Standard 2: Student as Learner
Meeting Standard 2:
"The student teacher demonstrates an awareness of, and concern for, the people in his/her classroom. Focusing on learners as full human beings with a rich history, unique characteristics, substantive achievements, talents, skills and interests, the student teacher does his/her best to observe, document and learn about those students. S/he works hard to 'understand their understanding.'"
- Brown University Teacher Education Handbook
If it weren't for the overabundance of surveys already given to the students by BSHS, one of the things I would have liked do on the first day of school would have been to administer a survey gauging my students' backgrounds, interests, literacy skills, and creative inquiry skills. What sort of experiences, positive and/or negative, had they had with science? With this information, I would know what kinds of experiences would best motivate students in my class. What knowledge did they already possess about the subject matter? Knowing this, I would be able to provide an appropriately challenging curriculum. What occupied and fascinated them inside and outside of school? This would let me invent more effective hooks with which to engage students in the subject matter. How proficient were they in reading and writing? Knowing this would enable me to choose readings that were appropriate to the students' skills. How did they respond to prompts that required creativity and critical reasoning? This would give me a sense of what styles of teaching and learning students were accustomed to.
Since I was not allowed to administer such a survey (and it would be difficult to do a thorough job finding out all these details in a compact survey anyway), I instead learned about my students by observing how they participated and responded to different prompts and activities in class, by examining their written work, and by talking to them whenever an opportunity arose. Using techniques such as these, my teaching team performed a detailed analysis of the literacy skills of the class, and I additionally investigated the literacy skills and background of one individual student.
It helped immensely for a handful of my students that they were in my advisory, and it made me wish I could have one-on-one or small-group interaction with every student outside of classroom activities. I imagine it would be possible to schedule individual conferences during class time, but for a full-time teacher with 150 students, this would take an enormous amount of time.
Gaining an understanding of learning needs is just the first step; the important step is catering to these needs. In my own classroom, there were some with limited exposure to biology and some who had taken an AP class; some who could read and write with greater ease than others; and some who needed more of an introduction to inquiry-based learning. In response to this unavoidable issue of student diversity, the key word is "scaffolding": giving less advanced students more supports while keeping the material sufficiently challenging for more advanced students. The methods I relied on included assigning group work where students of different backgrounds collaborated, each with an essential role; giving instructions through several different modes at once, including modeling; designing activities that engaged a wide range of senses and intelligences; and encouraging the asking of questions.
Still, I struggled with providing content that was appropriately challenging for older, more advanced students while not leaving others lost or overwhelmed. I found that an effective strategy was grouping students heterogeneously, so that more advanced students engaged with an appropriately challenging topic while helping less advanced students in their groups to understand the same concepts. In the meantime, I would circulate to struggling groups to give them additional support. Using strategies such as these, I was able to provide a differentiated instruction to our diverse array of students.