Master Teacher of My Childhood: Differentiation in the ’70’s.

I was not a wonderful compliant student.  I was more of a disaffected and socially awkward GT type who sometimes chaffed under school routines and expectations.  There were some years that didn’t go too well.  My first grade classroom, however, I remember as being remarkable.

During kindergarten, I had suffered from social ostracism to some degree.  I can remember a girl I wanted so much to be friends with making it public that she was not including me in her birthday party. I remember being mocked by the teacher.  I can remember hiding on the playground, or playing alone.

It apparently was bad enough that my mother went down to the school and complained.  The principal replied that none of the kindergarten classrooms were likely to be any better.

“Then in first grade, can you please put her in a first-rate classroom?” Mom asked.

That, the principal promised to do, and did.

My first grade teacher let me sit in the classroom library, an alcove with books and cushions, and move at my own pace from easy readers to chapter books.  During independent work time, she had set out converted shoe boxes which had been turned into math facts machines — you fed in a paper card with a problem on the front, and it came out the bottom,  having turned itself over, and displayed the answer. I mastered the math facts quickly but I absolutely refused to do my “boring” math workbook.

Still, most days were pleasant and equitable in that peaceful classroom.  I can remember the teacher’s aide, who every afternoon poured a gallon of water into a plastic pitcher, and then, the next morning, used the “aired out” water to refill the tank of our class goldfish.  The swish of the water pouring in was one of those comforting routines of childhood. Taking care of the fish, taking care of the children, peace, serenity.  I don’t remember any mean girls from that year.

Mrs. T. knew I didn’t need much of her attention.  She let me bloom at my own pace and I never felt ignored or slighted.  Yet I had a completely unfilled-in math book.  She must have been doing math in small group  … or was math done whole group and I was I just refusing to participate?  At any rate, it was close to the end of the year.  She called my mother and proposed the turtle solution. If I would finish the book, she would buy me a pet turtle, which she knew I deeply wanted.  This got me interested.  I immediately took the book home. I sat in my room with a pencil and went through page by page. Counting the ducks and writing how many in all.  Circling groups of three balls. One digit addition.  Then subtraction.   There was something like 150 pages of things like that.  When I had finished it, my mother came after school and I was awarded two red-eared slider turtles.

I remember my mother, very respectfully, thanking my teacher.  I remember my mother’s black pumps and her early 70’s dress, skimming above the knee, and Mrs. T.’s sensible brown teacher loafers, the hem of her blue suit skirt.

Now today, looking back, I marvel at the breadth of Mrs. T’s knowledge of differentiation and her creation of the positive learning environment for all students in a diverse classroom. As I learn more about children, about instruction, the teachers of my childhood drift back into my mind, as my first grade teacher did today, and I marvel at what they knew long before research had explained it.  God bless you Mrs. T.


2 thoughts on “Master Teacher of My Childhood: Differentiation in the ’70’s.”

  1. I really like this article because differentiation is a philosophy; not something we have to “do” and clearly, Mrs. T. understood that. She was clearly ahead of her term and as a result, allowed and encouraged students like you to thrive, grow and “bloom”!

    1. Thanks Peg your comment means a lot to me. When I remember her, it’s so interesting to think that there were teachers that were doing the stuff we’re now told is “new” way back in the 70’s. With her, responding to independent student need was a deeply held moral conviction, I suspect. However, she is the only one I remember with the independent work & centers-based classroom. The other classrooms of my childhood were all conventional.

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