I have never been a fan of the Bell Curve. During my years of teaching, I have discovered that each class has its own personality and skill level, and rarely do the students fall in the neat and tidy percentages of a few at the top and bottom of the grading scale and the majority in between.
Rather than a bell-shaped figure, student placement is, I feel, best symbolized by a circle, or a community of learners. During the time I was employed as a Chapter One Language Arts teacher on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, I discovered that the teaching techniques used for special education students also worked well with the “gifted” students (both groups ultimately found their way to our Chapter One classrooms). These activities were set up so there was no competition between students, no “grade.” We learned, together, that we did our best work when everyone had a voice in the circle and followed the meandering brook of learning rather than the Bell Curve.
Instead of filling out grammar worksheets, we often talked about Rez vocabulary and the poetic rhythm of pow wow dances, and brainstormed ways for one of the students to dance in the next pow wow. We designed a grass dance costume and made a list of materials. We tied black and white and gray yarn on a string and then sewed the yarn fringe around the silvery satin material we’d decided on for the shell of the outfit. The student danced his heart out at the next pow wow and won the top prizes he had not always found attainable in the traditional high school classroom.
I came to believe that a teacher’s role is to be guide and coordinator and to help students make their own discoveries, not to spew forth information and then judge them on their ability to repeat it back. I came to see the classroom as a place for heartaches and laughter and struggles and joy, where students not only learn about a subject, but also about the range of human involvement within that subject.
My students have taught me this lesson—when they feel they can’t make a grade, they quit trying and put up a wall of defense, which prevents them from learning. My lesson has been this—learning and being open to new ideas requires trust and a sense of security, which cannot be maintained in a competitive grading situation.
The Bell Curve has no place in the classroom of the world. Our “normal” students and even our top grade students rarely turn out to be the most creative members of society. Geniuses are found on every part of the circle. I believe it is our job as teachers to nurture the genius in each and every student, and to bring them into the community of learning, into the circle which ultimately widens to include the orb on which we all spin.
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