How struggling readers and one confused ballerina are alike.

A friend of mine posted this video on my Facebook wall a few days ago:

The first time I watched it, I thought the girl was just an insanely endearing train wreck and laughed my head off. I shared it with my roommates and we all laughed about it together; they moved on.

The second time I watched it, I noticed how quickly the little girl fell behind the rest of the class and I saw it: the little girl in this video is like a struggling reader. The class was told what to do and she didn’t understand. The teacher saw her struggling and responded. She came over and repeated the instructions and placed the little girl’s feet in the correct position. The ballerina, like readers who are only told by their teacher  the correct answer/inference/whatever, instead of being shown how to do it falters and cannot catch up again. Sometimes students figure out a pattern or understand the logic behind what they’ve been told is correct, but it’s a safe assumption that they won’t and will not understand how to reach a similar conclusion in the future. Without the fundamental lessons in place and at work within a student’s mind, it can be just like stumbling around trying to at least get in the right position while the class moves on. While the reader or writer who is struggling channels of his or her efforts into just getting to the first position, the first step, the rest of the class is moving on. This is a point that I’m sure most of us would agree on.

So, what can be done?

Demonstrate the process necessary to complete the task. Just telling students what to do will not be enough for all of them. Some students may need to see it done to understand what they need to do. They might think that they know exactly what to do or how to do it, but realize after an example or two that they weren’t 100% right. It will benefit all of your students to see the stages or processes necessary to complete activities.

Guide your students through new strategies. They will have questions no matter how many times you do something. Give them resources and make sure that they have something to reference each time you return to specific strategies. Journals, notebooks, survival guides for reading and writing: no matter what you call them, you’ll want to make sure that all of your students can access them. Be available to answer questions and provide quick-review mini-lessons as necessary.

Repetition is important. Middle and high school students typically have between 5 and 7 classes a week. If they do something just once in your class, they probably aren’t going to remember how to do it no matter how important you say it is. If a skill, strategy, or idea is important, do and discuss it often. Giving students many chances to work with learning strategies increases the likelihood that they will master the skills behind the strategies.

This little girl kept on trying to get it right, no matter how futile her efforts were. Not many of our students will share her drive. In the minute or so that we get to watch this budding ballerina, we see her getting frustrated very quickly. As she does, her strategies become less effective. Eventually, she would probably just give up and that is probably where many of our students will be by the time they get to us. I won’t be the type of teacher who just tells a student what the answer is and send them off to their desk with no new problem solving skills. I hope I’ll be the type of teacher who will take the time to teach a student how to go from 1st position to the polished performance.

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