I climbed a mountain this week. The path up wasn’t far, only about a tenth of a mile. But it was rocky and overgrown and steep, maybe a ten percent grade. A quarter of the way up, I found a walking stick. And from the half-way mark on, I had to stop to breathe, actually pant, far too often for my liking. I had thought my morning workout on the treadmill was keeping me in shape.
Climbing that mountain made me think of a couple of students, Penny and Jon.
School days were steep climbs for Penny. Her sleep was disrupted by fighting parents, the food at her house ran out before the end of the month, and her glasses were lost.
“My mind must be broken,” Penny whispered to me once.
She had just looked at Jon’s paper. At the desk next to hers, Jon, whose parents sent him to academic camps in the summer, was concluding his persuasive essay. Penny, with a hole already erased into her paper, was on the second sentence.
What was an easy climb for Jon, was a steep learning curve for Penny. She needed support along the way: a walking stick and time to stop and breathe. The essay I assigned was good for most of the class. But I learned that afternoon that the assignment was not good for Penny and not good for Jon. Penny was too stressed to learn, and Jon was bored, doing again what he could already do.
Gradually, I learned to differentiate for students on the edges—to give, for example, graphic organizers to help Penny get started and to add a research component to Jon’s assignment. In a classroom, after all, there should be some evenness in the learning curve.