I’m not sure how many of you know this about me, but when I was younger, I was actively involved in scouting. I started in a Cub Scout pack/den based in my elementary school. Eventually, I crossed over to a Boy Scout troop with many of the members of my pack. Scouting helped to introduce me to many activities that the typical suburban kid may not be able to experience: camping; backpacking; hiking; canoeing; and more. Every summer our troop would go to scout camp and spend a week together in the wilderness. While we had moments of free time, much of our time at camp was filled with opportunities to earn merit badges.
One of the requirements for advancement through the ranks of scouting is tied to merit badges. To earn the Eagle Scout rank, you’re required to complete 21 merit badges, 13 of which are required, plus another 8 of your choice. One of the merit badges I recall working on at scout camp was the Orienteering Merit Badge. The skill of orienteering is all about being able to find your way from point to point with the use of a map and compass.
The reason I’m thinking about orienteering is based on a couple of conversations I’ve listened to on recent podcasts. The gist of the podcasts was that far too often, when students are struggling academically, we start to talk about the skills they are lacking. We might be looking at our resources and notice that a child seems behind, or we might be looking at our standards and see a skill that the child cannot meet. We then start talking about what the child cannot do.
When you are on an orienteering course, all you have is a map, a compass, and a set of directions. Those items are meaningless if you do not know where you are on the map. In today’s world of GPS on our phone, many of us might say that they can just pull their phone out and figure out how to get where they needed to. The outdoor survivalist in me is bound to ask what you would do if you do not have a signal? Or what if the battery is dead? We must be able to identify where we are on the map to figure out where we are going.
This is true with our students too. We have our standards, they are what we are ultimately accountable to, that map out what our students should know. We can also look back at previous grade levels to see how those standards progress over the years. But to figure out what to do next with a student, how to support a student who is struggling, we must know where they are at the start. Once we know where they are in terms of skills the students do have, we’re better able to identify what comes next. For example, in math we start with basic skills like counting and number identification, work our way into addition and subtraction, and eventually will make it to the point of things like geometric theorems or factoring polynomials. There is a progression of skills that all build upon one another. When we know where a student is on that progression, we can identify skills that come next.
If you work in a district that utilizes NWEA like mine does, from your student profile report, you can drill down to specific skills that this assessment feels a student is ready to develop. Now, as with any standardized test, take this with a grain of salt. You may find that a student has some needs that fall outside of what is suggested. There is no better resource than your formative assessment and responsive teaching, however this is an excellent starting place.
So, what can we do with this knowledge? I would encourage you to start framing your conversations about what kids can’t do a little differently. Instead of pointing out what students cannot do, start to notice what they can do. Then think about what comes next in the progression. Whether we’re talking about math, reading, or writing, there are typically agreed upon progressions that will help guide the learning process.
How might this impact your next conversation about a student who is struggling? Can you think of some different things you might say? Different ways to approach the struggle? Share your thoughts in the comments below!