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.

Who Will We Become as We Gather Together in this Terrible Kingdom?

Charlottesville Vigil

The title of this post comes from the poem “Hymn,” which Sherman Alexie felt compelled to write after what took place in Charlottesville. And like him and countless others, including scores of teachers, I, too, have felt compelled to try to put into words some of what I’ve been thinking and feeling in the wake of those horrific events—if only to try to tame those thoughts and feelings, many of which were unsettling.

I’ve always struggled, for instance, with the concept of evil, not wanting to accept that there might be people or events that couldn’t be explained without resorting to the word ‘evil.’ But I simply can’t fathom the depth of hatred that the men and women who marched through that park with their torches, vile slogans and flags clearly held in their hearts. That depth of hatred seems to warrant the word evil, though even as I type it, I can feel myself flinch.

I also felt unsettled when the thought crossed my mind that the men and women who held those flags and barked out those taunting slogans had been children once—and as children Screen Shot 2017-08-18 at 7.13.13 AMthey had sat in classrooms in schools for many, many years. They were also children who as Nelson Mandela said (and our profoundly missed President Obama tweeted) were “born not hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. [They had to] learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.” And for better or worse, that led me to wonder what role our educational system may have played in bringing us to “the terrible kingdom.”

To be clear, I’m not in any way suggesting that teachers are to blame here—though, perhaps, we do need to become more assertive agents of change in schools. Nor am I calling for any compassion for those who carried those despicable flags and spouted those despicable words. Along with considering the existence of evil, the events of this week have also forced me to think that there are those among us who don’t deserve compassion. But I can’t stop thinking that our education system failed the children those white supremacists once were—not, to be sure, as much as we’ve historically and systemically failed children of color, but failed them nonetheless. And I think we failed them not only because of the unaddressed racism that permeates this country and manifests itself in both obvious and insidious ways, but because of the values and beliefs that lie at the heart of our system.

Socially Acceptable Racism

In his address to last year’s the Global Education Forum in Seoul, the great Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg shared this slide. It pinpoints the differences between Finland’s approach to education and that of the Global Educational Reform Movement (a.k.a., GERM), which includes the United States, as a way of answering the question of what makes some education systems successful, while others don’t improve.

Screen Shot 2017-08-18 at 8.30.54 AM

Clearly these two approaches are grounded in very different belief systems. And it doesn’t seem far-fetched to me that systems based on competition and standardization—coupled with a President who has no moral compass and divides the world into winners and losers—could lead to the kind of dog-eat-dog/”You will not replace us” talk that was on display in Charlottesville. It’s also a system that de-professionalizes and distrusts teachers. And it’s interesting to note that in a talk Sahlberg gave at a private school in New York, he not only shared that there were no private schools in Finland, but that there was no word for accountability in Finnish. Instead, he suggested that “Accountability is what happens when responsibility is subtracted,” and I think responsibility comes with trust.

So what do we at this terrible juncture? And who do we need to become, beyond people who are aware of—and reflect on—the covert ways racism rears its ugly head?

Over the next few weeks I’ll humbly try to share some teaching moves and shifts in practice that I think can help move us closer to the collaborative, creative and trust-based classrooms I believe our students deserve. But for now I’d like to share links to the following blog posts and articles, all of which offered me a sense of support, if not solace:

And finally, there’s this: While for better or worse, this week has led me to believe that some people are simply unredeemable, I reject the idea that any child is. Like Sherman Alexie who, in “Hymn” admits that he has “some empathy/for the boy [Trump was]” because of his “sandpaper father, who roughed and roughed/and roughed the world” and didn’t love him enough, I believe every child deserves empathy and compassion, no matter how prickly or unruly they are or how distant or unreachable they may seem. And so I’d like to share two last pieces:

  • Hugging a Porcupine” by Rob Miller who, in this powerful essay, reminds us that every child in our schools belongs to us and we must care for them as we’d care for our own.
  • And this poem by Miller Williams, which I discovered at the #compassionpoem page teacher Steve Peterson created, where you just might find a few other poems that actually offer solace:

compassion Miller Williams