Today’s middle school and high school English classrooms are much different from what they once were. Multicultural and multilingual students, technology and increasing pressure on time-poor teachers to write multi-level programmes and meet objectives have all been factors in building challenges in today’s English classroom. Increased understanding and sensibility regarding learning difficulties and methods to harness those difficulties are a double-edged sword; they signify that an awareness exists in understanding the need to support weaker students, at the same time more training, methodology and pedagogical support are required by teachers to fulfil the needs of today’s English Classroom.
As an English teacher, I understand the pressures teachers receive to complete many administrative and other tasks and at the same time the importance they give to lesson planning and preparation. The problem is – there is often very little time in which one can complete all of these tasks well and punctually. Efficiency and precision are needed by English teachers to skillfully programme and prepare inclusive lessons. How can we do it? The first step is to consider inclusivity as an opportunity and not an obstacle.
We are more aware than ever of learners with developmental, learning, psychological, physical, socio-cultural and behavioural difficulties or disadvantages. Learners who possess one or more of these challenges can often be frustrated, have low self-esteem and / or be fearful of their own ability. The English classroom can be torture for dyslexic learners in particular, who find it difficult to read and write in English. It’s important, in the spirit of inclusivity, to work to students’ strengths in general, not only academic strengths, but consider their whole cultural, religious, linguistic and learning experiences. This enrichens the classroom and focusses on skill and competence development, rather than standards and narrow aims or objectives which can be extremely limiting in the modern, multilevel English classroom. Peer support such as working in pairs or in groups is a great way to foster interdependence and esteem among classmates. When learners are given the responsibility of working in groups and encouraging each other they can sometimes be surprisingly mature and independent. Another great tool to support the inclusive classroom is the teaching of self evaluation. This method gives learners the opportunity to analyse their own improvement and learning growth rather than feel judged by tests. Evaluation and testing should be considered and measured separately and teachers should constantly monitor student progress as a whole, rather than narrowly considering individual test or exams, which can be harmful to a learner’s overall long-term progress. Classroom strategy and specific and strategic tools should be considered in the spirit of inclusivity.
Cooperative Learning – A strategy
Often times classroom strategy is reduced to ideas regarding the ‘management’ of learners and their behavior, rather than exploring learning methods and theory. A very effective and inclusive learning strategy is Cooperative Learning. This is a strategy that aims at the use and activation of learner strengths within a group dynamic, promoting interdependence, collaboration and self-evaluation in the effort to reach common social and learning goals. What Cooperative Learning tries to do is bring out the best in learners and work on their weaker points by learning through their group members, who most likely have different strengths. This positive interaction among peers is a microcosm of what learners will experience in the workplace later in life. The way in which Cooperative Learning introduces life-learning is through the shared discussion of strategies, problems and solutions. The teacher takes a peripheral role in the classroom learning moment, having already worked ‘behind the scenes’ before the lesson to structure the group interactions according to social, learning and cognitive objectives and goals. Teachers have the opportunity throughout the learning moment and after it to reflect on task effectiveness and if groups were able to achieve positive learning and social aims through their interactions. Learner and teacher evaluation is crucial to the functioning of the Cooperative Learning Strategy for optimum results.
Inclusivity and learning strategies such as Cooperative Learning are only small parts of the challenges of today’s middle school and high school English classrooms. Curriculum pressures and limited resources – a main one being time – are two other main challenges that teachers face daily. Increased sensibility towards learners with learning difficulties and the understanding of methods that can support those learning needs are the first, important steps towards understanding better and working in today’s English Classroom.