Over the past week or so, I’ve been watching the blackberry bushes that grow wild along the edge of my road. Each morning as I walk my dog, I notice that some of the fruit is deep black, as ripe as it’s going to get, while others still have just a hint of red. Why such variation on one bush? Each blackberry has gotten the same amount of rain and sun. Each one has the same genetic make up. So why are some ripening faster than others?
If you’ve ever gardened, or even gone blueberry picking, you know this is true of other fruits and vegetables. It’s probably true of all plants. There is variation in nature. This is an accepted fact.
So why have we forgotten this when it comes to our students? Within every classroom, there will be a variety of strengths, abilities, and weakness. Students will arrive at school with a vastly different amounts of background knowledge and interests. Despite these differences, in the hands of a caring, knowledgable teacher in a supportive, nurturing environment, almost all children will learn and grow. Not at the same pace, and not to the same degree, but they will learn, just as most of the berries on those bushes will eventually ripen.
The advent of the Common Core State Standards, coupled with new teacher evaluation plans being adopted across the country, however, threatens this process. Teachers are expected to teach more to their students sooner than ever before. Why would anyone think it a good idea for Kindergarten students to “associate the long and short sounds with common spellings and graphemes for the five major vowels?” (RF.K.3b) Rigor is the buzzword of the moment.
I am not against rigor, nor am I against providing children with opportunities to challenge themselves. I am against having to teach to standards that ignore years of research regarding best instructional practices, practices that have been shown to meet the needs of all learners. I am also against having to teach to standards that are, in many instances, developmentally inappropriate.
Teachers know how to nurture their students and create classroom environments where children flourish. They know how to balance high expectations with respect for all students. They know how to differentiate to make lessons accessible to students who need more time, a different text, or a different way to demonstrate their learning. Teachers should be held accountable for providing these optimal conditions for learning.
Variation is everywhere in nature. Some stars shine brighter. Some berries ripen faster. Nothing will ever change that.