In 2009, I answered a call for submissions to a book about teaching in today's diverse classrooms. Below is the essay which was published in the book, One Size Does Not Fit All, Diversity in the Classroom; Randy Howe, editor.
I knew the class would be special, but I would not know exactly how special it would be until November of that year. I walked into that class with high expectations: high expectations for student learning and high expectations for fun; fun in their learning as well as in my teaching. I had agreed to teach the class, a 4th/5th grade split of all gifted students and had prepared for it over the summer. In the era of No Child Left Behind, these students were indeed being left behind. They were being left behind in meeting their special needs; their need to excel, their need to be challenged, and their need to challenge. So, I had planned my lessons around differentiating for the specific and distinct needs to push these students further in their academics.
After 26 years of teaching in the same school, about 10 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, in a predominately Hispanic neighborhood, I needed something different. I was burning out. In all those years of teaching I had had gifted students in my classes before, but never more than ten, now I had twenty-six. Twenty-six for the whole day, twenty-six split between two curricula! The idea was daunting, but stimulating. I had a new direction for my teaching. Four years prior I had taken on the role of Gifted and Talented Education Coordinator in addition to my duties as a classroom teacher, and I had worked with many of the students in an after school enrichment program the year before when they were 3rd and 4th grade students. So I knew many of them before the school year officially began.
The class was composed of eight 4th graders and eighteen 5th graders; ten girls and sixteen boys; one African-American female, one Filipino male and twenty-four Hispanic students. I was the only Anglo in the room. The class was quite homogenous as an entity in itself, yet quite diverse from the classes across the hall, from across the school, from across the country.
The first months of the year were living up to my expectations. Teaching the split was difficult, but we were managing. The fourth graders were independent and resourceful enough to guide each other when I had to focus on the fifth graders, and vice versa. We were given a scripted Language Arts program which suggests a 5 day pacing plan per reading selection along with the accompanying lessons. We were breezing through in three. I added Literature Circles on top of the regular curriculum. The kids rose to the occasion. The class, as a whole, had a wonderful personality. They actually laughed at, and understood, my humor! Some could even respectfully dish it back. We had an excellent rapport. And they were takers. They took everything I had to teach, and ran with it, thirsting for more.
But they also gave back. September is Hispanic Heritage Month and it offered me my first glimpse of the deeper work by these capable students. I supplied them with a list of Hispanic leaders, past and present, included a few historical events, and let them choose what to work on and how to present their work. Gifted students like the option of choice; choice of topic, choice of product. I was not displeased with the results; a beautiful poster board display of Frida Kahlo’s life and work; a timeline of Cesar Chavez and the struggles and successes he had in his work for the farm workers were two of the projects that stood out. I saw for the first time, what the effect of good differentiation could be. I received some of their best work in those products. I was fully prepared for a great academic year, but was not prepared for what was to come.
November 2008 was a historic election. Not only would the nation elect our first minority president or vice-president, in California we would also be voting on Proposition 8, which would determine whether same-sex couples could legally marry in the state, even though an estimated 18,000 couples already had. My partner of 13 years and I were one of them and were concerned for the fate of our union.
In the week leading to Election Day, I had taught them about the two-party system and the candidate selection process for both the national and state offices. We had discussed the historical importance surrounding the election, the first African-American presidential candidate of a major party and the first Republican Ticket with a female Vice-Presidential candidate. However, to avoid being accused of furthering the “homosexual agenda” I stayed away from Proposition 8.
Election Day dawned, a beautiful, crisp (for Los Angeles) fall morning. There was an excitement in the air; not only for the students, but the adults sensed that change and hope were on the horizon. I collected the class on the yard, and we walked upstairs into our room. I could hear the Obama-chatter in the line. I thought I heard a couple of whispers surrounding Prop 8. As we walked to our desks, Marlene, a fifth grader, glanced out the window and exclaimed, “They tagged the house across the street!”
As several other students ran over, I peered through the window and saw “Yes on Obama” and “No on 8” spray painted on their front retaining wall. The pro-Obama graffiti drew praise, but the Proposition 8 message drew a mixed response. Instead of vandals, I suggested the owners may have done it themselves as no other house had been so tagged. It made sense to the kids. And I wanted to get to the lessons of the day, which included a mock election.
But before we could get on with the work, Juana, a fifth grader never afraid of sharing her opinion, blurted out that it was wrong.
“What was wrong?” I asked, thinking she was still focused on the tagging.
“Not letting two people get married.”
