During my K-8 school years, there were three distinct classes in which students were grouped. I referred to these in an earlier blog titled, Reading Unleashed, so they may sound familiar to my regular readers. Cardinals, Blue Jays, and Robins, each represented a level of perceived intelligence. Although the titles were gone by sixth grade, everyone still was keenly aware of their assigned bird category.
From my particular class, several students got to take special field trips on a bus that would pick them up one day a week and take them to a destination unknown to the rest of us who were left behind. When we asked about this special trip, we were told that the selected students were “gifted” and therefore needed something different from the rest of us. It was difficult watching these classmates leave and even more disheartening hearing their incredibly awesome stories about what they had done all day when they returned.
We observed a tight bond forming among these student that did not include the rest of us who stayed behind. Perhaps unintentionally, but nonetheless uncomfortable, it created the haves and have-nots scenario that followed us through eighth grade and beyond. I wondered why all of us couldn’t have the same opportunity and then maybe we would become “gifted” as well.
I also wondered about the “special” class in our school that might never get to take that kind of field trip. I was curious how it was determined that some of us were special, some were gifted others were average or below average. Was it based on our grades, a test we took, who our parents were? At one point I even asked why all the kids in all the classes couldn’t take a special field trip like the gifted students did. This was met with a reprimand so no further discussion was possible.
Years later, when I became a teacher myself, I better understood why students were grouped and labeled. Sorting students is part of teaching. Grouping students by perceived ability makes teaching them a bit easier and when you have 25 or more students in a classroom, grouping become even more necessary. Within my classroom I had students who were labeled as gifted, special, average, and at-risk. Most teachers find this combination of labels in their classrooms as well, especially at the elementary level.
While I may not have told them verbally, I labeled my students via grades, ability grouping, and my own expectations. I could juggle multiple groupings without missing a beat. I was considered a great teacher and won several awards to prove it. After teaching for several years, I experienced an epiphany that forever changed my schooling paradigm regarding labels and grouping. This awakening came some time after seeing young ones frequently frustrated, giving up, exhibiting distracting behaviors, and resorting to cheating. These were not just the students who had “favorable” labels. I had to ask why.
I told myself that this was normal, that kids didn’t want to work hard even those who seemed to learn more quickly. I told myself that kids were basically lazy and had to be forced to listen and work in class and that grades would reinforce their hard work. I also battled a fair share of pride in my own teaching skills deciding that it must be more the students’ fault than mine. Denial and stubbornness eventually led me to ask a few serious questions that sounded something like the ones below.
- Are my students really learning and how do I know?
- Are the labels and expectations I’ve attached to my students getting in the way of meaningful learning?
I did not perform well on this short quiz. In fact, I failed. I was guilty as charged and I knew it. This is when I decided that labels were ineffective and damaging to both teachers and their students. How did I come to grips with my blatant disregard for meaningful learning in a system that paid and honored me for doing it?
I could no longer teach this way. I broke the mold and did away with ability groupings in my classrooms. I also decided to remove all labels from my vocabulary, practices, and expectations. It didn’t happen overnight and my colleagues viewed my renegade behavior as out of the box and too risky. I really didn’t care about what they thought, I cared more about how my students were going to access their own learning.
When I worked with a small group of kids, which was most of the time, I made sure that they could not identify themselves by their previous labels. My student were learning a lot from just being with each other. This was harder work for me but worked remarkably well for my students. However, I was still stuck with grading labels as my school and district demanded it. My grading practices evolved over time to include more student input by way of class meetings, much less homework, and more verbal and written feedback. I also saved myself a ton of money and my students a ton of extrinsic anxiety by getting rid of stickers, point systems, prize bags, class charts for behavior, and all the other bribery tactics I had come to value so much.
My last few years of teaching were simply amazing. The energy and learning in the classroom was obvious. Students were more independent, more on task, and even more engaged as they felt empowered to learn without a label. Parents noticed too and often asked for their child to be in my classroom. I proved my own theory. The joy and freedom to learn far outweighs any confining labels we place on our children in school. Labeling, and certain kinds of grouping along with teacher expectations can do irreversible damage to an otherwise eager learner. I took this discovery with me into my administrative roles encouraging and enabling teachers to think more out of the box.
In many classrooms, schools and districts, we still label, we still group by ability, and we still hold biased expectations, even if we think we don’t. It is just easier that way. Over the years, we’ve enacted laws to ensure access for students labeled as gifted, disabled, and language learners. It is understandable that these laws were created to address any discrepancy in access to learning.
What seems to be overlooked however, is the inequitable circumstances and practices that occur as an unintended consequence of these very labels. Students are labeled, sorted, and pushed through the system without opportunities for positive deviation. Apparently, no one seems to mind very much as long as we believe that every child is learning.
The real question is…learning at what cost?