Is You Is, or Is You Ain’t?

I play ultimate frisbee with a bunch of people every week.  Most of the people are between the ages of 20 and 65, and we play pretty hard: sprinting, leaping, and diving for two to three hours, three times a week.

Recently, an eight-year-old boy named Q started playing with us.  He’s like four feet tall and maybe 70 pounds.  We’ve decided it’s ok for him to play with us; we just try not to run over him.  We have not agreed, however, on how to treat him on the field.  Do we go easy on him? How easy?

Maybe make it SEEM like we're trying?

Maybe make it SEEM like we're trying? - Photo by Nic McPhee

This is exactly the problem I faced in my classes every day.  One person has lower skills, or less experience, than the others – where do we set our expectations?  Some players in my game say Q should not get a defender, and if he drops the frisbee we should let him pick it up as if he didn’t. I say that if he’s in the game, he’s in the game! Rules apply!  If he’s not ready to play, practice with him on the side of the field until he is!

It’s hard to say what’s best for Q.  If you were in our game, you’d know the specific details that he’s actually a pretty good thrower, and doesn’t crack under pressure, and can really catch a disc, and that we should probably turn up the heat on him at least a little.  Still, you wouldn’t really expect him to be able to do everything the other players can do.  I think a moderate course is the best for Q’s skill level.  If we let him keep playing, when he’s 14 he’s going to be better than all of us. If we make him stop, or practice on the sidelines, he’ll lose interest.  For the rest of us, when he’s in the game, we can’t really play as hard, and we stop improving as quickly.

In my math classes, the kids with low skill levels had the same effects, and the dilemma was the same.  I’d love to say, “if you’re in, you’re in!” but where does that leave the kids that aren’t in?

6 thoughts on “Is You Is, or Is You Ain’t?”

  1. Good questions. But Algebra is more like cross-country than like ultimate. You may have team members for support, but you basically have to do it yourself. There is no difficulty in cross-country training or meets in having vastly different ability levels. One person may run three miles in the time that someone else does one—as long as you don’t tie the fast runner to the slow one there’s no problem.

    If you let each student go at his or her own pace in Algebra, eschewing group work, you can avoid the problem.

    1. While I can partially agree that working at their own pace is ideal, I’m not entirely convinced. My main concern is what happens at the end of the school year when the students haven’t progressed through the material? Have them repeat algebra? But then what happens when they (at their own pace) finally finish it 1/3 of they way through the year?

      I think for the “at your own pace” thing to work we have to seriously modify the school calendar and rethink what we mean by the academic year. Now, those conversations should probably happen, but while we wait for the policy makers to deal with that, how can we practically deal with the situation of letting them all work at their own pace?

      1. Once a student has finished the official curriculum, whether that happens at 1/3 through the year or at the very end, then you can focus on what really matters: discovering and delighting the student’s intellectual passions. So far as I know, the policy makers can’t stop you from that.

        If you can figure out the technological infrastructure to make learning at the student’s own pace feasible, then it’s also worth investing in curricular development tech to help tailor lessons and projects to students and groups after they’ve dispensed with the official requirements. Every year, more tools appear to help make this possible — on the cheap, besides.

      2. On of my son’s elementary schools had all the kids learning algebra at their own pace (using a rather low-quality series of workbooks, unfortunately). Some kids finished the series quickly, others took many years. The math classes there (separate from the algebra) were arranged by having each kid take a placement test each fall, with kids moving to whatever level they were ready for—generally shuffling the classes so that a class might have students from 4 different official grade levels.

        When the student completed all the courses the school had (as my son did), they arranged for independent math work (in my son’s case, working through the Art of Problem Solving Geometry book in 6th grade).

    2. I’ve got to agree with Andy – until we get some system in place that allows students to progress at their own pace between years, we can’t just allow them to progress at their own pace during the year. They have to be held to certain standards – and we have to teach to standards that everyone in the class can meet. Everyone except the kids we’re willing to say “You’re out” to, of course.

      Plus, what the heck! No group work? I found group work to be one of the most motivating and focusing strategies in my classroom. What are the alternatives, book work and lectures? Maybe I’m just a bad lecturer, but my lectures were boring, and maybe we just had a bad math text, but our text was BORING.

      1. It may be necessary to push the slowest students through a lock-step curriculum, but it should not be necessary to hold the faster students back, as so many schools do.

        Boring math texts are a common problem, but the solution is to find good ones, rather than to require every teacher to make up their own.

        Group work motivates some, but tends to turn off the brightest students, who see it as other students loafing while they do all the work, or as teachers loafing while the students do the teaching. Properly done group work can be very useful, but it is very, very rare in math classes, as there are almost no problems in math classes that are better done by a group than alone by the smartest person in the group.

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