The secret to differentiating instruction and motivating students just might be found in extra-curricular activities.
by Bill Page
Regular contributor to the Gazette
June 1, 2008
Looking for motivated kids, individualized learning, success, and differentiation? Check out the extra-curricular activities
As long as teachers rely on grouping, single assignments for the whole class, and control of the step-by-step learning procedures through assignments, worksheets, grading and homework, students must necessarily be treated as groups; thereby every student treated pretty much alike according to the needs of the group… regardless of his or her differences in interests, abilities and needs. For teachers, the only alternative to grouping is individualizing; conversely, the only alternative to individualizing is grouping. Short of complete one-on-one individualizing, teachers have only the choice of what size group or what grouping criteria.
Learning Is Constructed By Each Student
Teachers know that learning is a personal, individual experience; that it is constructed within the unique perceptions and experiences of each student. They are well aware of differing personalities, learning styles and backgrounds; but, since a one-to-one ratio of teacher to student is not practical in classrooms, schools must, of necessity, group students.
I have always marveled that a high school coach can take 60 or more kids who range from 78 lb freshmen to 280 lb seniors, from kids who don't know how to put on a uniform, to three year varsity lettermen, and without help, report cards or direct supervision, teach the kids to play football at a highly skilled, highly competitive level.
Teaching Individuals In A Group
What needs to be considered are ways to individualize learning in a group of learners.Teachers have learned to differentiate in the three major areas of instruction: 1.) assignments, 2.) procedures, 3.) assessment, regarding each as a separate area. By far, the best examples of individualization, including inclusion, diversity, self-directed learning, peer coaching, cooperation, mentoring, and ethnic sensitivity have been in out-of-school activities and in-school extra-curricular activities. In these settings, ranging from little league, scouts, and ballet classes to chess clubs and FFA, kids of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds can come together; can function meaningfully, learn and enjoy the activities as individuals in a group of diverse learners – without the reward-punishment-control concerns.
Individualizing In Sports
I have always marveled that a high school coach can take 60 or more kids who range from 78 lb freshmen to 280 lb seniors, from kids who don't know how to put on a uniform, to three year varsity lettermen, and without help, report cards or direct supervision, teach the kids to play football at a highly skilled, highly competitive level. And, can bring on new members and lose the best players each year, while maintaining team integrity. Understanding how this is done is an important key to classroom differentiation.
What needs to be considered: ways to individualize learning in a group of learners.
Characteristics of Extra-Curricular Activities
Some of the many characteristics of out-of-school, extra-curricular success that hold the key to differentiated learning for classrooms are these:
A COMMON GOAL: To win a game, or produce a play, requires that each member contribute his or her share toward the objective. Some are stars and some are substitutes, but each does his or her part to his or her ability in cooperation and collaboration with others on the team and with a coach or resource person coordinating the efforts to reach a shared goal. Each knows the goal and contributes to the goal. It takes everyone doing his or her part. Such is life.
MEANINGFUL ACTIVITY: Members of the group see reasons for their input and for the rules and the discipline necessary to accomplish the group activities or projects. They also realize that everyone’s role, however small, is important and each takes individual responsibility for his or her contribution.
COOPERATION: Team members work together, learn from one another, and function according to their own abilities, strengths and interests. Except when occasionally vying for the same position, they do not compete with each other. They willingly help each other to succeed. They take pleasure sharing; in seeing their colleagues learn, improve, succeed and become more proficient.
The best examples of having an extra-curricular esprit de corps in my classrooms, is when I have authentic situations.
SATISFACTION: The three P’s – performance, production, and product (not necessarily a tangible product) all contribute to the morale, spirit and feelings of self-esteem. The feeling of team accomplishment is shared by each and every participant regardless of his or her role and contribution.
MORALE: Successful coaches know that fundamentals of the game are essential. The difference in winning or improving, however, is the team morale, esprit de corps, and camaraderie. That is why we have cheerleaders, pep talks and enjoyment mixed with the hard work of practice and preparation and accomplishment. Learning math is not just the basics; it’s an attitude with the satisfaction of knowing, doing and accomplishing.
RELATIONSHIP TO THE LEADER: The leader is normally called coach or sponsor, not teacher. And for good reason, he or she is there as a helper, or resource, the one on whom they rely to share the expertise, goals, procedures and feedback of the endeavor. S/He does not need report cards, or principal's office. S/He derives position or authority by virtue of his or her knowledge, his or her resourcefulness and ability to assist others in acquiring the knowledge and skills. If the goal is to produce a school newspaper, we need to have the one who knows most about it help us and give us guidance and leadership so we can produce and succeed.
