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Virginia Journal of Education

Off the Island

It's our job to help struggling students push off from shore, says a Prince William teacher.

by Tammy Fick

When asked, why don’t people say they would take a boat if they were stranded on a deserted island? We usually come up with things like a favorite movie or book, phone, television, that special someone, or a dream person. All that’s great for making life on that island more bearable—but we’re still stuck there. Why do we assume we have to stay? Why don’t we ask for a boat?

As educators, it’s our job to not only ask for the boat but to make sure our students are on board. Often, when we’re working with struggling students, we look for a “quick fix” to help a superficial problem. This fix may only work in certain situations and certainly will not get them off their island of struggle. Our students need a boat to prevent them from being stranded forever.

How do we know what kind of boat to use? I use my ABCs to decide. First, you must assess the student. No, this does not just mean a simple pre-test on a subject area or a summative assessment after the instruction has been done, and simply getting a reading level isn’t enough either. It’s vital that we get to the nuts and bolts of what is going on. We have to know not only what mistakes students are making but more importantly why they’re doing so. We have to not only find out what they don’t know but what they do know. You can’t build a house if you don’t know what kind of foundation you’re working with. We must know what we have to build on.

A reading assessment is always my first step. I’ve learned it helps me get to the root of most issues. Chances are you can find out where the student has gaps, whether it’s in decoding, comprehension, vocabulary or retaining the information heard or read. There are so many strategies and products out there for us to use that it is really up to you to decide what works best for you. The important part is finding the root cause for the struggling.

The letter B reminds me to bring the text to them. Textbooks and materials are typically written at the level we expect students to have reached. As we all know, this doesn’t work for every student. We must provide scaffolding for them to understand the text, or change it altogether. In math, you have the option of using smaller numbers to teach the same process. If a child is stressing out over the size of the numbers and the new concept, we can change one of those obstacles. Social studies and science textbooks are notorious for heavy language that can be over a struggling student’s head. You have to get it to their level. Is this easy? Not always. Is it time consuming? It can be. Is it beneficial to our students? You bet.

The letter C encourages me to continue intervention throughout the day. Imagine with me for a moment that you've been required to sit through a long, tortuous training. We’ve all been there. Now, imagine that the instruction presented to you is in a language you don’t understand. You are lost all day. The good news is that once a day you are allowed to go to a breakout session for 20-30 minutes. During this session, you get related but not necessarily the same information you’ve been receiving in the larger group. It, however, is provided in a language you understand. Now, all you have to do is take this newfound information and apply it to everything else you’ve been learning in the large session. Does this sound ridiculous?

Think about the typical intervention models offered to our struggling students. It’s possibly very similar to the scenario I’ve just described. That type of intervention is great but certainly not enough. It is our responsibility to ensure that intervention is provided to these students from the time they walk in our door bright-eyed first thing in the morning until they drag themselves out the door to go home in the afternoon. Small doses are not enough. If students are going to make progress and hopefully catch up with their peers, we must make intervention an ongoing part of their day. If you cook a turkey for only 20 minutes a day it would take forever for it to be ready to serve. The same is true with intervention: If we only provide it 20-30 minutes a day, our students will take forever to be ready to move on.

Whatever it is you want to take with you to a deserted island, don’t forget the boat—and make sure your students are on board.

Fick, a member of the Prince William Education Association, teaches second grade at West Gate Elementary School.



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