You might know Paige from this guest post or this guest post! We loved her and her perspective and her voice so much that we invited her along for the ride as our newest contributing writer! Welcome her in the comments below!
“It has got to stop!”
These words, spoken by Kylene Beers at NCTE 2018, are still ringing in my ears. She was talking (rather passionately) about the difference in the skills being taught to students with different “ability” labels throughout the nation. Kylene showed data of what is happening in the different levels— kids who are considered “high achievers” are the ones engaging in higher order thinking and analysis, while those who are labeled as “struggling” are focusing more on comprehension and basic understanding. Two educations are being given: one that prepares students to think deeply and solve complex problems and another that prepares students to regurgitate information. The “haves” are preparing to lead, innovate, and create while the “have nots” are preparing to take orders, follow directions, and comply. And the fact that “struggling” learners are usually in that position due to lack of support and stability from home rather than lack of intelligence makes this even more appalling.
It is social injustice.
It has got to stop.
As someone who teaches both levels, I’ll be the first to admit…it’s easier said than done. It’s not as simple as beginning to deliver the same curriculum to all students. Struggling learners are often no less intelligent, but they’re still behind. I’ve had many moments where I’ve tried to challenge my non-honors students, only to walk away defeated (and I’ll admit it…I have fought the urge to convert to a comprehension-heavy curriculum). However, this all changed for me when I decided to stop trying to “water down” and “modify” honors-level curriculum for them and started listening to their interests and their needs to work toward developing a new curriculum with which they identified. And through the process, I’ve found that struggling learners are so very capable of those same higher order thinking skills as honors students when presented to them in a way that makes sense in their world.
To illustrate my point, let me tell you about how the Red Lobster (yes, the restaurant chain) got my students going this year.
During some research in grad school, I stumbled upon Stewart O’Nan’s 2008 adult novel Last Night at the Lobster. This short, 146 page read tells the story of Manny, a conflicted manager of a Red Lobster on its last day of business. The company recently decided to close Manny’s restaurant and relocate him to a nearby Olive Garden, giving him the difficult task of choosing which employees would get to go with him and who would be left without a job.
First of all, this scenario is so relatable (and possibly real) to so many of my students. The town I teach in has seen several business closures in the past decade or so, which has affected a great number of families in the area. In addition, most of my students work minimum wage jobs and have seen managers handle changes in personnel, and they often discuss workplace issues in class. The decision to incorporate this novel into my curriculum, then, was a no-brainer.
But it wasn’t the novel itself that got my students thinking; it was the potential the plot had to create an authentic discussion and writing opportunity. As I read, I couldn’t help but think about how the managerial task of deciding which employees to keep and which to let go drips with higher-order thinking— Who deserves to keep their job? Are there personal circumstances with specific employees that might interfere with decisions? Should the pay of the employees change once they are moved to the new restaurant? If so, where should changes be made? I knew these were questions my students would rise to the challenge of grappling with because they had seen others grapple with them so many times before.
Before my students read the novel, I decided to put them in Manny’s shoes. I began by posing a similar scenario: You are a manager at a Red Lobster that is about to close, and you are in charge of deciding which of your employees will be relocated to Olive Garden. I gave them a budget and a list of positions that needed to be filled (see the “Closing the Lobster” handout).
Next, we read 10 “Restaurant Worker Profiles” (Restaurant Worker Profiles PDF) written by me and based loosely on some of the characters in the novel and my own experience with waiting tables. Each profile lists the employee’s name, position, number of years employed, current salary, age, strengths as an employee, and areas of concern. As students read, we discussed the affordances and constraints of each employee. This is when the higher order thinking really began taking shape. Students delved into rich discussions about important workplace questions such as: Should employees be required to be drug tested? Is it acceptable for a boss to have a romantic relationship with an employee? How important is physical and mental health when making personnel decisions? And the best part—I didn’t have to prepare any materials for the discussion. We simply read each profile, and my students had so much to say.
The thinking continued the next day as students created the “Closing the Lobster” budget plan (Closing the Lobster budget plan and Closing the Lobster instructions). I was blown away by the analytical thinking they used to fill all the positions needing filled on such a limited budget. One of my most difficult-to-reach students awed me when he suggested one employee’s position needed to be eliminated since she always found time to help others, but her work ethic meant she was worth keeping. He assigned her another position and increased her salary. Other students got creative by suggesting a rearrangement of the kitchen and the combination of two positions. Their experience in the workplace no doubt contributed to their ability to think deeply about how to solve the problems posed by the scenario.
I’ve done this activity a few different times, and I love the flexibility it has for writing. I have had my students type up a “budget report” to submit to upper management, where they defend their choices in how the budget was used. Because of a time constraint this year, I asked them to think about the difficult conversations they would be having with some of their employees, whether it be to let them go, change their pay, or increase their workload. They wrote out a script of how they, as a manager, would break difficult news to one of the employees, using specific details from that employee’s profile in their response.
I also like how the authentic scenario creates more meaningful conversations when conferring. As I communicated with students during the drafting phase of the budget report, I found myself framing my commentary as if I was the manager’s superior. If I noticed students needed additional evidence to support claims, for example, I would say something like, “As a supervisor, I would want more reasons this employee is worth all the money you’re investing in them.” The same happened during the difficult conversations script activity. Instead of telling the students to use cautious and sensitive terms when delivering bad news, I found myself channeling the employee receiving the news and giving comments such as, “This might make me feel like my work was undervalued. How can you show the employee their work is important while explaining your budget cut?” Framing commentary within the context of the scenario was crucial in allowing me to discuss writing in a way this group would understand, which made the students more invested in the process of revision.
While I’m not sure if we will read Last Night at the Lobster year after year in my class, we will definitely continue the “Closing the Lobster” profiles in some way. Using the authentic scenario of making budget cuts engaged my non-honors students in ways I’m not sure would have been possible using modified materials from “higher level” classes. As I continue reflecting on the project, I can’t help but think back to Kylene’s words. She’s right—the gap in skills being taught at different levels has got to stop, and we have got to start giving our students the same opportunities, even if they are delivered in different ways. And if the “Closing the Lobster” project has taught me anything, it’s that listening to the students is the first step.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on Twitter @pbrink 12 and start a conversation about how to use the workplace as a springboard for meaningful discussion and writing activities in the classroom!
Tapping into students’ experiences with work is a great idea!