I just came back from my state math conference NCCTM and the last session I attended really has me wondering. Valerie Faulkner of NC State University spoke about grouping children and the impact on identity and agency.
If you know anything about me, you know that public school grouping largely impacted my academic life. Up until yesterday I would have said both positively and negatively. What I am feeling after hearing Valerie is that none of it was positive. It just seemed that way.
Her session started with a little guy sharing his impressions of math class after being switched from homogeneous grouping (high group) to heterogeneous groups (mixed ability). He, like me early on had experienced this feeling of knowing that you were getting something more challenging in school because you were in a higher group. He also knew that the kids who were not in his group were not getting what he was. (I was one of the “have nots” in high school)
One of the things that he liked about the way math was before was being with all of his friends. (he is in 2nd grade I think) Valerie made a statement about this that washed over me continually for the remainder of the session.
She said something like “in some, ways we are shaping the relationships, the friendships that these children form and how they define the people who they enjoy and relate to.”
So, what I know about being a teacher is that we use our best judgment to decide the children who need more support and those who do not. Most teachers are both skilled and thoughtful about this. We do this in an effort to concentrate support on the students who are in need. What I also know is, students are acutely aware of those in need and those who are “not”.
The irony of that statement is, all kiddos in 2nd grade are in need of support. None of them have arrived. If they had, they would be in third grade, right? Might this little guy begin to shape an impression about the people who are “like him” or who he enjoys being around from groupings that were set up based on something like a reading level or a math fact fluency level? The idea of this BLOWS my mind.
As an adult, I know that having a diverse group of friends allows me to see the world more clearly. My friends who never went to college alongside my friends with PhDs make interactions both rich and engaging. I am most bored when everyone in my circle thinks like exactly me. I am ALWAYS looking for that person who positively upsets the apple cart. I crave this. This poor little guy at age 7 is forming internal messages that in some ways underlie a great deal of the unrest I see in the country today.
This makes me sad.
I know the reality. I won’t pretend that I didn’t group. In fact, I am a licensed professional “grouper”. I am certified to teach the academically gifted K-12. My job at one point was to give specialized teaching practices to children who were identified or showed the potential of being identified as “gifted”. I struggled with this as a teacher. Every child I saw showed potential for “giftedness”. Why were we not just using these strategies for all of them?
What bothered me most was when Valerie spoke about the achievement gap. She used a reference point that Malcolm Gladwell uses in one of his books. She showed familiar achievement gap data and I was good. I have seen it a hundred times. I have talked about it for years. I was feeling kind of over it. When she laid this data beside the birthday data for professional hockey players and asked us why our reaction to the hockey data was so different from the achievement gap data, I was floored.
When I connected this data to the implications of the conversation about grouping students in early grade school, my eyes welled up. Why wasn’t I disturbed before this point? She was talking about me. I had been one of those African American children making up the gap. I was grouped. I recognize that people of color and more specifically women are underrepresented in the area of mathematics. I am living this and since sharing my story at NCTM regional conference in Florida dozens have shared their versions of my same story with me.
So this leads me here. I am disturbed but I am not sure what to do about it. I am coaching teachers so almost immediately I can lean in with my teachers and together we can examine our biases and the impact they are having on student achievement. Yes, I have biases too, yet another jarring moment in Valerie’s session.
This feels huge.
As I drove home from the conference I called my husband Erik, a middle school principal here in Charlotte and shared my thoughts with him. He lives this reality every day. He invited me to think with him about how we might impact this together and so I invite you as well.
I have needed a reason to write. Thank you, Valerie Faulkner, for challenging my beliefs and making me uncomfortable.
I welcome your reflections.