18. Grouping

There was a letter in the Amherst Bulletin, and I just had to answer it. Grouping of children in the schools here is a hot issue, and the person writing this letter asked for a teacher’s point of view on the subject. His last sentence was, “Are you listening?” Here’s the gist of my reply:
I’m listening. I taught for 25 years, 20 of them as an elementary school teacher in Wellesley, and like most teachers, I stayed out of the public arena. I was afraid of getting sucked down by the undertow of public opinion and losing my job, or at least having to get really defensive. Now that I’m on medical leave and headed for a disability retirement (MS), I can say whatever I want and nobody can do nothin’. I’m even writing a column for the Wellesley Townsman about teaching and parenting. Here goes:
Grouping some children together for one very specific reason can be useful occasionally. It can be distracting and discouraging to sit with someone who can when you can’t, or who gets it when you don’t. It can be boring to be on the other end, waiting for someone to catch on when you could be tackling new stuff.
But that’s all. The decision to form a group should be made as carefully and specifically as we form some adult groups (adult children of parents who hogged the remote, even during commercials). The group should disband as soon as its purpose is accomplished.
I don’t think that’s the kind of grouping you mean. Don’t you mean the kind in which you are labelled “smart,” ” average,” or “requiring special instruction” (don’t we all?), and that label helps define you to others and yourself? The little dictionary I use defines “define” using the word “limit,” and I agree. And I was one of the “smart” ones! I didn’t associate with the “riff-raff,” because we “smart” folks didn’t have to. And who knew? Maybe mediocrity was contagious. I sure didn’t want to catch it.
Being in the “smart” group put all kinds of pressure on me. Pressure to excel, even when I didn’t. Pressure to live up to expectations and reach my “potential.” (I’m glad I never got there; I’ll bet no one did). Pressure to develop neuroses, climb some kind of ladder (social? corporate?).
Meanwhile, the members of the “riff-raff” could have all the great ideas they wanted; they didn’t have to worry that anyone would think they were “gifted.” If they were “gifted,” they wouldn’t be in the “riff-raff” group. Teachers didn’t have to think too hard about them. And we secretly suspected that only gifted teachers taught us.
Well, I guess I don’t have to tell you which side I’m on. Most grouping is segregation. If you get a chance, read Playing Favorites, by Mara Sapon-Shevin. It’s scholarly, but very reader-friendly. It raises all kinds of good issues about “gifted” education. I hope, like Mara, I’ve shed some light on the grouping issue. Because children aren’t separated by racial, ethnic, or religious groups (or are they?), so far we haven’t seen grouping as segregation, but if you’ll pardon the expression, I have a dream. I have a dream that all children, regardless of academic talent or seeming lack thereof, will work together in a community of learning.

Comments are closed.