I can still remember the feeling of a teacher telling me, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t teach you.” I was a sophomore in high school. To this day, his honesty baffles me. He explained to me that with the varying gap in levels in the class and the demand of curriculum, he couldn’t possibly accommodate everyone. I was the one who would have to suffer.
The discussion ended there. As a carefree 16-year-old, I took this as a license to goof off. The teacher never took the discussion to my parents, who may have wished to find someone who could teach me. I certainly didn’t tell my parents about the candid conversation.
My story doesn’t have a tragic ending. I didn’t drop out of school, turn to drugs or enact any of the other cinema-esque nightmares parents conjure up. I went on to get a Bachelor’s degree and then a Master’s and have a writing career that I’m proud of. But sometimes I do wonder if my path could have been just a little bit easier if I was placed in a learning environment that was more suited to challenge me or to the challenges of teaching all the kids in the room.
Pedagogy – the theory and practice of education and how it affects learners – is a constant discussion among education researchers, professionals and invested community members. Since the time of Socrates, philosophers and scientists have tried to formulate the perfect method to teach and truly understand how the human mind learns.
The Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence at the University of California has developed a list of standards for effective pedagogy. Their research shows that students are most successful when the teacher and students are engaged in joint activity; when language is being developed in all content areas; when the lessons are contextualized; when they are being challenged and when there is meaningful instructional conversation. Even taking into account those standards, personal pedagogical philosophies can vary vastly.
Critical pedagogy, for example, is widely used among private schools. This philosophy puts students in charge of their own learning. Instructors encourage students to go beyond traditional clichés and first impressions to understand the social context of what they are learning and how it relates to social justice.
Other institutions integrate the theory of multiple intelligences into their pedagogy. In 1983, Howard GARDNER, a Harvard psychologist, developed the concept of multiple intelligences. Going beyond the traditional connotations of IQ, this theory is based on the idea that everyone has a range of abilities and one main type of “intelligence.” Gardner distinguished eight types of intelligence.
VISUAL-SPATIAL LEARNERS have a keen sense for dimensional relationships and can picture planes on multiple levels. BODY-KINESTHETIC LEARNERS are more aware of the way their body moves and tend to have more coordination. MUSICAL LEARNERS – as you might guess – are attuned to sounds, rhythms, and the cadences of patterns. CLASSIC EXTROVERTS may be interpersonal learners, as they function best when interacting with a group and using a collective mind. Opposite is the INTRAPERSONAL LEARNER who is hyper-aware of their personal goals and aspirations in a way that allows them to self-motivate early on. LINGUISTIC LEARNERS tend to be more storytellers and readers, as they fully understand the functionality of words. LOGICAL-MATHEMATICAL LEARNERS are eager to tackle puzzles and problems. Finally, people with a NATURALISTIC INTELLIGENCE tend to have a strong connection to nature and patterns.
Gardner has come under criticism for a lack of research behind this theory. Regardless, it’s easy to assume that students have higher potential for success when they are in an environment that meets them on their “intelligence” level, with teachers who have teaching styles that match students learning styles.
The truth is plain: there is no single answer to how to teach or which pedagogy is key. It’s part philosophy, part psychology, part sociology and part intuition. What we do know: learning takes effort. It takes effort from teachers, students, parents and community.
There is no doubt that Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) and St. Vrain Valley School District (SVVSD) have exceptional schools, with graduation rates well above the state average of 79 percent (according to the Department of Education) and nationwide recognition of top-rated schools. The tricky aspect for parents is in choosing a school with a pedagogical approach that matches the learning style of each unique student. What we’ve learned from attempts at cookie-cutter style education is that not every student can, or will, succeed.
We’ve taken a look at some of the needs of BOCO students and where those needs can be fulfilled.
The Arts in Education
For the creatively inclined, arts courses can be life changing. And in a core curriculum that is academically rigorous, like at BVSD’S FAIRVIEW HIGH SCHOOL, these courses allow for a little relief and aim to light up other parts of the students’ brain.
For Lanny BOYER, Fairview High School’s director of theatre and film, the individualized learning that he is able to facilitate in his elective courses is what makes the arts so special. “Within what I teach, I have the privilege that I don’t have to move everyone together,” says Boyer.
And what he teaches can be carried on into the professional realm. “I am teaching vocation and I am teaching passion,” says Boyer.
According to a study performed by Americans for the Arts, creativity is one of the top three qualities that U.S. employers look for in job candidates. The same organization looked at SAT scores from 1999 to 2015 and found that students who took four years of arts classes in high school outscored students who didn’t.
Boyer takes pride in being able to help his students meet their career goals. When he sees a true passion come to light in one of his students, the parents are the first to know. Every year he meets with parents on his own time to discuss the next steps for a child who wants to pursue a career in the arts. “Last year we sent 13 of our seniors to top flight film programs,” says Boyer.
