Written By: Sarah Scott, Fifth Grade Special Education Teacher, New York, NY
“A river cuts through a rock not because of its power, but its persistence.” -- Jim Watkins
Just call me a river, then. Because I didn’t give up when my school kept telling me “no” when I asked for the Exemplars program this year.
I, like many of us teachers in this strange and upsetting pandemic-filled world, have had to adjust my teaching practice and everything that I thought I knew about educating children. Everything turned digital. All my lessons, my activities and my “teacher tricks” now had to be done through a screen. A different form of education was taking shape and we needed to evolve quickly. I was now asked to work from home, within the confines of my computer and the online resources we were offered. Sound familiar, fellow teachers? And I’m sure you also asked yourself, “How am I supposed to effectively do my job through this screen? How is that going to look?”
To add onto this crazy year, I’m not just teaching my usual Special Education students. I’m also teaching General Education students, Gifted and Talented students and Dual Language students. Yes, all in the same class. But somehow it’s working. We’ve become a family.
So, when my administration and fabulous PTA asked, “What supplemental resources will help you teach and reach the entire spectrum of your students?” of course I was the first one to say, “the Exemplars Program please!” We have used this program for a number of years in my school. What could be better than reintroducing a familiar program to our students during this turbulent time?
It’s online. It’s accessible to all learners. It’s engaging. It accesses real-life problems that students can identify with. Why would you NOT want this program?
Think QUALITY. Not QUANTITY.
But after a number of conversations and surveys with other staff members, my Exemplars idea was ultimately denied. Unhappy and frustrated, I did not let that stop me. I needed this program for my students. So I emailed parents, went to our school board, and rallied my principal. I wasn’t letting it go. I became a thorn in my principal’s side, until finally, it worked.
The students now look forward to dissecting the problem, drawing out the models and finding the pattern. It’s not just an equation that they have to solve, but a mystery. They turn it into a puzzle. A game emerges. They can discuss their findings online and they can work in a group as they look at the same challenging problem. Their written work is independent, but their ideas are shared. Their strategies evolve as they discuss potential entry points and possible solutions. Because the Exemplars program has three different levels of the same problem, I can have different homogeneous groups working together in collaboration at the same time. Even through a computer screen. They challenge and encourage each other. Mistakes are a learned and shared experience instead of something to be feared. It’s truly amazing to watch the kids struggle and succeed because they worked together.
I even had a conversation the other day with my highest math student who said, “I was feeling bored with math because I knew the skills already. But now that I have to draw out models, use two different strategies, AND explain what the numbers represent using math language–that’s a whole other level of work. I feel like I’m being challenged again in a whole new way.”
Now in my “wiser years,” I understand the importance of the struggle. As a student, I didn’t. I feared it. The ultimate goal is for my students to appreciate it. To crave the struggle. To conquer the struggle by their perseverance and persistence.