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I am constantly telling stressed out students to try to
keep things in perspective. I make these statements as a way of
easing the minds of many of my students who feel like they are falling
behind expectations placed on them by society today. Mandated
statewide testing, college entrance exams and other increasing demands
for higher and higher grade point averages have raised the level of
stress placed of many of our average students.
When I was in school a "C" grade meant normal. A "C" letter grade of some kind was the most common grade given. Now if a student gets a "C" letter grade it is almost looked on as below average. It seems to me that nowadays if you took all the grades given at progress report time in most high schools, the least grade given would be a "C". All I seem to hear about are A's, B's, D's and F's. Just like the disappearing middle class, the place for the average student seems to be fading away in today's educational setting. The question is why? Are students different now than 30 years ago or has something else changed?
GRADE INFLATION DUE TO EXPECTATIONS - Too much focus on state test scores and college entrance standards and not enough focus on the true level of the students.
Students mature at different rates due to age, sex, heredity, etc. I once taught elementary physical education. One of the body movement skills I would teach was skipping. I noticed that in 1st grade almost all the girls could skip correctly while many boys had trouble switching legs while they skipped. The next year when I taught skipping, more boys were able to do it correctly. By their third grade year almost all the boys could skip correctly just like the girls. I learned that the reason boys had trouble in first grade and the girls didn't was a matter of maturation rate. Some boys simply weren't ready to skip in the first grade. The solution to their skipping problems was just a matter of time.
Raising standards for students is a good thing only if they are raised based on where students actually are in their stage of development. Goals should be set on a realistic past. A sports team that only loses a couple games during a season can realistically set a goal for an undefeated season the next year. For a team that has lost all their games during the previous season, the same goal of an undefeated season the next year is unrealistic.
Because I struggled with advanced math in high school, I waited till my senior year in high school to take Geometry. Had I taken it as a sophomore I don't think I would have passed it. Looking back I can see were the extra two years of maturity I gained by my senior year help me overcome the obstacles I faced in that subject.
Students who struggle in basic math should be realistic about which math classes they take next in order to progress in learning math. For the student to take a math class that may be too advanced for their abilities just because it will meet a college eligibility standard may lead to frustration and failure.
Students with low grades have admitted to me that in some of their classes the material is simply too hard for them. When I asked them why they enrolled in that class their response is because it is a requirement to get into college. Education should not be in the business of promoting frustration. Education should have learning as its ultimate objective.
ACCELERATION OF THE CURRICULUM - passing up the fundamentals by lack of repetition of the basics.
In 5th grade I played for a basketball coach who spent 90% of practice time drilling fundamental skills. At the time we didn't understand. While he made us work on fundamentals such as left-hand lay-ups or dribbling with our eyes up, all we wanted to do was scrimmage. He would tell us that practice was not for play - practice was his classroom. Adding to our frustration was that when we would play a game we would lose to teams who didn't seem to be concerned about all this fundamental stuff.
His response after every game was, "Don't worry boys. You keep working on the fundamentals and by the time you get to high school you will run right by those teams." Our coach was right. In high school our game was so much better because of fundamentals we had learned. The solid foundation of being able to dribble with either hand with our eyes up so we could see the floor allowed us to play the game at a much higher level. Other teams who scrimmaged all the time and skipped over the fundamentals had basically the same game they had in 5th.
Learning fundamentals takes time and repetition. Sometimes repetition may seem boring but it is what leads to solid execution. A gifted student may be able to skip over the fundamentals and still achieve. The average student however needs them. We learned arithmetic when I was young by using math squares. It consisted of a large square on a piece of paper with smaller squares inside. The numbers 1-10 were lined across the top of the large square and also down the sides of the large square. We learned to add or multiply the numbers going down the side with the numbers going across the top. Sometimes the teacher would time us to see how fast we could fill in all the inside squares with the correct answer. We did this activity over and over again. Not just one year in school but three consecutive years. By the time we were in middle school all the students had a good fundamental base for future math work.
Once, my first grade stepson came home from school with a math assignment that involved graphing. He was to contact a number of people on the phone, ask them a question, and chart the results. He was then to make a graph chart of all the collected responses. My question to him was, "Can you even subtract yet?" His response was, "No."
Without repetitive fundamental work students may become "Jacks of all trades but masters of none". Racing too fast through a curriculum simply to cover all the material is like scrimmaging your team too early and often. Students may achieve early but will never reach their full potential.
HOMEWORK MYTH - relying too much on unsupervised work.
Before I begin don't mistake my intent here. I am not saying that students don't need to work hard on school work. As I said previously, I believe repetition of the fundamentals is a key to learning. I do however have a problem with unsupervised homework. Homework should be changed to class work were the student has the teacher to help with proper execution.
I have talked to many students who have discussed with me frustration about not learning anything in a particular class. "I don't understand the material," "The teacher doesn't explain it to me," are common complaints they make. When I asked them what kind of grades they were making, I was surprised to hear some of them remark "B's" and in some cases even "A's". When I asked them how they could be an "A" student without learning they said by copying others' homework and getting enough points in the grade book to earn the grade.
Much of the frustration I hear from students concerning homework is that when they dont understand, there is no one to ask for help. They immediately blame the teacher for not explaining it well enough. If the homework were turned into class work, this problem can be addressed, instead of turning kids into copy machines. Maybe we need to slow up to drill more in class.
I go back to coaching. How effective would I be (or how long would I last as a coach?) if I lectured in practice and mainly relied on the athletes to practice skills at home? In coaching, I take athletes through the drills with me right there to make corrections as they appear. If the athletes are not executing for some reason I know immediately. By game time I pretty much know how the team should do given the strengths and weaknesses of the opponents.
This may mean that not all students may accelerate through a curriculum as rapidly as others, but this would bring the focus back on the comprehension level of each student. In a time when educational institutions always seem to worry about having to prove its worth to society, maybe the first place we should start is to the student sitting in the classroom. The only real standard should be when a student is asked "Do you feel like you are learning?" their response is, "Yes."
With all the attention given to special needs and gifted students today, let's not forget about the average kid in the classroom that is fighting the classic battle of "middle child syndrome" i.e. - feeling overlooked. Let's make sure we give them the solid foundation they need to continue to grow and reach in many cases beyond their abilities into their dreams.
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