Shifting Classes Toward Students
Three years in the making, I became clear on the name for my class and what I hoped it could offer students. Up until this time, I got the same kind of kid – ones who prioritized learning and understanding over mindless doing. The same kind of student developed the same kind of classes; second period looked and felt like fourth. I presented the what, why, and how in the same manner. My delivery got sharper and more efficient, because by the sixth opportunity I was able to chisel all the extraneous away.
This year, each class had their own distinct personality. Doing the same created conflict and struggle. I started comparing classes and creating affinities and favorites. Realizing this (about a month in), I began letting classes take their own trajectories. I adjusted to their preferences. Asking them to get to the same place at the same time robs them of their individuality, both as people and groups. If I let them, they could teach me how to make big ideas accessible and applicable to all. Furthermore, they could show me all the different places these ideas can go.
First period had 16 students in it. Twelve showed up consistently. It reminded me of the early days when I focused on body stuff and became branded the ‘yoga class’. This group had sharp attentions with little distraction. They wanted to be here and they wanted to improve. They were open and inquisitive. I could take them anywhere and dig deep.
Second period had 34 and 10 were Special Ed. (With them came three SpEd assistants who were athletic and competitive. Treating them as students and utilizing their social popularity proved effective.) The mainstream students did not pick up on things easily and enjoyed lingering in skills and basics. We took our time here. We budgeted for more social interactions. I repeated and checked for understanding often but with sincerity. I had regression groups and progression groups, but most wanted to hang out in a comfortable and familiar middle.
Third period had 44 and was by far my most competitive. There were two distinct groups – one that was ultra aggressive and gave maximal effort in everything, and one that hoped to build the confidence and skills to be celebrated as such. I treated this class almost as two separate, letting the ‘just play’ group play while building up the second with more situational and skill coaching. The goal was always to mix this group together and play as one by the end of the unit. I leveled the playing field by putting constraints challenges on the ‘higher’ level kids and building up the spatial and skill understanding of the ‘lower’ level. Levels were always student selected. How they identified themselves was sometimes surprising.
Fourth period is when I hit my first big language barrier. Of the 24 students, 7 spoke no English (5 were brand new to the United States). Typically relying on the bilingual students for translation, I realized this wasn’t fair. I shortened my instructions and acted them out. When we focused on internal body stuff, I made bullet point ‘cheat sheets’ in Spanish they could refer to while I was leading the group into creating and noticing sensation. They were a lively group that loved physicality and often squealed with delight as they played. I did not want to blunt their enthusiasm by fixating on minutia.
Fifth period was mostly upperclassman who knew each other. These 24 did not have a choice in selecting their section, and I did my best to try and thwart any disappointment. We also had the opportunity to use the weight room in addition to the gym space and mat room, and we did so as long as they were interested (about four Tuesday/Thursday stretches). Since they proved they could work independently, we compromised on Fridays. One was theirs, and the next was mine. Twice a month they could do/ play what they wanted, and twice I would lead them into managing body aches and pains.
Sixth period was mostly freshman. They were immature and still learning what to do with trust and become responsible for themselves. Three boys and one girl had trouble understanding my English, and about half (mostly girls) were magnificent in their diligence to disappear and/or become invisible. I could tell they came from systems where they collectively wore down the authority. On two occasions, within the same week, I ran them as a group for lack of attention and participation. They responded remarkably well. Strangely, they were looking to push enough buttons to see if they would get ignored. About eight weeks and multiple coordinated antics later, they realized they would not.
Keep providing options and they will all move in the direction you want them to go.
Some will get farther, some will travel faster, and some will need more help, but their progress is ultimately what they want it to be. How can you provide the path of least resistance without selling anyone short? Can you instill the big ideas without attaching a caveat that they need to be demonstrated a certain way? Do you offer multiple and varied means for them to show you what they know?
Homogenous teaching does not provide homogenous learning. The days of expected follow-alongs are long gone. Adjust to them, and you will find yourself continually more adept at reaching anyone, which is a tangent of reaching everyone. Cast a net so wide you no longer need a net — they swim with you all on their own.