Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Struggling to Get Uphill

In Uphill Battles Are Struggles Worth the Work from Angela Maiers Educational Services, Angela Maiers states,

“Yesterday, after days of struggling against the hill, I reached breakthrough. I had the best run of my stay here. The hill remains the same, but my experience and my expectations changed. My thought patterns improved.”

As I read this post, it made me think about how much I take for granted because learning has always been pretty easy for me. For some reason, I had no problems with memorizing facts and formulas. I liked learning and it was not frustrating for me which of course encouraged me to want to learn more.

Yet, I began to think about my students and the uphill battles they struggle with. In the early years of my career, I had trouble relating to this struggle. Learning the material seemed so straightforward to me and I didn’t understand why they couldn’t get it. Helping my students understand the material was actually my uphill battle.

As I gained experience I realized how important it was to identify the uphill struggle that my students faced. Each student had a different uphill battle but many of the feelings were the same. Sometimes it helped to talk about it and bring the battle out in the open. Sometimes when it was discussed and no longer was a deep dark secret, the uphill didn’t seem so steep. By talking about it, we were actually able to come up with some supports to help the student.

Of course I also learned the hard way about this. When you approach a student about the uphill battle, they immediately deny there is any problem. This is natural and I had to find a way to get around this. The easiest way was to have a class discussion and talk about “hypothetical” situations that could be uphill battles. This kept it from getting personal. I asked students to name some ways that other students may struggle in school. This could be something they heard from their friends or seen on TV. Once we identified the battles, we began to brainstorm ideas on how to get to the top of the hill. Having others come up with suggestions sometimes helped the one student facing the situation see it more clearly (even though they might never admit it).

After the class discussion, I would ask each student to identify one struggle that most identified with themselves and write it on a paper but not to tell the class. If they thought of a different struggle that wasn’t mentioned, they could also list that. Then I asked them to list the suggestions they thought might help the most. By telling them that there was no right or wrong answer, they seemed more receptive to completing this part. I explained that this was an important step to achieving success and that over time, the uphill battle could change so we needed to look at this frequently. Sometimes they might actually face more than one hill to get to the very top.

I was always impressed by the honesty of the students and really never had a student refuse to do this. I would collect these and keep these in a file for future reference. It helped me gear my lessons to meet their needs. Sometimes a personal conference would help and sometimes I would ask them if they wanted to have a meeting with their parents and teachers. If they knew that they had my support, a meeting like this is less scary. It is also an important self advocacy skill that all students need to learn.

Identifying uphill battles aren’t enough. I need to make sure I understand each student’s uphill battle and help them find ways to make it to the top in order for them to be successful.

Original image: 'Uphill Road' by: Stefan Jansson

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