How My Teaching and Technology Almost Failed One of My Students

column | Personalized Learning

How My Teaching and Technology Almost Failed One of My Students

By Farhat Ahmad (Columnist)     May 4, 2018

How My Teaching and Technology Almost Failed One of My Students

I am a tech innovator, and my students are just like those kids in the Microsoft commercial—you know the one starring the rapping teacher in the bright blue vest with perfect hair, in the classroom where everyone looks happy and enthusiasm is exploding. Except that isn’t real, at least not in my experience.

Sometimes technology isn’t smart enough to pick up on why a student doesn’t understand a concept, or it’s not adaptive enough to pivot and present an alternative way of learning. It’s not just the tech though. Sometimes teachers unintentionally set kids up for failure by making assumptions about the prior knowledge and experience they bring into the classroom like presuming that all students grow up in a home with conversation about the political climate in our country, or that they’re all born digital natives with an iPhone in hand.

That just isn’t the case in College Park, GA, where many families struggle to find a place to call home. Many of my students qualify for free or reduced lunch and don’t have access to devices or WiFi outside of school. When tech—and teachers—make assumptions about what, why and how students learn, it can create a tangled web of challenges for students.

I teach 11th grade American Literature to at-risk youth in Atlanta and the struggle is real. Traditional curriculum has been unsuccessful for most of my students, so over the years, I’ve had to rewrite it from the ground up, using trends from student assessments and prioritizing relevance and accessibility.

At the beginning of each class, my students take an online diagnostic test on USATestprep that I’ve designed from scratch according to specific standards. The diagnostic provides data on their strengths and weaknesses by standard. For example, the results might show that a student has mastered how to determine themes and central ideas but struggles to distinguish between direct and indirect meaning.

My students actively participate in self-analysis and I hold individual conferences so we can collaborate to set up curriculum, course content and assignments, which are then plugged into Microsoft OneNote, where they have the freedom to explore their own pathways to mastery.

I try to empower each learner to shape their curriculum and after three years using this approach, I like to think my process is solid, but sometimes it doesn’t pan out quite like I planned.

One of my students, Andre, took the diagnostic test and scored low in figurative language standards, specifically distinguishing indirect meaning, but exceptionally high in literal standards, particularly in nonfiction texts. This made sense. Historically, abstract concepts such as satire and figurative language have been the lowest scores for my students so I always plan extra time to focus on them.

I made note of this trend and delivered Andre my unit on satire, complete with recently curated videos and teacher exemplars that he could work through at his own pace, but that didn’t happen. Actually, not a whole lot happened other than him staring at a screen and occasionally checking text messages. I was baffled. I had won awards for tech innovation in the classroom; why wasn’t this approach working for Andre?

I asked if there was anything I could do to support him, and he requested that I sit with him and help him with the work. We looked at the first task, which asked him to read an article from “The Onion,” Itinerary For Trump’s Trip To Asia, and analyze specific lines I had highlighted in red to identify the type of satirical device used and how it was used.

Satirical device task, Image Credit: Farhat Ahmad

Andre said he understood irony and satire, but as he read through the red lines carefully, he wasn’t able to spot any instances. When I asked him to define the terms, he was able to verbally, and he could even give me examples outside of this assignment. I was dumbfounded.

I stepped back and reflected on the first writing assignment Andre ever did in my class, a personal essay about the violent death of a family member when he was younger. I recognized that he was originally from a notorious neighborhood in Atlanta and his life was completely foreign to me. He grew up with different cultural values, experiences and hardships than I had. It almost seemed like we grew up speaking two different languages. He couldn’t relate to the privileged world of political satire I was trying to introduce him to. Suddenly, the problem hit me like a ton of bricks—it wasn’t the skill, it was the context.

Though I had used technology to assess his strengths and weaknesses, and used data to tailor curriculum, I hadn’t met Andre’s needs. And if I hadn’t sat down with him that day, I might not have ever realized the unfair situation I had inadvertently put him in. I didn’t want Andre’s confidence to deflate because he didn’t have a frame of reference for the text I had assigned, or because the device he was working on didn’t have the intuition to find out what the root of his problem was and change course.

We had a long conversation and I told him that what had happened wasn’t an indication of his mental capacity, but rather a perfect storm of complex issues that caused hurdles for him. We sat there together for a moment staring at the same screen and then started to unpack things together.

I felt awful. This scenario stemmed from a combination of my choices in content, my assumption that every student understood the political climate and the fact that I had used technology to deliver curriculum. The tech couldn’t pause, engage in error analysis or present Andre with another example to see if he could make the connection. It just repeatedly marked him as failing that standard.

I assumed he would understand the current political commentary and inherent humor and satire that lends itself to the Trump administration, but this wasn’t in Andre’s wheelhouse. He knew who Trump was, he recognized that his policies weren’t popular in his neighborhood, but that’s as far as it went.

Sitting their together, I asked him a series of questions to gauge his understanding but he continuously shrugged. We kept going back until we found a good starting point, the two-party system, and in a very abbreviated conversation we discussed why the current political arena is in the state it’s in right now.

Andre picked it up right away. It’s not that he couldn’t understand the topic, it was just never a part of the conversations in his home. Yes, he took Civics and U.S. History but it isn't uncommon to simply push students through, and that’s what had happened to Andre.

Soon enough, this is where we landed:

Satirical device task with Andre's response, Image Credit: Farhat Ahmad

It’s not perfect. Andre doesn’t go into detail about how that statement is verbal irony, but he does provide evidence he understands what verbal irony is and with further prompting he was able to complete the assignment on his own.

This is where things get dicey as a teacher. The expectation was for to identify the satirical device and explain how it was used independently, and Andre couldn’t do that, but he had come a long way in a short amount of time so I took this as a win. He would likely face some challenges proving his knowledge in a short essay for the final part of this analysis, but it was a first step, and we both felt proud.

When it came down to it, tech didn’t help Andre and neither did my personalized curriculum. What helped was human intervention—pausing to have conversation, empathizing with his situation and taking one step at a time.

It’s hard to watch my students stare blankly at a screen after millions of dollars in federal grant money was spent to purchase devices to get a failing school up to date. Sometimes tech succeeds and sometimes it fails, and the same is true about teachers. But teachers are able to dig deeper, reevaluate and consider how to best support a student who typically experiences failure more than success.

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