February 22, 2013

What Really Matters

When I taught middle school students, I used a wide variety of techniques to “catch” all the kids’ multiple intelligence strengths. And most of my colleagues employed a similar multifaceted approach, so I never thought twice about it. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

After five years, I chose to transfer to the neighboring high school. I enjoyed my students there as much as I’d enjoyed my middle school kids. But it didn’t take me long to realize that my new colleagues’ approach to teaching was very different than what I’d previously experienced. Specifically, most of them had just one instructional method: give textbook reading assignments, lecture during class sessions, and give “canned” quizzes and tests. Essentially, they catered to word- and logic-smart students and ignored the preferences of the rest.

I considered adopting the same approach because I thought, perhaps, I should go with the flow. And I started my first semester with that in mind, handing out district-adopted literature anthologies and choosing a canned topic for which all my students were to write a three-paragraph essay according to the prescribed “formula.”

But I quickly realized that I couldn’t continue down that path. My students – many of whom had also been in my middle school classes – were dying on the vine. They weren’t reading the assigned (uninteresting) stories, so they failed the quizzes. They weren’t drafting quality compositions because the topics weren’t necessarily relevant and the process was too abstract. And I was bored to tears, far from satisfied with such an assembly line approach to “learning.”

So one day I opted to chuck it all in favor of a completely individualized reading/writing workshop format as I’d used at the middle school. I developed age-appropriate expectations, but I returned to the multifaceted approach that allowed each child to harness his particular interests and multiple intelligence strengths in pursuit of improving his reading and writing abilities.

My students loved it, and so did I. Many of my colleagues observed with interest, and complimented me on my “unique approach.” But I took flack from a few, who said that individualizing the writing process, giving students freedom to choose what they read, and allowing them to incorporate artwork, creative writing, drama, and music into book projects was “inappropriate.” One woman even tried to undermine my authority with our shared students by bashing my methodology in the middle of her daily lecture.

Though the students came to my defense, the criticism was hard to swallow. I wanted my colleagues’ respect, especially as the “new kid on the block.” But, in the end, I remembered that my responsibility was to my students – to do whatever I could to maximize their learning. And I knew that helping all of the students to use all of their multiple intelligence strengths – not just the ones that fit neatly into the school mold – was the way to do that.

I don’t think I ever had the respect of all my peers during my four-year tenure. But I had proof that my students were motivated, learning, and improving. And that’s what really mattered.


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