I was getting ready to teach my workshop on hidden student trauma to staff at a local high school when my husband made the passing comment, “Better build connection early, because by the time students are failing mid-year, you’re gonna need it.”
What is the term they use now? Mic drop? My thought at the time was, Oh, shit.
When I first started teaching professional developments on how to create connection in the classroom, I had another workshop on the back burner: “Differentiation Begins With Your Ladder: How to Create Rungs on the Curriculum Ladder to Allow All Students Access.” A long title. And though incredibly important, it wasn’t as important as addressing hidden student trauma. Unless, of course, it is.
What my good-looking husband so brilliantly pointed out is that students are only going to continue to feel the benefits of the connection and support you’ve worked so hard to create in your classroom if they ALSO feel that how they are learning honors where they are starting on the curriculum ladder. And, once on that ladder, helps them learn that falling off doesn’t mean failing. Which is not the same thing as everyone gets As, and it’s also not telling a student, “I’m so glad that you were able to reach out to me to talk about your mom’s depression. Also, you’ve failed English again.”
So how does a curriculum ladder work and how do you help students attach safety ropes to it once on? I think of it like this:
Your academic standards are the top rung on the ladder. I was fortunate to teach with an colleague trained in International Baccalaureate, the standards for which dovetail perfectly with Common Core and, more importantly, common sense. Collaborating with her revealed that those standards were the top rungs.
In my experience, most students have a knowledge base at least two rungs below that standard. For example, 9th grade students know what citing your source means, but they don’t know how to accurately cite sources in essays (Don’t even get me started on what’s wrong with EasyBib). They know that you should quote your sources, but not when or how. They also are still fuzzy on topic sentences.
Then there are the few students who are like, essay? What’s that? Those students scrawl a few sentences on a piece of paper and may or may not turn that paper in. And they will be completely shocked when they don’t pass the class.
Putting bottom rungs on your curriculum ladder doesn’t mean dumbing-down curriculum. You are dealing with the equivalent of short people versus tall people trying to get onto a ladder whose rungs typically start 5 feet up. Nothing is wrong with the ability of short people to climb. Of course short people can climb to the top rung or curriculum benchmark when starting further down than everyone else–as long as there are ladder rungs that extend to their reach and there are more rungs put in along the way. The same is true for English Language Learners, students with learning disabilities, and…pretty much the rest of us. Everyone has the ability to learn anything. Some of us just need a few more rungs. If my teacher doesn’t see that I need more rungs, I don’t feel like the teacher is invested in my success.
- Creating bottom rungs means breaking a task or assignment into skills or learning targets that are bite-sized. Too many directions on a page or too many skills integrated all at once = meltdown for those of us who are grasping for the first rungs on the ladder. (And guess what? Breaking down the task is also a steam-release valve for high-achieving students. Win and win).
- Vocabulary reminders are a huge part of students’ understanding of content. Especially in science class, a student who may otherwise know content can get bogged down in the text’s vocabulary.
- Use exemplars, not examples for what you want the final product to look like. Students who struggle have missed partial information in the past. They’ll miss the direction that what they are looking at is an example, not an exemplar, and, instead, imprint on the model that has flaws, studying it and turning in their best version of it.
- Exemplars also allow the high achievers who need lots of attention to work off of an exemplar rather than asking every 3 minutes, “Is this right?”…”How about now?”…”Is this how I should do it?” You’re welcome, teachers of grade grubbers.
- Use examples of weak, developing, and strong work that demonstrate where students often go wrong. Refer students back to the examples when they make those mistakes.
- Build time into your curriculum plan for those who are managing a few more rungs.
- If every assignment is truly important to learning, not accepting late work won’t cut it as a teaching philosophy. Dock a certain percentage amount, but not enough to cause the student to receive a failing grade. Did I want them to learn it? Yes. Did they learn it? Yes. Then mission accomplished.
- For any assignment or project that is truly essential to learning, do not give the student a final grade until their best version has a chance to come in. I want to be graded on my best try, not my first try (For information about how to do this and not lose your damn mind, fill out the contact form below).
- If every assignment is truly important to learning, students should never be sent out of the room for something like not having a pencil or paper. I am not their future employer. My student may even end up working at a job that gives their employees limitless supplies to get their work accomplished! If my school can’t afford to supply pencils and paper to students who forget or don’t have the supplies, WTF is wrong with the allocation of my school’s funds?
- If every skill or content knowledge is truly important to a students’ education, then tests should be offered multiple times—in class (gasp!)
- Offer the test 3 times–and only accept 100% correct for passing the first 2 times. (Grade grubbing students love this).
- Struggling students often don’t make it back for after-school or lunchtime make-up tests without a lot of teacher prompting. Skip the nagging, offer the test in class and get more bang for your class time.
- For more tips on how to do this and not lose your damn mind, fill out the contact info at the end of this blog.
- At regular, 3 week intervals, hand students slips of paper with their missing assignments listed.
- Many students are still not technology inclined. They need a reminder in their hand to acknowledge what is missing and to do something about it. Tech savvy kids will throw away the reminder slip, but now they know to check their online grade and be properly shocked and outraged.
- Offer class time during that week to help students who have not completed assignments. The rest of the class gets to do an enrichment activity, possibly for extra credit. Everyone likes this because everyone wins.
- The following Monday, call home for any student who has not turned in acceptable work (Email won’t suffice).
If you are interested in examples, exemplars, or have questions about specific classroom practices mentioned above, fill out the contact form below to get on my mailing list. In the comment box, ask about ideas for your classroom, ideas to help your child who is struggling in school, or to make sure that not only your students feel supported, but YOU feel supported as well. Because if Mama ain’t happy, well, we know how that goes…..