“You should be able to marry who you want,” piped up Rose.
“That’s just sick,” commented one of the boys. “Two people of the same sex together.”
“God says they’re going to hell,” preached Jeremy.
“Don’t give me that!” Juana shot back.
I stood there, amazed at what I was hearing. I don’t remember being that politically aware in fifth grade, let alone discussing something like gay rights. But back then, we didn’t have something like Prop 8 on the ballot. (Several years later, in 1978, we would have Proposition 6, known as, the Briggs’ Initiative, which would prohibit homosexuals and their supporters from teaching.)
I finally settled the class down and into our mock election, which Obama won 25-1. The one lone student, a fourth grader, later said he had no idea who was who and just wrote down a name. I seized a teachable moment and pointed out the importance of studying the candidates and issues to know which way to vote.
Wednesday morning, with the results of the election all over the morning news, I collected the class, they were screaming, “Obama won!” but most were deflated that Proposition 8 passed. I tried to explain that the decision was still too close to call, and we would check in throughout the day. They became sensitive to the dilemma of those couples married before the law was changed. Juana was even distraught that all those couples might have to get divorced! Rose countermanded that making the couples divorce was unfair as they were married in good faith under the law at the time. (These are 10 and 11 year olds!!) I stood, amazed at their insight. The discussion continued in the same vein for nearly a half hour! I could not silence them. Many gifted students have an innate sense of justice. This election had set them off and they needed to vent. I had no choice, I let them. Most students were in support of marriage equality, only a few were against it, and a smaller few, including all the fourth graders, were silent. As the day progressed, and I informed my students of the status, they became more and more depressed over the potential outcome. Orlando, the class jock, ventured his opinion, “I think the ‘No on 8’ people should try again!” Others echoed his opinion.
Overwhelmed by their sensitivity and inspired by their optimism, as well as Orlando’s suggestion, I did some research on California’s Proposition 22 which voters passed in March of 2000, which also limited marriage to one man and one woman. I brought in the data comparing the results for both propositions: Prop. 22 (March 2000) 61.4% to 38.6% vs. Prop. 8 (Nov. 2008) 52.24% to 47.76%. I also shared with them that in March 2000 only 37% of the eligible voters actually turned out to vote while in November 2008, 59% of eligible voters actually voted. I asked for their observations. The students were quick to see the difference. The trend was turning. Some students did question the effects of a March or November election in the outcome. We reviewed the differences between the Primary and General Elections, as well as a Presidential Election. They were looking at all the variables. The students devised a strategy: wait for a general election in a presidential year to get more voters. But do try again.
Barely one week later, we began our Statistics and Graphing unit. Determined to have the students produce something more differentiated, I taught them the difference between an opinion poll and the ever familiar “What is your favorite fill-in-the-blank? poll usually taught in the earlier grades. They were to choose a partner and then select a topic. There were no limits on topic, except that it had to be something on which their respondents could share an opinion. They were to submit their choice of a topic by the end of the hour. Four of the teams had questions relating back to Proposition 8! They weren’t letting it go! Two teams chose Do you agree with Proposition 8?, one team had a variant, Was Proposition 8 fair?, and perhaps the most interesting
the people against Proposition 8 try again? from
Orlando and his partner, Gilbert, another jock.
By now I was concerned I would be accused of teaching “the homosexual agenda.” I asked the class for their attention. I asked them who assigned their topic. They looked at me strangely.
“Did I assign you your poll topic?”
“No,” many of them answered.
“So, I am not teaching you about same-sex marriage. Right?”
The understanding laughs and giggles told me I had nothing to worry about.
The summer before this class began I had prepared myself by reviewing differentiation theories and practices. I had planned interesting and different lessons and projects allowing them the choice of topic and product. I had acquired a variety of enrichment activities for those who finished early, thereby avoiding too much down time. I had organized my plan book so that at times I would be giving direct instruction to one grade level, while the other worked independently. I had prepared myself to let go of being the “sage on the stage,” knowing there would be questions I might not be able to answer and to let that be okay, that we would discover the answer together. I had prepared for their academic success. What I had not planned on was a level of sophistication, compassion and understanding usually associated with young adults.
In 26 years of teaching, I also learned some of the best lessons were not in your plan book. They come upon you from out of nowhere, from the moment. And some of the best lessons come from the students themselves and are meant for the teacher.
As the debate over same-sex marriage continues, this discussion in my classroom has led me to feel the future of my marriage and others, (and the future in general) is in very good hands.
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