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Chapter 3:  Teaching Is Adapting to Student Diversity

In the two previous chapters, we presented several theories of development that suggest that teachers need to structure the curriculum, the classroom, and their behavior to the existing capabilities and needs of their students.  In Piaget’s theory, for example, teachers are encouraged to provide concrete experiences that show the student the limitations of his or her current approach to a problem (see Chapter 1).  And in Vygotsky’s theory, teachers must provide sufficient support and assistance so that the student will be able to solve problems that are beyond their current independent problem-solving capabilities (see Chapter 1).  Implementing the recommendations of such theories, or course, is greatly complicated by the fact that the students in any class -- even a class that includes students who are at a single grade level and similar with respect to age -- bring diverse backgrounds, behaviors, abilities, and needs to the classroom.  How diverse are the students in a typical classroom? Consider the following students, who are all composites of children observed by one of the authors over numerous visits to first-grade classrooms.

Myra is a bright 6-year-old who nonetheless struggled at the start of the school year in several areas, including math and reading.  At a parent-teacher conference, Myra’s parents repeatedly expressed concerns about Myra’s reading problems, and they asked her teacher to suggest activities they could do at home to help Myra develop literacy skills.  Although the teacher spent as much time discussing Myra’s math problems as her reading problems, her parents did not seek any advice about math activities they could use at home.  Myra’s father did comment, however, that Myra just doesn’t have a “knack” for numbers like her older brothers do or like he always has.

Dakota is a bright but quiet first-grader.  He is Navajo and one of the few Native American children attending the school.  He seldom asks questions and it seems to the teacher -- who is White -- that when she calls on Dakota it takes Dakota an inordinately long time to answer.  She confides to a colleague that she doesn’t know whether Dakota wants her to wait longer for him to answer or whether he’s embarrassed by the long silence.  The teacher also senses that Dakota does better and seems more comfortable when working in a group of his peers than when working with her one-on-one.

Conrad is a small, fragile child.  He often falls asleep during class.  When awakened, he is quite embarrassed and once cried when the other children teased him about dozing off.  Conrad is well behind the other children in his academic progress, especially in reading.  He is not yet able to identify written letters with any consistency.  He sometimes has difficulty staying on task and in following instructions.  Conrad participates in lunch and breakfast programs at the school that are reserved for children from low-income families.  Recently, Conrad has been especially quiet and even gotten into a few fights.  He has visited the school nurse a few times with complaints of a stomach problem. The teacher has since learned that Conrad and his family have moved out of their apartment and into a homeless shelter.

Elizabeth is a quiet and reserved 6-year-old.  Although she answers questions and is friendly and polite, her rather timid nature has made it difficult for the teacher to get to know Elizabeth and determine her level of academic skill.  Recently, however, the teacher overheard Elizabeth playing an addition game with some of the other children.  The children would call out pairs of numbers and Elizabeth would immediately state the sum.  Some of the numbers got quite large (e.g., 126 plus 887).  Nevertheless, Elizabeth was virtually perfect, which inspired awe and giggles among the other children.  The teacher later sat down with Elizabeth for a little informal testing.  He found that she could easily handle even triplets of two- and three-digit addends.  He later told a colleague that on one occasion he had corrected one of Elizabeth’s few errors only to find to his embarrassment that her original answer was correct.

Billy is an outgoing and inquisitive child who has Down syndrome.  He spends most of the day in a regular first-grade class, but does go for several “special” activities, including speech and physical therapies.  Billy generally gets along well with the other children although some occasionally tease him and tell him “he talks funny.”  In fact, Billy’s speech is often difficult for his peers and teacher to understand.  This inability to make himself understood occasionally causes Billy to become noticeably

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