachers (a para for each grade or each teacher would allow for planning time to be spent more productively as well as allowing some additional in-class adult time for students who need extra support of any kind). We ALL know “how” to differentiate and we all WANT to spend 1:1 time with every student every day, but with the typical class size and the number of standards we are expected to cover we cannot differentiate every lesson and we cannot spend quality 1:1 time with most students.

Back to planning…. something I can control.

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