VARIETY OF ACTIVITIES: To produce, perform or create a product, there are many phases to the process, many levels of activities and skills, and the need for a variety of personal skills and abilities. To field a football team, it is best to have big linemen, quick small scat backs, tall pass receivers, people who can kick as well as people who can pass, serve as captain and call plays. While it would be nice to get all of that in one person, it's neither likely nor practical.
Whenever we do real, authentic activities or lessons we get real, authentic reactions and real, authentic learning.
Some Authentic Units
The best examples of having an extra-curricular esprit de corps in my classrooms, is when I have authentic situations. When we made my seventh grade class into a “Westward Movement Museum” complete with model Conestoga wagons, audiotape instructions on building a sod house, and reports, diaries, and stories of pioneer life, we had nearly every one of the characteristics listed above.
When my high school journalism classes produced the school newspaper, yearbook and creative writing journal, they were real products with real feedback, real deadlines, real paid subscriptions, and real feelings of accomplishment. Science projects for the county science fair; art projects for display at the state teacher’s convention; civic club; citywide essay contests; geometry class presentations to the school board; the spring music concert… are all authentic projects.
I suspect that if the Algebra II class had to go to the floor of the gym on a Friday night in front of other students, parents, community members and the media, in competition with Algebra II students from the rival high school, the activities during that preceding week would probably have been different. Public performance is another matter.
Only when a teacher creates a learning community do the students see that the way to reach individual goals is to work together sharing efforts and ideas, helping one another as a means of helping themselves.
Classrooms Should To Be “Teams”
Often, the classroom teacher tries to be a coach, a leader, a referee, a facilitator, a resource; but there is one big problem – s/he has no team. The class is too often a bunch of individual players, all competing for the same position. The students are not a cohesive group except for their being in the same room and all having similar goals for individual achievement. Only when a teacher creates a learning community do the students see that the way to reach individual goals is to work together sharing efforts and ideas, helping one another as a means of helping themselves.
Kids learn from the company they keep; they strive to be like their friends; they value the things that those to whom they feel kinship value. Learning thus becomes more a matter of socialization than of instruction. Extra-curricular activities are dependent on that fact. Teachers would do well to utilize those elements in the activities in the regular classroom.
Toward Greater Authenticity
Whenever we do real, authentic activities or lessons we get real, authentic reactions and real, authentic learning. When teachers build cooperative classroom communities, wherein each member from the least of them to the highest share common goals and work together for their mutual benefit, they can become resources rather than task-masters. They can be resourceful, helping each kid rather than to try reaching each kid through group lessons and instruction.
While there are certainly other characteristics and other dynamics of extra-curricular activities, the obvious, continued success of most all of the programs - their popularity and voluntary participation - make them worthy of study, comparison and emulation. The enthusiasm of the participants, the lack of extrinsic reward or at least its relatively minor role, the support, interest and enthusiasm of those not directly participating, and the long lasting, continuing interest in the activities, are sufficient to use them as a model toward which teachers might work in their classrooms.
Bill Page, a farm boy, graduated from a one-room school. He forged a career in the classroom teaching middle school “troublemakers.” For the past 26 years, in addition to his classroom duties, he has taught teachers across the nation to teach the lowest achieving students successfully with his proven premise, “Failure is the choice and fault of schools, not the students.”
Bill Page is a classroom teacher. For 46 years, he has patrolled the halls, responded to the bells, and struggled with innovations. He has had his share of lunchroom duty, bus duty, and playground duty. For the past four years, Bill, who is now in his 50th year as a teacher, is also a full time writer. His book, At-Risk Students is available on Abebooks, Amazon, R.D. Dunn Publishing, and on Bill’s web site: http://www.teacherteacher.com/
In At-Risk Students, Page discusses problems facing failing students, “who can’t, don’t and won’t learn or cooperate.” “The solution,” he states, “is for teachers to recognize and accept student misbehavior as defense mechanisms used to hide embarrassment and incompetence, and to deal with causes rather than symptoms. By entering into a democratic, participatory relationship, where students assume responsibility for their own learning.” Through 30 vignettes, the book helps teachers see failing students through his eyes as a fellow teacher, whose classroom success with at-risk students made him a premier teacher-speaker in school districts across America.