The label isn’t the individual

A colleague, Jason,  has been experimenting with teaching grade 9 applied and academic math in a combined class*.  It has been going well and he has learned a lot.  His goal has been that all students have the opportunity to achieve the expectations of the academic credit but to offer the flexibility to all students to attain whichever credit they earn.  It is not a matter of teaching the academic course and then just “granting” the applied level credit for those students who are unsuccessful.  Expectations for each pathway are tracked and students earn the credit they earn.

All the ins and outs of how Jason organizes his course are beyond the scope of this blogpost (and I’d be happy to introduce anyone who is interested).  As Jason was presenting his findings to a group of administrators the other day, he made a comment that has stuck with me.  This is his second semester with the combined class and while reflecting upon his experience he said, “I don’t even think of the students as applied or academic any more.”  This wasn’t part of his slide presentation.  I don’t even know if he remembers saying it.  But I do.

How do labels we use to describe students affect our expectations and perceptions of them?  I wonder if the students in Jason’s class also now feel like students and don’t classify themselves as “academic” or “applied”.

I have been working very hard lately to avoid saying things like “applied kids” or “autistic kid” or “IEP kids”.  Even though I have always tried to see each individual student’s strengths, I have begun to wonder if the label I casually apply, more for expediency than anything else, actually does mean that I tend to group students with a label under an umbrella of similar traits.

My journey started, as many do, on a personal level.  I was sitting in a system level meeting of administrators and the presenter was talking about how difficult “applied kids” were last period on Friday afternoons.  At the time my son was taking applied level credits.  I was surprised at the force of my reaction to that simple statement – one that I had probably said myself on occasion.  That was my kid someone was generalizing about and I didn’t like it; I didn’t like it one bit.  Yet I know that had I asked the presenter if he felt that all students in applied level courses misbehaved on Friday afternoons he would have said, “Of course not.”

We all do it.  We take some experiences and generalize.  In math, we want this very ability to generalize the pattern or the rule.  But in dealing with people, students included, the labels and generalizations are detrimental.  They cloud our judgements and our ability to really see each student as an individual.  As soon as we put students under a label, consciously or subconsciously, we begin to assign the perceived attributes of that group to them.

I read a lot of Individual Education Plans.  Often they don’t sound very individual.  Part of this has to do with the format and sheer number of them (another blog post to be written).  But perhaps some of it has to do with our belief that once under the IEP label, all students are sort of the same and therefore we should respond similarly.

So, I have been catching myself in my language.  Although it is more words to say, I try now to talk about a student who is taking an applied level course or a student who falls on the autism spectrum or a student who has an IEP.  I challenge my thoughts to see to what extent I might be presuming that all these students share similar characteristics.  It is hard work.  I catch myself a lot.  But I think it is worth the effort.

Back to Jason’s math class.  The student who got the highest mark in his class, and achieved the expectations of the academic credit, was originally enrolled in the applied level course.  The label isn’t the individual.

*In Ontario when students hit grade 9 they choose either the applied or academic pathway.  Other jurisdictions may refer to them as college/workplace vs university  prep courses.

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Filed under Differentiation, school culture, student behaviour

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