Friday, January 23, 2015

Diversity in Amish Country? You bet.

When I was in college in the early 80's, a new minor was offered - Racial and Ethnic Understanding.  As a soon-t0-be unemployed teacher, I was anxious to expand my repertoire of certifications to make me more attractive to a potential school district.  I worked to tutor minority students, took classes with a focus on cultural diversity, and was released into the workforce with a greater appreciation for minority students and their challenges.

Where was my first job?  Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  While most of the world considers the minority in Lancaster to be the Amish, it's no secret that the bulk of the population in my district when I started in 1999 was white.  Needless to say, my minor in Racial and Ethnic Understanding was, well, pretty minor.

The Te@chthought Blog Challenge question of the day:How do you meet the needs of a diverse student population?

The diversity defined in the coursework in the early 80's didn't begin to touch the diverse populations today.  There was little discussion about LGBT, and only marginal discussion about anything related to special needs populations.  Sensitivity allegedly existed, but only for discussions that people would consider having in actual public forums, rather than whispered.  The city of Lancaster, which really is classified as a CITY, despite what the folks in Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia may think, has become much more diverse in its ethnicity as well.

Oh, and academic diversity?  That, too, was not as expansively recognized either.  There were the kids that "got it" and the kids that didn't.  The discussion pretty much centered around what kinds of worksheets would be gathered and copied and placed in colored folders marked "enrichment" for the lil rocket scientists who finished their "regular" classwork early.

Given that I work with the upper level kids, most of the diversity that crosses my threshold deals with diversity in interest or opinion, in the form of a multiple menu of special passions or interests.  My one section of Information Literacy does contain a variety of abilities, from students with IEPs to those identified gifted.  My intentional planning of the scope and sequence of the course includes an intentional transparency.  The students are able to see what is due when, are able to project what they're working on, and adjust their focus or advocate for themselves.  

One of the biggest keys to success for high school students is the ability to self-advocate.  We focus on speaking up, instead of speaking out.  Being mature, instead of being a clown, and being a responsible learner, instead of making excuses.  I ask them to own their learning and their assignments, and include me in the structure and planning of their timelines.  (Isn't this what business and industry does with adults?  Why don't we teach this explicitly?)

Students with data that support a higher level of understanding are permitted more independence, often working collaboratively or individually in the library.  Their projects are held to a higher standard, require a bit more in the way of research, and often address a thesis statement with a supported argument rather than a specific, informative assignment.

Students at the lower level are supported with my wonderful colleagues in the special education department, who help me to modify assignments by creating graphic organizers, word banks, and the ever-popular "madlib", allowing for student research to be inserted into the shell of an essay, proving they know the content, even if writing skills are not top notch.

It's exhausting, it's exhilarating, and proof to me that I always have something to learn, and will never claim to be a master teacher.

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