PLAN A: My Best Effort to Create an Absolutely Successful Classroom, for All Students

Earlier this week, I was the only general ed teacher at an IEP meeting for a student who had, in separate, seemingly-random instances in my 11th grade English classroom, explicitly complained of feeling mentally ill, possibly threatened me, and made the girls sitting near him uneasy with extreme and misogynistic statements. Yet despite the severity of the situation, the (case worker) closed his laptop within ten minutes of the discussion and just listened. He told me later that he had never done that, not in “thousands” of similar meetings. But in this case, for the first time, it was obvious that this student was getting all the accommodations he could need or want. He told me, with a bit of fascination, that my classroom not only had accommodations available, or even imbedded into the classroom environment, but the class was actually centered around accommodations for each and every student. “It’s not just evolutionary,” he said, “it’s revolutionary.”

Note that he didn’t say it was a good thing. Just unique.

I hadn’t even told him the part where all 126 students in my classes have A’s on their first quarter report cards.

Personally, I’m not sure it’s particularly evolutionary, and it doesn’t really feel revolutionary. As much as I’d like to be a radical thought leader and shorten “accommodation-centered” to “AcCent” and go on tour talking about it, my new set of policies just feels like the next logical step in where education is going. I’m not even sure I like it. But I’d rather be a skeptical pioneer than a grumbling follower.

Plan A is essentially simple: If every student does their best (for themselves and their classmates) to improve their reading, writing, and listening skills (as defined by the Common Core), then every student earns an A. But if we let one student bail out, the deal is off, and we go back to business as usual.

My responsibility is to provide the following:

  • A personally abridged packet of every anchor standard from the Common Core for reading and writing. Every standard is written to be understood at their reading level, and scaffolded for all learners.
  • Unlimited help in comprehending each anchor standard.
  • Limited, but direct, instruction to give each student the basic skills to succeed at their next level of learning each standard. 
  • Lots of space to choose which element (standard) of reading or writing they want to address that day/week, and lots of space to choose how they do it, and who they do it with. For example, if they all chose to work on learning more about how “multiple themes can operate within a single text,” one student could quietly read their favorite novel of the week, three students could come up with their own theme and then try to work all three themes into a single story, and a larger group could map out all the various themes presented in Finding Nemo (this actually happened).
  • Lots of possible prompts, reading materials, podcasts, project ideas, and so on. This is mostly for the students who lack the will or inclination to determine their own activity. But also, I’m a professional at coming up with good ideas.
  • An environment that normalizes success, cooperation, learning, and pride.
  • An environment that seeks to eliminate all kinds of fear, feelings of inferiority

The students’ responsibilities are as follows:

  • They go hard every single minute of every class, from bell to bell.
  • When the bell rings, they have their journals, their checklists (their packet of standards), and their nametags on their desks.
  • They help their friends, and they ask for help from their friends.
  • Using their checklists and journals, they keep track of each standard they address, including the following details: at which level of scaffolding were they, how did they address it, how many times, and how well did they do.

What do they get for “going hard bell to bell,” along with all this tedious self-assessment?

  • No compulsory tests or quizzes.
  • Very little homework.
  • The peace of knowing their grade will be an A.
  • The freedom to drive their own instruction.
  • The joy of working with others in a positive, stress-free environment.
  • The satisfying grip (literally) on the standards and skills they’re expected to learn.

Several questions and concerns immediately show themselves. Just to name a few:

  1. Seriously? If just one student flakes, everyone else loses out on the deal? Why?
  2. What do we do if one student starts to let us down? Just give up? What are the lines between a) basic peer-pressure, b) “changing the culture into one of mutual success and cooperation,” and c) bullying a kid into improving his reading and writing skills
  3. How will I get them to study, or listen carefully, or write carefully, when they are promised that standardized test scores or standardized writing rubrics won’t negatively affect their grade?
  4. Hypothetically speaking, is it worth it, or even morally acceptable, to give each and every student an A, if it even slightly improves student learning in a general sense? In other words, which situation is preferable: a) The average grade is a 75% (or 85%, or whatever), and the students are individually distinguished by their own personal grade; or b) Everyone gets a 95%, nobody is individually distinguished (by their own letter grade), and generally speaking, student learning is at least slightly (and quantifiably) elevated?
  5. Why am I doing this? (Especially when I love elitism, capitalism, and competition. Because America.)

In my next blog post, I’m going to address that last question first. As a coach and a teacher, I used to be a staunch advocate for straight rows, brutal competition, and top-down discipline. What happened to me? And where did that gum-chomping, Oakley-wearing Coach Godsey go? And why? And is he long gone, or just in another department of my life? Or is he standing right behind me, with his arms crossed?

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