by Beth Bruno
Editorís note: Ms. Bruno is on Summer hiatus. The Gazette will be re-running selected columns from her past articles featured on Teachers.Net
When our son Alex entered kindergarten he was placed in a multi-grade classroom, a so-called K-1, which meant he would have the same teacher for both kindergarten and first grade. Parents clamored for this program's teacher, a well-trained, energetic and experienced man, one of the few male elementary teachers in the district. Our son liked this teacher very much, and they got along fine.
At the first parent-teacher conference I learned that academic progress was steady, but that Alex seemed distractible and inattentive. The teacher noticed that he seemed lost after assignment directions were given, so he had to ask classmates what he was supposed to do. The teacher told me he frequently used the phrase, "Earth to Alex," to get his attention, but he still couldn't sustain it.
We tried a number of interventions, including smiley-face stickers as rewards for improved attentiveness. By the end of his kindergarten year, he had maintained his academic progress, but listening skills were largely unimproved.
When first grade began, I arranged to observe the class to learn more about Alex's adjustment there. I noticed that assignments were presented in an interesting and entertaining manner, but the noise level gradually increased after instructions were given, because students worked in groups and moved freely around the classroom. I could see that my son found the activity and noise level both distracting and confusing. Teacher instruction was given in bits and pieces to individual students or to small groups as questions came up about their work. Alex invariably looked up, curious about what others were doing rather than focusing on his work.
I recognized that he was floundering, so I agreed to have Alex evaluated. His achievement test scores were above average and some mild verbal memory problems surfaced, but nothing was statistically deficient enough to warrant intervention. Nevertheless, the special education teacher offered to work with Alex one hour a week to help him improve memory/listening skills and, in the process, build up his self-confidence (which was starting to waver). He loved working one-on-one with her and would have accepted the help an hour a day if she would let him!
Alex finished out the year as he had started it: strong academically, but weak in attention and listening skills. Always a physically active and athletic boy, he was overjoyed that school was over, so he could play sports all summer. As fall approached, he dreaded the start of second grade.
He was placed with another veteran teacher who had a reputation for identifying and building on individual student strengths. Every morning she put an agenda on the board and told the students exactly what they needed to do to complete each assignment. Beside the agenda, she listed learning activities each child could do if finished with the assigned work before everyone else. Students worked independently, not in groups, and the teacher circulated to help each one. This teacher soon discovered Alex's strong visual/artistic skills and openly admired his detailed, realistic drawings of wildlife (he and a friend of his were ardent bird watchers). She had a way of identifying special talents in each student and giving their unique abilities recognition. By the end of the first month of second grade Alex's confidence was sky high. He would have walked on water for that teacher, and so would I!
Both of these teachers were sensitive, positive and experienced educators. But one brought out our son's weaknesses, and the other brought out his strengths. Sometimes there are significant differences between student and teacher learning styles or personalities that strongly affect learning outcomes for individual students. After all, learning problems don't always reside within the student. A spark, ignited between student and teacher, can often turn a pattern of underachievement around.
In your experience, what are some of the approaches teachers, parents or students can take to ignite that motivational spark in underachieving students?
Beth Bruno email@example.com
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