Tuesday, August 21, 2007

How "Trench 'N' Fun" Came Into Being

My fifth grade teacher certainly had her favorites, and I wasn't one of them. Since neither my friend Lindsay nor I fell into her perfect cookie-cutter package of what an eleven-year-old girl should be like, we were more or less "ignored with intent" in the same fashion a cat will sit with its backside in your general direction with the occasional glance over the sholder if dinner is later than expected. Regardless, we fell into the "accelerated student" category, and this entitled us to the occasional project on the side, such as writing and telling stories to the Kindergardeners or reading additional books. However, this didn't excuse us from a lot of class-wide activities, such as the collective reading of the "fifth grade book" that year, Johnny Tremain. After the volumes were first distributed to the class, our teacher started reading the first chapter to us. What could have taken only half an hour--double that at the most--took a murderously long period of time to complete because she stopped to explain every word longer than two syllables to everyone in the class. Because we were all of mixed abilities, I am sure there were students who needed that guidance, and of course that help should be made available to them. For those of us who were on a faster track, well, we generally amused ourselves by reading on ahead or creating board games on the back of our math book covers.

Fast forward to eighth grade. That year, we did a lot of history-oriented projects with one entire unit focused on the American Civil War. The teachers divided us into groups of eleven or twelve, each group made up of randomly chosen students. Like most of the other over-achievers, I could expect perhaps one other student on my level in the group. And yes, that is exactly what happened. As a result, I was busting my ass for not one or two other students, but nearly a dozen of them, because I simply did not want to end up with a low grade averaged in with all of my solo work.

These two situations, and many others, were brought to mind when I read an article today in Time Magazine about how the school systems were leaving genius students behind. I think it goes much farther than that--I think the whole company of over-achievers are left holding the ball on their own. I didn't get out of a mixed ability classroom until I entered high school, and like any other team-oriented exercise, the goings-on of the classes as the years went by were always geared to the proverbial weakest link. This meant hours of reading books, a la Johnny Tremain, the explaining of instructions for projects and crafts over and over again, and lots of "group projects" where the teachers hoped less hard working students would "learn something" from their counterparts that exhibited the early signs of a high work ethic.

Since over achieving students can handle most classroom work without too much trouble, they are usually ignored in a mixed classroom while an overworked teacher focuses on the students who need the extra help. The teacher is forced to create lesson plans that all students can participate in, regardless of what they can (or in many cases are willing to) do, and as a result, many over acheivers finish them long before the rest of the class with little to do in the meantime. Most over achievers are also the best behaved kids in the class, so even though they may be individually or collectively bored or unoccupied, the teacher can reasonably assume that they won't be drawing on the tabletops with indelible marker.

It isn't only that they are ignored, it is that they are essentially "used" by the teachers as teaching tools for other students that is even more inexcusable. Teachers divide students into groups and deliberately mix ability levels so that other students can "learn by example" from their peers. Many times the only thing that separates an over-acheiving student from others on the grade school level is how hard they work--not their abilities. How many of the "smart" kids out there knew someone on the bottom of the class that they knew was just as talented, but who refused to do any homework? Putting groups of students together like that gives the less hard working kids a chance to coast and gives the over achieving kids a heart attack, forcing them to pull more than their own weight for the same grade. Oh, and if anyone out there can remember grade school with any clarity--was there ever a time when a student saw an overachiever and thought "oh, yeah, maybe I should work that hard, too...."? Or was the picture more like this: over acheiving student furiously writing out how to complete a project while other students talk to their friends, throw bits of paper at each other, and talk about what is upcoming next weekend?

The interesting thing about "No Child Left Behind" is that it demands that schools bring up students that sit on the lowest levels. I think it is fantastic that money is being allocated and programs are being developed that allow more students to learn and participate in class. However, the danger is that this is becoming the only focus, leaving over acheiving and bright students essentially to fend for themselves. What's the solution? I'm sure there isn't one because if there were something clear-cut, it would have come to pass in our classrooms long ago.

And if I hadn't had free time in grade school, "Trench 'N' Fun: The World War One Experience" board game wouldn't have graced the back of my history book.


gagknee said...

could you draw a diagram of Trench & Fun? I need visual aids.

Misanthrope !!! said...

I should have read it bottom to top.. :) nice structured write !

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Brighter ones will get frustrated if time has to be set aside to explain to thers. I've always been in favour of setting classes according to ability.

the superstar said...

You make good points. I was one of the "smarter" kids in my classes in grade school, and even though there was a separate reading class for us by the time we were in 2nd grade and they were splitting math and science classes by 4th, I still don't think in some cases it was enough. My problem wasn't that I was overworking myself and doing other kids' work, though I don't doubt that that happened once in awhile too, but that everything was still so easy that I never learned to apply myself. School didn't get even kind of hard for me until I was half way through high school, and then it wasn't because I didn't understand the material, it was because the teachers were finally expecting us to work for the knowledge we acquired, and I'd never had to do that. To this day, I'm still entirely too lazy when it comes to school because I got so used to having knowledge handed to me in a hand basket that I never had to learn to learn. And I think there are a ton of students like me... most of my friends from high school, for example, are in the same boat. We were exceptionally bright kids but now aren't excelling as much as we potentially could have been because we weren't taught those important skills early enough. I think that's another huge downfall of public education...