In my previous life, I taught fourth grade. Before peer review and panel proposals, Derrida and a dissertation defense, I walked through the halls of a public elementary school in upper Manhattan with 32 9-year-olds. Throughout this past year, my first year teaching writing at an elite private institution on the other end of the country, I’ve found myself often thinking about my first class of fourth-graders, who are now the same age as my first-year college students. So much separates my two cohorts of students: in addition to geography and age, they are vastly different from each other in terms of race, ethnicity and income levels. However, my three years of teaching elementary school were formative for me in a number of ways, not the least of which is that what I learned during those years continues to inspire and inform my pedagogy.
On the job market last year I encountered a wide range of responses to my elementary school teaching experience, ranging from pleasure to confusion to dismay. At one campus visit, master’s students were thrilled that I had worked in a school that resembled the ones in which they were preparing to teach. Other interview situations were not as amiable; one interviewer reminded me that students at his college were not, after all, "little kids," while another questioned the relevance of my master's degree in teaching while he was in the process of interviewing me for a position that was exclusively about teaching.
When questioned about my elementary school teaching during my job search, I agreed that there are significant differences between teaching at the primary and college levels. I have not recently had to convince a student to stop doing "the worm" (a break-dancing move) during a read-aloud or spend hours making elaborate maps of the classroom to ensure productive groupings. But I do spend my time thinking about how to best invest busy students in a course they are required to take and considering how to effectively facilitate activities that allow students to read and respond to each other’s work. Indeed, as I told my interviewers, there are more similarities between teaching elementary school and college than one might think.
In an effort to bridge what some see as the unbridgeable gap between primary and secondary and higher education, here are some of the most important things I learned teaching fourth grade that I still use in my college classroom.
Differentiate. Simply put, differentiation means acknowledging that students come in at different levels and with different strengths and weaknesses, and planning our instruction accordingly. In elementary school this is most obvious in reading instruction, where teachers assess students’ reading levels, help them to choose appropriate independent reading books, and work with small groups of students who all read at around the same level. In my college writing classes, I apply the same theory to grammar and style instruction at the college level, identifying students’ needs in their earlier papers, and addressing them individually in conferences or in small groups in class. This has saved me lots of class time, because I no longer craft grammar lessons based on what I think students need, but rather on what they have demonstrated they need, and I don’t waste time teaching the whole class something that only a few students need reviewed.
While this technique is much easier for me to use because my classes are small, differentiation can be applied not just to content, but also to teaching and learning styles. Even in large lecture courses professors can include visual or auditory components, and in sections teaching assistants can utilize a wide range of teaching styles to appeal to various students’ strengths when reviewing or discussing the material.
Meet them where they are. This concept relates to differentiation, in that it necessitates an assessment of students’ strengths and weaknesses -- in this case mostly weaknesses. Even though the fourth-grade students I taught had only been in school for three or four years, I routinely had students in my classes reading years below grade level – entirely to be expected from students from low-income backgrounds that put them at a disadvantage. Trained by Teach for America, I was expected to promote at least 1.5 years of academic growth for my students to help make up for this deficit. As a new teacher, it was easy to get frustrated by what seemed so unfair: Why was it my job to teach them what they didn’t get in first, second or third grade?
It’s not uncommon to hear a version of this same lament at the college level: Why do we have to pick up the slack for what’s not happening in high schools? While I admit to having done my fair share of grumbling about this issue during my teaching career, the reality is that we teach the students who are in front of us, and if we don’t admit what they need and try to give it to them, we fail them.
Cognitive and educational theorists whose work often comes up at the college level back up this point. Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development  shows that in order to effect the most productive learning you have to scaffold students up from where they are to where you want them to be; if you skip steps they’ll never make it. Likewise, Paulo Freire, a hero in some academic circles, has also argued that you need to start with what students know. This certainly does not mean lowering standards or "dumbing down the curriculum," but rather designing instruction that may start at a more basic level but is able to bring students up to the standard required by the end of the semester. In non-writing classes this might mean assigning simpler readings and working on critical reading skills in one’s own discipline to help students make sense of difficult assigned readings. In writing it entails lots of diagnosis of individual students’ needs based on their paper-writing and designing instruction to meet those needs.
My college students know where they are weak and whether or not their high school experience has served them well; we talk openly about the differences between college writing and high school writing, and meeting students from all over the country often inspires them to think critically about the uniqueness of their own earlier education.
What they don’t always know is how best to fill in the gaps they’ve identified, and that’s what professors can promote. Even students who do come to college adequately prepared can often benefit from instruction meant to target their less-prepared peers; one of my strongest writers this semester told me that until college he had never really understood topic sentences, which is one of the more basic lessons I taught all semester.
Take responsibility. During my first formal observation as a fourth-grade teacher, I taught a lesson on making textual connections; students were using Post-Its to track their reading of their independent books, and by the end of the lesson they were supposed to write down a "self-to-text connection" describing how they related personally to something in the book. I was nervous (actually, terrified), but the students were attentive and as the period wore on I began to feel cautiously optimistic. In those early days of teaching, any lesson where students were listening, focused and engaged seemed like a success. I was surprised and dismayed, however, when my assistant principal told me in our post-observation conference that she had no choice but to give me an unsatisfactory rating for this particular lesson because 70 percent of the students had not met the objective. At the end of the lesson she had collected each student’s Post-It, and only about half of them had actually made the self-to-text connection. The message was clear: I was on the hook for my students’ failure. If they didn’t meet the lesson objective it was my fault and a result of my teaching.
I was reminded of this experience as a graduate student at my first orientation for a college-level teaching position, when talking about teaching essay structure and how a colleague’s students couldn’t "get it." I said something like, “Well, if a few students don’t get it that’s on them, but if a majority of the students don’t get it then you might try teaching it a different way,” and was met by a table full of blank stares or furrowed brows. The question of who is at fault for student failure (or success for that matter) is perhaps the biggest difference I have seen between college and primary school. This makes sense given the age difference; of course we hold college students more accountable for their individual learning and student responsibilities than we do nine-year-olds. And yet, if the vast majority of a classroom of college students don’t grasp a concept, or fail a midterm, or bomb an assignment, then it seems logical to look in the mirror and consider that might reflect problems with our teaching rather than, or at least in addition to, issues with their learning. After all, if we want to take some responsibility for their successes, we have to also think about our role in their failures as well.
The recent publication "The Heart of the Matter," a report issued by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences about the current state of the humanities and social sciences in the United States, acknowledged the relationship between primary, secondary, and higher education, but stopped short of fully exploring all potential collaborations. For example, the report suggests that K-12 teachers should be integrated into the intellectual communities of our colleges and universities, but fails to articulate that college faculty would also benefit from exposure to professionals who, unlike many Ph.D.s, are trained in teaching methods and strategies and study the way in which people, of any age, learn.
Although the report envisions complementary resources flowing up and down the educational ladder, the underlying assumption is that institutions of higher education have more to share, and K-12 teachers have more to learn. However, my experience illustrates that best practices developed in the lower grades and thoughtfully revised for an older population can help college and university faculty teach better; they’ve definitely helped me.
Jessica Wells Cantiello is a lecturer in writing at the University of Southern California.