Sunday, October 27, 2013


The VolleyBall Chronicles: Part 1 or How to not hold your students back

A three part look at what I remember from one month at volleyball camp and how it makes me a better teacher.
Part 1

This is me in high school!
I was never a stellar athlete, but I competed in a lot of sports when I was younger. Once, when I was a pre-teen, I attended a volleyball camp in the summer. Most of the girls there were athletes who played club volleyball, and they went on to play well in high school and college. I was one of the younger girls; moreover, probably the only one who was doing it, “for fun,” rather than to fine tune my skills. My father was basketball coach and he knew the coach that led the camp, so I got a discount which made it affordable despite my lack of a future as a professional volleyball player.
I could NOT seem to serve overhanded like this girl

At the time I only knew how to serve underhand. I knew the concept of an over hand serve, but I had never actually used it successfully. Basically, the ball never managed to get the ball over the net. This camp was all about serving overhand. The coaches saw me struggle (with serve after serve landing before the net) and let me serve from a different line about a foot in front of the other one. This way I was still practicing the skill, but without dejectedly falling short of the net each time.

It became a bit of a habit, when there was a rotation and I ended up serving I’d say, “My line, right?” A coach would nod and I’d take the extra step I was so sure I needed. Until one day when the coach was doing an activity where he recorded us all doing the different skills. He wanted to be able to look over our motions, and more importantly have us look over our motions so that we could see what he sees.  After all, there is a difference between a coach saying, “You’re lifting your arm too soon,” and you seeing your arm rise up a full two seconds too soon. (This is true in teaching too, but I’ll save that for another blog.)
This net seemed like an impossible goal
I ran over to the server’s spot when it was my turn and looked at the coach, “My line?” He shook his head, “No the camcorder is set up to record everyone from the same line. Besides, it doesn’t matter where the ball lands; this is about technique.” I faltered a bit, but stayed on the traditional line. I took a deep breath, reminded myself it didn’t matter and served the ball…over the net. After that point I served from the normal line. Did I go on to become an Olympic volleyball player? No, but I have picked up some random beach volleyball games I never would have had the confidence to join otherwise.

If you’ve made it this far I really appreciate you humoring me as I divulged a bit of my past; I have a point I swear.
I’ve read several articles lately against differentiation. These articles suggest that students will not rise up to their potential if they are given less strenuous work to do. Sort of a, “water only rises as high as it is pushed.”

This blog is to say that while I don’t agree, I do see the point.

I had gotten used to “my line” in volleyball. It was comfortable there. I knew I could achieve what I needed to achieve without looking inept or wasting everyone’s time. I would have never left that line unless I was forced too.

However, without “my line” there is no way I would have built up the skill without irritating other players, and convincing myself I was useless.

I still think that differentiation is a key attribute to any class. Without it the lower students fall behind and feel unmotivated and the higher students feel bored and unchallenged.

That being said, while teachers should be sure to scaffold heavily for lower students, we have to remember to take the scaffolding away. Don’t always treat your low students as your low students. Let them flourish out of that category!

When we do take the scaffolding away, we need to be sure to do it at the right time. We don’t remove the scaffolding during a test, or an oral exam worth 30% of their grade.

We remove the scaffolding during a literary circle or in class group presentation. We make sure that the pressure is off and see how far those skills have grown.

Teachers should not treat differentiation as a way of babying students, rather as a way to give some students training wheels. After all, sometimes you just need a little more time practicing the skill before you ride like everyone else.

So that’s that. What do you think? Is differentiation a passing fad that caters to the trend of babying students, or is it something that is here to stay? How do you make sure that your students are still challenged?


  1. Hi, Carissa
    Thank you for this inspiring article. I found you tried to reflect your experience in the past to the way you teach. I've heard quite a lot that people should get out of their comfort zone to find more challenges for a kind of life learning. I do try to challenge my students. And I think students feel interested to learn when they feel challenged. However, I'm still looking for more ideas to do that.

    1. I am so glad that you were inspired by this! It is hard to find a mixture between challenging and supporting, but I think it is possible :)


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