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Philosophical Meanderings

Say it ain’t over the rainbow

Coloured Pencils by Pablo Moroe

Coloured Pencils by Pablo Moroe

Our local school division redistricted my son this year. At his new school he sits on an exercise ball and uses a netbook that slides out from under his desk. He leaves class for a few hours per day to attend Talented and Gifted (TAG) class and something called TAG Extension. He says that TAG extension is for “the smartest kids in TAG.”

My son extols TAG. He loves missing class. He enjoys his TAG lessons about freshwater ecology. He says he feels smart, for which I am grateful, though I wish he routinely self-identified as such.

I am conflicted. I wish his classmates all enjoyed the “advantages” of TAG – small class sizes, authentic subject matter, and a feeling of competency at school. I am convinced that we could afford all children such “indulgences” if we spent our education money on something other than the products we confuse as the curricula and assessments we must use. I am convinced we could make it our mission to create public schools serving happy children through authentic learning.

I am relieved that my son enjoys his learning at school. I am aggrieved that we hold wildly diverse learners to the same immutable standards at the same time that allow some kids to attend TAG or TAG extension while other children are literally left behind to voice phonemes, crunch worksheets, and churn through adaptable websites all day.

When did we become convinced that we couldn’t learn all we need from, say, a pond? That our notion of pacing is more important that a child’s cognitive development and emotional well-being? That our notion of pacing abstract lessons is somehow superior to a season’s concrete demonstrations of the same ideas?

Our local school division redistricted my son this year from a school with 41.29% participation rate in the federal free and reduced lunch program to a school with 74.77% rate. At his new school he is suddenly talented and gifted and enjoying more privilege, whereas at his old school we were told he wasn’t “off the chart enough” to compete for a talented and gifted spot, though he was invited to some activities as part of what seemed to be a push-in strategy.

While my son is happily oblivious to his sudden reversal of fortune, I am sadly not confused.

If we look at our schools, there are times when it’s clearly better to enjoy privilege than not to enjoy it, and there are times when clearly some students are not privileged enough. While these may indeed be the schools we adults deserve for sustaining them, they are not the schools our kids deserve. We need more democratic school. We need school choice that means more than picking between test scores. We need to accommodate students’ learning differences through work they love, which is not the same thing as the work we prescribe in a rush to be “effective” teachers and “adequate” schools.

We should expect to own these schools, however, until we also democratize school reform and dare a broader experiment in public education than those that produce “scientifically” proven “interventions.” Our interventions interrupt curiosity, discovery, and wonder. They are “interventions” for kids who don’t conform to our pacing guides; they are not somehow “fixing” children who could not otherwise learn other valuable lessons about the world outside the confines of a textbook or classroom.

The privileged often confuse privilege with being gifted. They confuse wealth with authority. They confuse finding what works for each kid with what works for their businesses. They confuse children, parents, teachers, administrators, the media, and society. I have done all of these things; I do all of these things.

We are not here to benefit from the “giftedness” of the privileged. We are here to discover what we love, to learn it well, and to share it with others.

Our schools should reflect that through the learning, meaningful work, and joy, engagement, and fulfillment of their students.

We are not here for our patrons; we are for for ourselves, for one another, and for our communities. But it’s complex, and we are taught to please our patrons and desire their succor. I have ideas about how to move classrooms away from this. I am completely unsure of how to move school systems away from this.

Who doesn’t want to feel special? Whom do we teach to feel that way but at the cost of others?

Our local school division redistricted my son this year. He is happy in his new school. What now?

My problem – I’m conflicted about my son’s privilege – is small beans. I apologize and understand if you find it self-indulgent of me.

Our problem – we sustain schools that create schisms between students – is of paramount importance for us to address as a nation. One way to begin solving that problem is for all of us – students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community members – to demand schools that find ways to give all students access to the learning that inspires them.

We can say that our interventions are meant to do this, but really our interventions are meant to sort out kids who aren’t where we tell them to be in the curriculum until, somehow, they are there. Our curriculum and predominant pedagogies are neither kid- nor learner-centered.

In appreciation of what my students – and children – have taught me, I’d like to close with a few suggestions for making all of our classrooms gifting ones.

  1. Fill your classroom – regardless of your grade and subject-area – with as many learning objects as possible. Stuff your room to the gills with sensory tables, toys, art supplies, and whatever tech and accessories (like mini-MIDI keyboards) you can beg, borrow, or steal, and make it a point to give students time to play or negotiate student-directed projects using these resources. Watch the kids. See what they do. Let them teach one another through discovery. Let them teach one another through play. Learn how they learn alone. What makes a successful arts- or project- or tech-infused classroom is not a teacher’s planning; it is, instead, the teacher’s sustained commitment to trust students to learn and to provide them with the opportunity to learn and create what’s valuable to them with diverse media inside and outside the classroom community. Does this mean you sacrifice some curriculum and perhaps eat some test scores? Absolutely. Rightly.

  2. Ditch what doesn’t work. Don’t keep on keeping on with one approach until all students are consequenced enough to comply or be sent from the room on a regular basis. Really embrace failure and try to depersonalize failed lessons. Experiment with stations or other classroom rituals that let you flow between students who are in and out of their own flow. If you can help some kids find a learning passion, you’ll have more time to help the other kids who struggle to find their own. This takes a long time with students who have been conditioned to be teacher-centered. Indeed, teacher-centered might be a stop-gap strategy to keep kids from being frustrated with more independent learning, but teacher-centered can’t be our goal if we really want to reject high-stakes testing and what we say it does to our children, classrooms, and schools.

  3. Let go; let go; let go. Broadening the definition of learning in our classrooms is a scary thing to do. We have to let go of our traditional roles. We have to let go of some of our darling lessons. We have to let go of some content, some scores, and some approval. Finally, around week 2 or 3, when the novelty has worn off, and kids are questioning everything along with you, we have to let go of fear and help kids reach that next milestone that cements their faith in themselves as learners and valuable community members. The fear is the hardest thing to let go of for me. I ran into a colleague this past week, and we talked about our assignments. I encouraged him to go off his pacing guide. He said, “But the man pays my salary.” All I could say was, “Yes, but he pays mine, too.”

  4. Keep the faith. Believe in democracy. Believe in your students and learning. Believe that you are a valuable member of your classroom community. