This post originally appeared on Education Nation’s The Learning Curve blog.
Several years ago, I happened to be visiting a third grade reading class in a suburban, middle class school. The teacher, I will call her Ms. Fields, had just been named Teacher of the Year for the district, and she was truly outstanding: Enthusiastic, inspiring, a real delight to watch as she taught her high reading groups. However, as is my habit, I wandered over to see what the low reading group was doing. They had two pages from their basal’s workbook. Each had words arrayed on it inside puzzle-piece shapes. Their assignment was to cut out the puzzle pieces on one page, paste the words on synonyms on the other, and then color in the outline, which depicted a cat.
The kids were working happily. They quickly saw that this was a cat puzzle, so they paid little attention to the synonyms. So the task, for them, was a cutting-coloring-puzzle task, not a synonym task. These are not the skills a low-achieving third grader needs. This kind of assignment communicates to the kids in the low group that they are never going to be good readers, but as long as they are quiet and busy, no one was going to ask much of them. Of course, I’ve seen this kind of meaningless time-filling, motivation-deadening activity in traditional reading classes throughout the U.S.; this was only remarkable because it was Ms. Fields, Teacher of the Year, doing it.
You won’t find many teachers better than Ms. Fields, but even she could have profited from programs or professional development to use any of many proven alternatives to the grouping strategy that made the cat puzzle necessary.
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