The Problem -
As we are all well aware, our students are mostly coming to us behind in reading and in mathematics. The most recent NAEP testing shows that 60 percent of our students in 4th, 8th, and 12th grade still are reading below proficient level. That means they cannot fully and deeply comprehend grade level text. The Nation's Report Cardshows that only 25 percent of high school seniors score at the proficient level in mathematics.
As Tomlinson stated, the answer is not to “dumb down” the curriculum. The answer is to begin the curriculum at the level where are students are working now and move them up to the state standards.
Know Their Readiness Levels and Interests -
We have to begin by keeping track of students' readiness levels, whether this be reading levels, mathematics proficiencies or what they know already about the next unit. The latter can often be determined quickly in a whole-class pre-assessment that takes just a few minutes. We have to know where to begin instruction.
We learn about students' interests when we have them write about themselves at the beginning of the year. We also learn about their interests when we speak to them directly every day as a part of our formative assessment efforts.
We also need to be mindful of what vocabulary in each lesson may be troublesome for students. According to Calderon, ELLs and Title I students will often need to have some of the vocabulary for the lesson explained and have a chance to create original sentences with the new words. That is called “pre-loading the vocabulary.”
Set the Bar –
We need to set one bar at the beginning of each year. It is the bar for mastery grading. Reeves explains that the idea of getting grades like Bs and Cs does not really make sense. Often Bs and Cs are given to students in classes who have not really demonstrated mastery on assignments. Instead, a policy of A, D, or 0 will move students to mastery. An A is assigned when a student has fully met all of the conditions of the assignment; they have mastered the material. A “D” is assigned when a student has not fully met some condition of the assignment but has mostly shown mastery. A grade of 0 is when the student has mostly not exhibited mastery.
Before you stop reading in anger, let me explain. If we are doing all of the scaffolding and support along with providing constant formative assessment, students have ample opportunity to fix their work and learn the content. As Davies stated, when students are constantly formatively assessed and provided concrete, constructive feedback, they have ample opportunity to get their work up to the standard. So, the big change is to not have the students dump their papers in a pile for you to grade tonight. You will be having mini-conferences with students throughout the class period. You grade each paper as you go and provide concrete and timely feedback. There will be no summative assessment on the paper, the grade, until the student has arrived at mastery.
This “pushes,” if one is fond of that word, students to reach for mastery on every assignment, and we are there to help them reach that goal every day. This creates a safe and nurturing environment in which students cannot fail. They can only reach and grow.
Obviously, each lesson will need to be prefaced with rubrics and/or clear expectations explained in advance, if we are grading for mastery learning.
Pique Their Interest -
It is hard to get students to work to mastery if they are bored. Honest, you can even make grammar fun. Ever watched a room full of 7th graders showing their teacher where they put the punctuation in a story passage where the teacher removed some? Every punctuation mark has a movement, like curve your body to the comma. It is a lot of fun. Learning deserves to be because it is so important.
We can't get students to work to mastery of every lesson if they don't find it highly relevant to them. We need to explain how this relates to the big picture at the outset of each lesson. The lessons also need to be real world. I am learning commas, quotation marks and paragraphing right now because I am writing a piece of fiction. Also, my teacher won't give me that “A” until I not only have a great paper that meets the demands of the assignment, but I have to fully edit it. Otherwise, she gives me some more tips and sends me to my seat to get the rest of those commas in. I need this skill now. I get why I need it.
If you know each student's individual readiness level, then you can adapt the lesson to work with different groups of students. Every group meets and/or exceeds the state standards as they achieve mastery doing the lesson. Some groups will need more supports.
We already discussed pre-loading the vocabulary. Considering most of our students are reading so poorly, they are also not reading very much. This means they are not learning all of the new words they need each year, so their vocabularies are below grade level. It is best to pre-load the vocabulary as a full class. There is a great way to do that. Ask, and we can do a blog article on that. It helps teach word parts, too, and it is really fast.
Since most of the students are not reading on grade level, you will need to find the alternative text that is at their instructional reading level online.
This is where that formative assessment comes in. Davies suggested that every time a student is ready to hand in a paper, you need to see it and formatively assess it on the spot. Don't provide the summative grade until they have achieved mastery. Otherwise, provide hints, tips, mini-lessons and advice and send them back to their seat to fix the paper.
Your logical question is, “What are the other kids doing while I look at each paper?” They are working on the assignment, doing their homework or they are doing enrichment activities. That is where we “push” the ones that are actually proficient and higher.
As you can see, “pushing students to achieve” is not the right mindset. Instead, we need to set the bar of achievement that every student must pass every day. That is a mastery mindset. Students will not need to be “pushed” to this bar, if the lessons are engaging and relevant to them, and they know that we will begin instruction at their readiness level and provide the steps and formative assessment to help them arrive at mastery for that lesson. That is a safe and nurturing environment that allows every student in our classes to flower every day. Don't settle for less. Scaffold more.