Do We Underestimate the Students We Teach?

Last year I shared a story about a fourth grade class that was studying the Middle Ages. Based on formative reading assessments, many of the students had been labeled struggling readers. Yet despite that, they were able to insightfully consider a book about Galileo in a way that allowed them to understand the power and belief systems of that distant and very different time period.

In what seems to me a similar way, teacher and Heinemann Fellow Aeriale Johnson has been tweeting some of the incredibly insightful responses her second graders—many of whom have also been labeled as strugglers—have had to poems and books she’s shared with them.

Here, for instance, is a poem from Tupac Shakur that Aeriale shared with her class:

And here’s what one of her second graders had to say about it:

“I think 2Pac’s duo is his spirit & his body. I think sometimes his body doesn’t do the same thing as his spirit. He says, ‘This is my only regret.’ His regret is his body did something that his spirit didn’t want to do.”

Another poem Aeriale shared with her second graders is Mary Oliver‘s “Wild Geese” (which I didn’t read until my thirties):

Here’s one seven-year-old girl’s response to it:

That same poem also sparked the following exchange on the playground, where one child drew on Oliver’s words to help another deal with a painful interaction:

And finally here’s several of Aeriale’s students considering the meaning of this page of Kwame Alexander’s marvelous book How to Read a Book, with great illustrations by Melissa Sweet:

In all these examples, we see children who’ve been labeled as struggling readers being quite capable of deep thinking and insight. So how do we explain this? For me, it’s connected to something Lilian Katz, the early childhood educator and author of Engaging Children’s Mindsonce said: “We overestimate children academically, while underestimating them intellectually.”

Katz was specifically speaking about young children, but I think this is true right up the grade ladder, from kindergarteners to high school. Some of the fourth graders I worked with, for instance, and the second graders Aeriale teaches, may indeed struggle with academic skills like identifying the main idea of a text or reading without making significant miscues. But intellectually, they are quite capable of thinking deeply and deriving significant meaning from texts. The problem is that too often schools place more value and emphasis on those academic skills than on students’ intellectual lives. And I think we do that to the detriment of students.

First, unlike speaking and understanding speech, human brains are not hard-wired for reading. As you can see below, reading is an extremely complex act that involves many areas of the brain, which is why learning to read can be challenging for many. Yet what better motivation can there be to take on that hard and sometimes frustrating work of learning to read than to feel that books have something important and vital to give you in a way that adds meaning to your life? Stickers? Pizza? A grade? I don’t think so.

And then there’s the question of those academic skills we spend so much time teaching and assessing. In a recent Position Statement, NCTE stated their belief that “Utilizing a model of reading instruction focused on basic skills devoid of meaning can lead to the mislabeling of some readers as “struggling readers” and “non-readers” because they lack extensive reading experience, depend on different prior knowledge, and/or comprehend differently or in more complex ways. . . . In addition, prescriptive, skills-based reading instruction misidentifies the problem as the students’ failure to learn, rather than the institution’s failure to teach reading as the complex mental and social activity it is.”

And in their wise and wonderful book, Disrupting Thinking, Kylene Beers and Bob Probst have this to say about skills:

“In too many places, we ask kids to read (and write) so we can give them a grade that shows they’ve learned some skills someone has decided they need to know. But if we aren’t reading and writing so that we can discover, so that we change—change our thinking, change ourselves, perhaps change the world—then those skills will be for naught.”

The fourth graders I worked with and the second graders Aeriale teaches were engaging with texts in ways that changed how they looked at themselves and the world they lived in. My hunch—and my experience—has led me to believe that if we carve out space for students to show us what they’re intellectually capable of, many who’ve been labeled as struggling have incredibly thoughtful and insightful things to say. So let’s not underestimate them by narrowly focusing on a diet of skills. Instead, let’s nurture, support and celebrate our students’ intellectual lives.

11 thoughts on “Do We Underestimate the Students We Teach?

  1. :…too often schools place more value and emphasis on those academic skills than on students’ intellectual lives.” Amen and guilty as charged, but I will not crawl on my knees in the desert. Instead, I’ll take this post, and my day yesterday spent attending only sessions by Cornelius Minor at the Dublin Literacy Conference, and find my way back to the way I know to be true. Thank you. Right words at the right time. We slip, we fall, we get up, we try again.

    • I know where your heart is, Mary Lee! And so you know, I slip, I fall, I get up and try again all the time. Just glad that I got up and tried again to write blog posts, if only for staying in touch with dear colleagues like you.

    • Mary Lee, I am right there with you. I butchered some recent essays my students wrote without looking closely at what I did to create the void that I found in their writing. Stabbing myself in the gut will not help, or walking on my knees. I just need to keep on and find my way back.

      • Love when readers respond to each other, Margaret. And just for the record, I frequently wake up in the middle of the night, shuddering at what I’ve said to a student, as I finally realize what I should have said. And for me, the best recourse is forgiving myself and then getting back in the saddle.

  2. I adore the quote you selected from Beers and Probst. What is the point if kids aren’t using reading to discover new things and to work towards making the world a better place? That IS the point, isn’t it?
    I’ve followed Aeriale on Twitter for a little over a year. The work she does alongside her students is inspiring!

    • Thanks, Stacey, for leaving a comment! Kylene Beers has such amazing way of nailing things with just a few perfect words! Your words, though, made me wonder what would happen if instead of thinking that the point of education was for our country to be able to compete globally (which many corners believe) it was about making the world a better place. Think how we teach would have to change, along with what we teach. Hmm . . . .

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Johnson’s students are truly deep thinkers and I believe, like you, that all or most students have it in them – they are like clementines, too.

  4. Those wise second graders certainly challenge our academic pigeonholing. Thank you for shining the light on what we often overlook or forget when seeking academic goals. So
    much is inside our students waiting to be ignited.

  5. Pingback: Creating Opportunities for Students to Think | To Make a Prairie

  6. Pingback: Literacy Lenses

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