It goes without saying that I’ve had to get a little creative this year.

On top of having four grade-levels worth of students all packed in one classroom, each of them have very specific learning needs, from regulation challenges to social differences to the issues that many children experience while learning.  But as a teacher, I value the whole-group experience immensely.  It is of utmost importance to me that children interact with each other and have some common experiences.  Within these experiences, we teachers specifically choose media and provocations that will shape learning, and it’s important that our students share some of those experiences to lay a foundation for learning class-wide.

This becomes especially challenging, though, when trying to teach basic skills relating to math and reading.  Yes, it’s easy to create rubrics, lay out the skills, and then provide each of the children with isolated skills that help them to climb the steps to higher levels of proficiency, but that’s only part of a child-centered experience.  Child-centered learning more importantly entails provoking learning in whole-group settings and allowing students to find their respective places within that curriculum. It requires them to see themselves in the midst of the group, and it challenges them to personalize something that has not been personalized for them already.

Or maybe that’s the teacher’s job.

I sometimes fear the use of the word “personalization.”  A lot of times, when described, I suddenly get visions of children working in silos, separate from one another, isolating themselves and their learning from anything contextual, when all along, learning needs to be contextualized, it needs to be social, and it needs to be something through which children can communicate the way they see, feel, and experience the world.  And in order to communicate this, they simply need others.  They need a whole-group experience.

This manifest, though, has not changed the constraints that my classroom has imposed upon me.  I still have four grade levels worth of kids, and I’ve still needed whole-group lessons to create social experiences that allow all children to access the content. What’s a boy to do?

photo 4Interdisciplinary Learning

My teaching partner and I decided to create a yearly theme of communities.  We chose this not only for its ties to social-emotional learning, but we also chose it for its breadth.  By choosing such a broad topic, we have been able to weave most, if not all, disciplines into this theme, helping to make the connections tangible and learning multi-dimensional.

This week’s general math skill related to place value, specifically comparing numbers.  While this looks different at a variety of grade levels, I found it necessary to embed this content within an interdisciplinary provocation.  On the board, I drew three tables, each with two columns.  One column had a series of four-digit numbers, ranging from 1794 to 2010, while the other column had anywhere from one-digit numbers all the way to six-digit numbers.

I told the students nothing.  I simply showed them the organized information and encouraged them to observe, ask questions, and make inferences. Soon enough, though, they figured it out.

photo 2“Hey, it’s like a population!” one of the students exclaimed.

I smiled and asked more questions.

“What makes you think that?” I said.

Of course, the students replied that the series of four-digit numbers looked like years and that the other numbers seemed to resemble various numbers of people at any given time.  Some of them surmised that it was the population of the world, while others thought it was the population of America, and some even thought it was the population of California.

“Wait, no, I know the population of the world is like eight billion!” one student said.

photo 1Through the sharing of background knowledge and the momentum gained through asking questions and making predictions, we eventually centered on the idea that this was the population of San Francisco over time (with a little help from the teacher).  Within this fifteen minutes, children were cognitively challenged, meanwhile allowing me to do a quick review of place value and strategies for comparing numbers.  From there, students were able to participate in activities commensurate with their ability levels in comparing and ordering multi-digit numbers.  For some, comparing to the thousands place was appropriate, for others, comparing to the billions seemed just right, and for a few, comparing decimals was appropriately challenging.

While all of these activities did not use the San Francisco data verbatim, the foundation it set was strong, relevant, and gave a purpose to our learning that day.

photo 3
It’s easy to lose children in a whole-group setting; it’s easy for them to fall through the cracks.  The best whole-group experiences are the ones where everyone is correct, everyone is able to contribute, and everyone is able to see and appreciate themselves, despite the ocean of thoughts, strengths, and people around them.

By giving learning a context, by making it relevant and interdisciplinary, and by starting with the children’s questions and thoughts, we can help all students set a purpose for learning, and we can help all children feel seen.  While it’s tempting to think of “feeling seen” in a conventional way–in the sense that in order to be seen, we need to externalize our self-image and rely on validation from others–feeling seen doesn’t necessarily mean feeling like everyone else agrees with you or that everyone else thinks you are correct.  Sometimes “feeling seen” means knowing that you’ve contributed and knowing that you’ve figured something out.

And through provoking learning in this way, we can help all children feel seen, if not by others, by themselves.

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