In preparation for my entrance interview for the education program at UVic I was asked to anticipate what diversity I might expect in the classroom and what challenges this might bring. I considered it and answered that learning differences would be the biggest challenge. Just to be sure I called my teacher-sister who quickly and strongly affirmed my suspicion. My first response had only been in regard to finding the time to manage and reach the ADD/ADHD or autistic students while still challenging the ‘A-level’ students. In retrospect, my answer to what diversity I might expect seems very simple. The BC ELA IRP recognizes that ‘British Columbia’s schools include young people of varied backgrounds, interests, abilities and needs (p 3).”
According to Piaget every child “[constructs] their own knowledge from their experiences (Tompkins et al, 2011, p5.)” At the primary school age, some children will have been read to every night by their parents and will love the chance to create and share their own stories. Other children may not read at all. Each child will enter the classroom with their own schema created from their own experience. Previous learning is categorized and stored and new information is assimilated and accommodated in a way unique to each student (5). Ethnic diversity will add richness to the classroom by bringing different attitudes to learning, culture and language. Vygotsky stressed the child’s cultural background affected the stages of development as different cultures emphasize different social interactions (Tompkins et al,8). The BC ELA IRP has prescribed learning outcomes for each grade. These learning outcomes are a set of criteria that must be met and are a set of skills that must be taught to the students every year. This is so that every child has the foundation of learning required to enter the next grade and is consistent throughout the province. The BC ELA IRP states, as presented in class, “PLO’s are content standards for the provincial education system…Clearly stated and expressed in measurable and observable terms, learning outcomes set out the required knowledge, skills and attitudes – what students are expected to know and be able to do – by the end of the specified course.” The BC ELA IRP is a tool to make sure each student is progressing through school at a similar level no matter what their previous experience. It is also a resource to assess what fundamental skill a student may be missing and hopefully can be an aid in remedial exercises.
Elementary aged students will have preconceived ideas about English language arts. Every student has his or her own interests and strengths. Some of these interests fall within a gender divide. I work at an after-school care center with a group of grade fours and fives. After taking a toy top, called a beyblade, away from one boy he sat down and wrote a story that was inappropriately graphic in its violence about a boy with a supreme beyblade. That same day the girls filled out surveys they created noting each other’s personal interests, favorite family members and pets. The BC ELA IRP allows the teacher the freedom to choose subject matter that is of interest to her students. It also does not dictate how the subject matter is to be presented but provides a framework as to what skills need to be met in each lesson.
I have a grade five student in this group who has an anxiety disorder and does not comprehend much beyond a grade one level when spoken to. She is strictly a visual learner. Not only is it difficult to communicate with her as a member of a group she has tantrums and crying fits when she does not understand immediately. If talked to one on one and if shown how to do a task she is very competent. She reads and will talk about books that are above her reading level. Page two of the BC ELA IRP recognizes in it’s aim to reach six different areas of comprehension in the ELA program: speaking, listening, reading, viewing, writing and representing. Not every student will be strong in each area. My student does not listen well, but she can represent, view and write. By building on those areas of comprehension, she can be supported when developing listening skills.
Learners, though diverse in their abilities, backgrounds and interests, all learn using the same strategies. I believe the BC ELA IRP addresses the similarities in learning strategies whereas it only recognizes the differences. I find it frustrating that it does not address how to teach a student who enters the classroom at a lower level than his or her peers. Every child has a certain comfort level with new material based on past experience from school or from home. Vygotsky called this the zone of proximal development. The teacher has to anticipate this for his or her students in order to effectively teach new subject matter. The BC ELA IRP does not offer any suggestions on how to meet the needs of lower grade level students other than to set them back a grade.
As a pre-service teacher, two questions I am often asked to think about in my ELA class are: ‘what will my classroom look like?’ and ‘who will my students be?’ I hope that my classroom will be a celebration of all my students. It will reflect their different learning styles, it will bring in different cultural elements and students will be able to share their experiences to learn, grow and explore together. It is clear now that as challenging as diversity can be, diversity can also open doors to both the teacher and to the learners as other avenues of teaching experiences and opportunities are opened.