Three Things You Can Do To Close the Opportunity Gap

Dear Teachers,
It's November.  The time change has happened so it's a little lighter in the morning but, if you're like me, your body wants to go to bed at about 7pm.  All that dark coziness lures me to put on my pajamas, grab a book, and snuggle under my covers.

November is a time when the end of the semester become a faint light, growing brighter with each passing day.  This can mean two things for students who are struggling.  It can be the time when my high school kids completely check out, having given up hope that they'll pass because they're too far behind.

Or, November can be a time of renewed energy, when realizing the end is coming, students suddenly scramble and want to do work that previously didn't seem all that important.  Caution: this might not happen until the day they come back from Thanksgiving break.  Or the week after that.

So, what do we do when a student suddenly decided to flip the switch near the end of the semester?  Do we look at the mountain of assignments they haven't done, the objectives they haven't reached, give a giant sigh and say, "Dude, it's too late.  You haven't done anything for 3 months."

Or, do we celebrate the spark we see right in front of us even though we secretly wish it had been earlier?  Do we embrace the person standing in front of us and realize that, regardless of the amount of work this student has not done, in less than four years, this student will be an adult, a decision-maker, a member of our community who contributes, either positively or negatively?

Moments like these are where we have power.  Moments like these are where the opportunity gap can shrink or the achievement gap can grow.  The choice is ours.

Before I get screaming hate mail, I am in no way discounting all the work you've done all semester long with your class.  Your hard work and time are valuable.  I'm also not suggesting that you gratuitously pass this student without any learning occurring.  I'm not advocating that you look through your grade book and excuse everything not done.  That is not education.  That will not close the achievement gap.

However, there are things we can do to close the opportunity gap. Here are three suggestions:

1.  Offer realistic hope:

It can be overwhelming to think of all a student has missed, and we could easily write it off as impossible.  But that is not our job.  Our job is to facilitate learning and to provide opportunities for all students to grow.  Number one on this list is to validate the student, to tell them we believe in them and appreciate that they are ready to work hard.  We need to acknowledge that we are glad the student wants to improve and to assure them that we will help them in whatever ways we can. We can outline the extra times that are available for the student to get work done, and we can listen to the student. Problems are often way more complicated than we realize, and we can't solve them all.  But we can offer all available supports, including our belief in the student.

Part of encouraging the student is to praise the effort they are willing to put in.  We cannot downplay the hard work that might be needed to pass.  We can't mislead the student or give them the impression they won't have to work hard.  That is the reality here: they do have to learn in a shorter amount of time.

2.  Focus on learning not assignments:

When I look at the learning that happens across a semester, all the planning, the time, the carefully crafted lessons, I feel angry to think that some of it wasn't important.  Yes, it was! screams that defensive, little voice in my head.  But when I really examine the learning and growth I want for students across a semester, I have to acknowledge that a lot of what I plan is instruction and practice that not all kids need.  As annoying as it may be, kids do learn without my lessons and assignments; they learn and grow without me.  Often.  Richard Allington writes in his 2013 article, "What Really Matters When Working with Struggling Readers," in The Reading Teacher, "self-teaching is one of those largely ignored but potentially powerful aspects of engaged reading." 

Honestly, how do I know exactly what and how my students are learning outside of class?  I was one of those kids that skimmed the reading in my high school English classes and devoured volumes of novels of my own choosing outside of class. There are kids learning with their own material, in their own ways, outside our classrooms too. Some of them learn through online gaming, others through car manuals.  We just might not know about it.  

So when a student wants to get caught up, look at the learning standards.  What do they have to show me they know and can do?  What do they have to demonstrate they've mastered?  That often requires us to look at objectives, not our grade books. What is the learning the student needs to do instead of what are the assignments the student needs to do?  I'm not here to suggest that every student can and will pass.  But I would rather every student leaves my class stronger than when they came, because they personally have learned, not because they have completed assignments.

3.  Build a relationship:  The often overlooked benefit that can happen when a student chooses to catch up in late November or early December is the potential for a stronger relationship with a student that can impact the student for a life time.

First, unless you teach a semester-long course, this kid is coming back next semester. If you end with a stronger relationship now, that will have an impact on next semester.  By helping a student (not enabling, but helping) now, providing support to reach meaningful goals, you build trust with a student.  And so many of our kids need this.  The education system seems designed for someone other than them and they feel like outsiders in school.  Finding someone who is on their side and believes in them is valuable in and of itself.

*     *     *     *

I've heard teachers say that if a student learns they can do nothing all semester and still pass, they're going to do the same thing next semester.  Maybe.  But maybe not.  Another possibility is that a student who ends the semester with a stronger relationship with a teacher and some true learning accomplishments might work harder than last semester.  Maybe that end of the semester experience changed the level the trust that student has with teachers, and maybe it strengthened some much needed skills.

But yes, it is possible the student will do the same thing next semester.  There are more reasons for this than I can write here.  The truth is, all we control is here and now.  We can't control the future.  All I know is that we greatly improve the chances that a student will engage in learning and school when we embrace and encourage the times they want to learn.

So, here's to a strong ending to our semester.  Yes, it will be tiring, possibly exhausting. But when break does come and we can look back at all the learning that did happen, we will feel good. Why not choose to go on Winter Break knowing you opened the door to more learning next semester instead of closing it?

Next week I'm off to NCTE in St. Louis.  If I'm walking around staring at name badges, don't be concerned. I'm just really excited to meet my all-powerful, you-matter-more-than-you-realize, online PLN people in person.  Please catch my attention and say hi if you see me!

Happy Sunday!


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