One main difference I have observed between my school in Ireland and schools I have been placed at in Boston is classroom demographics. There is much greater age diversity within a single classroom at Scoil Mhuire than I have ever encountered in America. The age span within the third-class classroom includes 8, 9 and 10 year olds. Within this school system, children may be enrolled and begin formal schooling any time between their fourth and sixth birthdays. I talked about this wide age gap with one of my Irish roommates at University College Cork and she said oftentimes the younger students tend to take a gap year rather than going straight to university like their older peers so that there isn’t such a wide gap between them and their peers upon entering college. This suggests that the students, particularly the younger students, are aware of the wide age span within a single grade level and feel its affects. The wide age span has led to developmental and maturity level differences between the students in the classroom, both socially and in academics.
The wide age span naturally creates a greater degree of maturity levels within a single classroom. The older students may be developmentally ready for certain academic concepts or social interactions while for the younger students such concepts might not yet be developmentally appropriate. This leads to a greater need for differentiation within lessons and teaching practices in order to meet the needs of all students on differing developmental levels within a single classroom. My CT has discussed with me the challenges she’s faced in having such a wide age range within a single classroom, and how she must keep on top of some students to prevent them from coasting while others require additional supports to keep up (these differences often time corresponding to the age of the students). My experiences within this classroom at Scoil Mhuire have increased my awareness of exactly how wide a range of developmental and maturity levels a teacher may have within one classroom. In order to meet the needs of all one’s students and promote equitable teaching practices, lesson differentiation and recognizing that students come to school with all sorts of particular needs and strengths is necessary.
Through classroom observation, I have witnessed how my CT attempts to promote equity by differentiating her lessons to meet the needs of all her students. She does not expect all of her students to perform on the same level, as that would be impossible, yet she still holds them all to high standards, expects them to be challenged and to work toward improving their personal bests. For example, the youngest student in the class struggles with her academics, particularly in math. My CT allows this student to use resources, such as a times table chart, to help her solve math problems and when orally quizzing the students on their times tables, will write down the problem for this particular student so that the student has a visual and the math becomes more concrete. My CT does not presume that this student cannot complete the work, or give her simpler problems to solve; rather she provides scaffolds and resources to help this student arrive at an answer.
Conversely, the oldest student is the class is incredibly advanced in her English and writing skills. This student is given higher reading level books during independent reading time and while all students are given one or two things to work on in their writing (currently the majority of the students are working on dialogue and creating multiple coherent paragraphs in their writing) my CT coaches this advanced student on more technical aspects of writing because she is developmentally ready for it.
While I have become more aware of developmental diversity in Ireland that affects equity and social justice practices, Ireland’s homogeneous culture has not allowed me to learn much about equitable teaching to a culturally and ethnically diverse classroom. All of the students in my classroom come from very similar Irish catholic families within the same socioeconomic level. Unlike my previous placements in Boston, which were culturally and racially diverse, Irish schools lack ethnic diversity. In Boston, I would often observe how my CTs would incorporate the cultures of their diverse students into lessons through book selections, cultural references, and art projects. The students’ heritages were celebrated and infused into lesson plans. I have observed very little of culturally aware teaching practices in Ireland as all of the pupils are of the dominant culture. A couple of weeks ago, Scoil Mhuire, celebrated “French week” where the students learned about the French culture. French culture was not infused into pre-existing lessons, but was approached as a separate subject all together, and the information presented was all very stereotypical: simple French phrases and feasting on croissants, crepes, and baguettes. It was very stereotypical and provided a surface-level understanding of French culture. I think without having diverse students in ones classroom that forces a teacher to be mindful of how cultural diversity is presented, it can be challenging to present diversity in culturally aware and authentic ways, rather than setting up diversity as a celebrated week of stereotypes.
Completing an international practicum in Ireland has opened my eyes to the wide range of developmental and maturity levels that may exist in a single classroom and how this affects differentiation and teaching practices. Simultaneously, I have also gained a greater appreciation for the diversity of culture within Boston schools that is missing from the Irish culture, and how such diversity makes culturally aware teaching practices more authentic and easier to avoid a stereotypical and surface level understanding of diversity.