Rethinking Interventions: Learning is Messy
"In order to fly, you must love the wind." I have no idea who to attribute the quote to, please leave me a message in the comments if you know the source. The source for the graphic is Ola a Ola Caracola.
I love this quote because last week we had our school-wide Response to Interventions meeting. This is where interventionists meet with the classroom teachers to determine how to help our struggling students. I always find this concept of referring students for interventions challenging because learning is messy. It’s not something that occurs in a vacuum. Ideally it happens during mini-lessons and thoughtful student activities; however, after teaching for 13 years I’ve seen learning occur at the most surprising times.
I think this quote says it well, in order to achieve success we must be ok with the wind blowing hair in our face or perhaps objects across the room. It is going to get messy at times, but that's how we soar.
To clarify what I mean by interventions here is some teacher jargon and review of educational legislation. Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Law in 2002 teachers, administrators, schools, districts, academics, and corporations have tried to dissect learning to the smallest detail. No Child Left Behind, Standardized Testing, and Teacher Accountability have led public education to focus much energy into “interventions” and “response to interventions”. We use this jargon so much in schools that I can barely identify what it really means. The State of Wisconsin consults with the Center on Response to Intervention and their definition is: Response to intervention (RTI) integrates assessment and intervention within a multi‐level prevention system to maximize student achievement and reduce behavior problems. With RTI, schools identify students at risk for poor learning outcomes, monitor student progress, provide evidence‐based interventions and adjust the intensity and nature of those interventions depending on a student’s responsiveness, and identify students with learning disabilities or other disabilities.
Clear as mud? Great. Now back to my rant. My interpretation of their definition of response to intervention is simply this: teach students, assess students, and re-teach in a different way if the content is not understood. This is what teachers have been doing for years as we’ve adapted Kurt Lewin’s action research theory from the 1940s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Action_research). So, when we are asked to refer students for interventions (a time when a student leaves the room to have instruction done by a specialist) I’m challenged by a few things.
First of all, I’d much rather collaborate and problem solve with someone about student work and performance, then implement a plan because building a relationship with a child is messy. I’m not opposed to someone else working with my students, but I am very protective of them and want to make sure that they feel safe and not rejected by me because they are working with someone else. This stems from my first year teaching, I had a wild class (or maybe I was a terrible classroom manager). That year I wrote more referrals than I care to admit. I quickly learned that asking students to leave my classroom deteriorated our relationship and rebuilding their trust and our relationship was an uphill battle. Admittedly, I’m still holding on to a bit of that trauma, and fear that referring my student for an intervention is another way of deteriorating my relationship with him/her. Conversely, today I work as the only English as a Second Language teacher in a 400 student school with 45 English Language Learners in grades K-5. So, now I’m the “interventionist”. I completely stink at it because I can’t buy my own B.S. that I can actually do something different or better than the classroom teacher can. Yet at the same time I enjoy working with kids and collaborating with teachers, so I want to work with classrooms and students. Oh, and I want our work to be meaningful. Making the work meaningful is also messy because it is challenging to identify which variable of a person is the one to target. If I strictly look at the academic development of a child as a reader or mathematician, then I can do my best to focus on that skill. However, learning is not so clean. I can work with students on short and long vowels, but how long will I need to instruct the student until they learn it? What if they are constantly giggling in group? Does that mean they don’t understand what we’re doing or do they have a crush on a person in the group?
Another concern is that students are constantly being compared to a growth rate. What is a normal growth rate? I do understand basic statistics. However, I also understand people are multi-dimensional and placing a number on them is one-dimensional. Furthermore, a growth rate is complicated when we try to measure the normal growth rate of English Language Learners. Studies point out that it takes anywhere from 3 to 10 years to acquire another language. This is where learning gets really messy. We use standardized test scores to measure normal, but what kid do you know fits a standard? What happened to children’s growth and development occurs at each individual’s own rate? Currently, I’m 28 weeks pregnant and am slightly panicking because my son is measuring as if I’m 30 weeks. Everyone is commenting on how “big” he is. Am I completely healthy? Yup. Have I had any negative test results? Nope. Yet, I’m still anxious that something is wrong because my child is not measuring “normally.” This is just the beginning of my path of worrying about my child’s normalcy. However, I’m determined not to fall for the “normal” trap that I fight at every day at school.
One reason that I can decrease my anxiety about my own child as opposed to my students is that my child is white. My students are not. They are being measured against my white child, my white child’s culture, my white child’s social norms, and all of this makes it easier for me to blow off the abnormal because the color of his skin already puts him in the “normal” category. So, there is also that – race – it also makes learning messy.