Challenges of Adolescent Learning/Tracking in Middle Grades

“The listening and learning mode, complemented by varieties of seat work and busywork, wasn’t arrived to haphazardly. I think that losing control looms as our greatest fear. Rather than risk overstimulation we choose not to stimulate. Better to limit the possibilities and keep a neutral tone than to risk a display of adolescents’ strong feelings–the shared laughter, overt enthusiasm, and angry outbursts that Goodlad rarely observed. Better to limit the possibilities and keep students quiet and facing front than to risk big, adolescent bodies in motion. Better to blame kids for their exuberance than to help them figure out how to channel it in productive ways.” — Nancie Atwell

Atwell is referring to a study that concluded at least 70 percent of American students spend class time listening to teachers talk.

“Learning is more likely to happen when students like what they are doing. Learning is also more likely to happen when they can be involved and active and when they can learn from other students. When students are tracked according to ability levels, the possibilities for this kind of collaborative learning shut down. Kids tracked into the top groups see their classmates as competitors; measuring themselves against their friends, they worry they’re not smart enough and panic about grades. Kids tracked into the bottom groups are plenty smart enough to look around them the first week of school and catch on: “I’m in the dumb group, I’ll be here forever, and I know what’s expected of me.” They also catch on to who’s in the top groups when old friends from other sections describe the challenges of their coursework and homework. The students placed in lower homogeneous sections most need interesting, challenging instruction. They most need school to enlighten and make sense. They most need individual conversations with the teacher. And they mostly get remedial work, low-level texts and low level ideas, and teachers faced with a crazy situation: a whole class of kids who benefit from one-to-one help, but mostly need to be disciplined and managed.” –Atwell

These are interesting arguments. I believe this debate alone is why I personally feel passionate about middle grades education, and why so many adults have horrific memories of it–Tracking–. As an educator I don’t like the idea of tracking. I understand that it must be done for certain reasons, but I don’t fully know the answers or why the system is the way it is. I would love to understand it better.

Tracking is interesting to me because it almost seems like three economic classes–rich, middle class, poor. For example, one day near the CRCT, my classes were doing some review. I showed a Schoolhouse Rock video to my advanced class. They begged and pleaded for more. I said ok. Well, they sang their little hearts out, knowing every word to several of the songs. They spoke about their elementary school days, and singing the songs in their moms/ minivans. Well, in my average class only a handful had ever heard of Schoolhouse Rock, and in my low-level class, no one had ever heard of the songs, and they looked at me as if I were a space alien. Furthermore, I would often hear the other kids put down and make nasty remarks about my low-level class. That class really thought they were dumb. As a result, it takes tremendous amounts of energy by the teacher to help this group of students think otherwise. Maybe if kids had more choice, or it was broken up a bit more, and the kids weren’t tracked with the same group in every class, all year long, there self-esteem might increase, and so would performance.

As I said, I don’t have the answers, but it’s an interesting debate. As I continue through Atwell’s text I hope to find some answers on to engage readers and writers in spite of tracking systems.

Part II is tomorrow– Developing Reading and Writing Workshops in the Classroom–I’m very excited about the discoveries I’ll make!

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