The TARA (The Arts Renewed and Arisen) PERFORMING ARTS SCHOOL is another Boulder school that engages artistically inclined students. The students are immersed in creativity. As part of their pedagogy, they believe “the performing arts are the ideal vehicle for adolescent intellectual and personal development.” Even if the students don’t go on to pursue the stage, this Waldorf school still boasts an impressive list of universities their alumni have gone on to attend. Students are even given the unique opportunity of working one-on-one with a published author on their college entrance essays.
Teaching to “Highly Able” Students
According to the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR GIFTED CHILDREN, the “general education program is not yet ready to meet the needs of gifted students.” Studies show that students in gifted programs are more likely to maintain their passions and stay involved in creative work beyond school than gifted students in a general education environment.
Your gifted, or highly able, student might be better suited for an intensive gifted program like the STARGATE SCHOOL in Thornton has to offer. The K-12 charter school currently caters to roughly 1,400 students and requires an IQ test upon application to ensure the student can handle a rigorous environment. Among their core values are developing a true love of learning, building self-confidence and hard work.
Another option for highly able students is an INTERNATIONAL BACCALAUREATE (IB) PROGRAM. These programs offer an international curriculum that is aimed to help students become more culturally aware, independent learners. IB is currently taught at Fairview High School, Boulder Country Day School, Centaurus High School, Central Elementary, and Alpine Elementary. It’s also important to note that Centaurus High School was awarded Gold Recognition by the Schools of Opportunity Program for highly engaging all their students, beyond the gifted and talented.
For students with an interest in technology or other STEM courses, the Innovation Center of St. Vrain Valley Schools in Longmont has opportunities to learn about aeronautics, robotics, biomedical sciences and computer sciences. Thanks to the Race to the Top- District Grant awarded to SVVSD in 2012, the Center is able to offer extensive mentorship and experiential job training to students at neighboring high schools. The program aims to help fill a workforce gap, as the Bureau of Labor and Statistics estimates that 60 percent of new jobs in the 21st century will require STEM skills, of which only 20 percent of the population currently have.
Students in the aeronautics course, for example, build military-grade drones and leave the class with a professional Federal Aviation Administration drone pilot license, putting them one step closer to dreams of working at NASA.
The Value of Language
In 2012, the State of Colorado passed the Reading to Ensure Academic Development (READ) Act. The goal is to focus on literacy early on. By third grade students should be transitioning from “learning to read, to reading to learn.” According to the ANNIE E. CASEY FOUNDATION, students who can’t read and write by the end of third grade are four times as likely to drop out of high school. However, as of last year, nearly 16 percent of K-3 students in Colorado were still identified as having a significant reading deficiency.
At the RICARDO FLORES ACADEMY, named after the journalist who played a major role in influencing the Mexican revolution, students learn successful writing techniques starting in Kindergarten. Teatro – theater – is another important aspect of the school. With their strong communication base, theater classes help the students build a confidence to speak up.
“Especially in the humanities, a big part of our goal is educating students, so they can be good citizens and critical thinkers. That’s pretty important these days,” says Anne Becher, an instructor and advisor within the University of Colorado’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese.
Becher advocates for a more dialogic teaching method. “In my experience, students learn best when they are actively engaged in linking new knowledge to what they already know or think,” she says. By asking varying levels of questions, students can engage in independent thought, communicate in low-stakes peer-on-peer discussion and follow through in group sharing.
For young learners, they are also more likely to excel at reading when they are exposed to more words on a daily basis, even just by engaging in conversation. “Kids are really receptive to whatever they are exposed to,” says Becher.
This is the same argument for introducing children to second languages at a young age. UNIVERSITY HILL ELEMENTARY SCHOOL in Boulder offers a completely bilingual experience. They even offer an exchange program for American teachers to share and improve educational experiences for students in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Top-Rate Options When It Seemed There Were None
There are also many options for at-risk youth. Charter schools like JUSTICE HIGH SCHOOL in Lafayette offer Advanced Placement (AP) and college prep classes. They require all graduates to pass two college-level courses and be accepted into a minimum of three colleges.
BOULDER PREP, a high school founded by juvenile justice professionals, also caters to at-risk youth. They offer 90-minute courses
and single subject intensive courses in an attempt to combat the disjointedness of a traditional 8-subject course load. Schedules like these allow for more individualized instruction, more time for reflection and the ability to complete longer cooperative activities.
Let Kids Be Kids
Student-centered and individualized learning practices, which are generally accepted in private institutions are starting to be utilized in public schools. The approach could be especially helpful in engaging immigrant students by allowing them to pursue subjects that interest them, which may be culturally different than their peers. And by disrupting the boredom that kids often feel in school, they become empowered and engaged in their own learning outcomes.
These types of programs also foster a feeling of safety and inclusion as students tend to feel less judgement from standardized test scores. Research in learning sciences has shown that students learn better when they feel emotionally safe and respected.
Named after the world-renowned animal behaviorist, the TEMPLE GRANDIN SCHOOL (TGS) teaches a “socio-academic” curriculum that is sensitive to the nuanced learning styles of kids with Asperger’s. The school has only been open since 2011 but has already helped many students successfully transition to college or employment after graduation. Like many of the specialized schools mentioned in this article, TGS was founded by a parent who recognized that her child was not receiving the attention he needed.
SEPTEMBER SCHOOL in Boulder takes on an individualized approach, keeping class sizes small and offering a less traditional range of courses. Sure, they still have calculus and American history, but they also teach mindfulness, graphic novel writing and alternative energy. Students have the opportunity to travel nationally and internationally.
Similarly, FRIENDS SCHOOL also offers small class sizes, except they cater to pre-school through middle school instead of high school. This is a school that also focuses on social emotional learning, but as Head of School Honor Taft says, their program goes a bit deeper.
“Oftentimes you’ll see a social emotional curriculum that is really ultimately geared toward classroom management and making sure you’re engaging the students – and those are important things. In addition to that, we have a tremendous amount of work around mindfulness and taking that a bit further to how is mindfulness supporting learning and brain activity and the ability to come and be present,” says Taft. As a parent she has seen the benefits with her son who is in the second grade class. She has seen him use mindfulness to slow down and become present in order to calm down – an impressive feat for a seven-year-old.
Montessori schools, a concept developed by Maria Montessori in Italy in 1906, offer an even more self-guided approach. Montessori believed that from birth to age six, children have “an absorbient mind” that adults disrupt by trying to “train” them. The JARROW MONTESSORI SCHOOL in Boulder stays true to Montessori’s initial practices, allowing children to develop at their own pace. Starting at 18 months old through 12 years old, this Boulder school attempts to build a love of learning in their students that will allow them to pursue their own curiosities.
Montessori schools are more equipped to incorporating social emotional learning. The BIXBY SCHOOL, the BOULDER SUDBURY SCHOOL, and BOULDER JOURNEY SCHOOL also have more progressive models that support self-direction and supportive social learning. Teachers at the Boulder Journey School specifically have been highly praised for their continuing study of these topics of early childhood development. Collectively, they have been widely published in education literature.
Some schools, however, are drawing criticism from too much individualization. As teachers resort to online programs that allow for a totally customized curriculum based on the student, students lose the interaction from their peers in class. While technology can be a great learning tool, teachers cannot let it be the entire crux of learning.
Who Will Teach the Teachers?
A high caliber of student talent is just one reason BOCO has nationally ranked schools. The quality of teachers that work in Boulder, Lafayette, Longmont and Erie has remained despite a nation and statewide teacher shortage.
The UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO SCHOOL OF EDUCATION is working hard to combat that shortage. Though they can’t quickly fix the problem of low-pay and high-pressure, they can better incentivize students to join the education workforce and train them better. They train their teachers to be leaders in the community by advancing diversity, equity, democracy and justice.
CU’s Ed School recently developed a new elementary education major. “Everybody is going to graduate, not only with all the courses so they can apply for licensure to be a teacher in elementary education, but they will all graduate with what’s called an endorsement for teaching culturally and linguistically diverse students,” says Kathy Schultz, Dean of the School of Education. “We’re really excited about it because it means we’re really addressing the changing demographics in Colorado.”
Margarita Bianco from the UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO DENVER has developed the Pathways2Teaching program to engage future teachers earlier and encourage the same diversity in the education workforce that is reflected in the student body. The program allows high school juniors and seniors to earn college credit and engage in
Researchers at CU also take a deep dive into public policy and target areas in the state that experience unique issues like rural areas where it is hard to retain teachers, the Montbello neighborhood and the Latinx neighborhoods of Lafayette. Schultz has a new book that will be released in March that discusses her philosophies on what has truly stymied educational reform: distrust. Schultz hopes Distrust and Educational Change: Overcoming Barriers to Just and Lasting Reform can help students, teachers, parents and principals rebuild a relationship of trust.
“In order for people to learn and for there to be change, there needs to be trust,” says Schultz. The book addresses three critical areas of distrust: relational, structural and contextual. She gives examples about how simply throwing money at the problem will not bring reform if the whole community is not willing to come together and commit to change. The book also introduces stellar examples of institutions who have acknowledged and repaired their issues of distrust.
Repairing the relationships in education is a large challenge to take on, but in the end it is worth it. Every student deserves to have access to the right education for them. They deserve a system that puts them first. No student should have to hear “I just can’t teach you.”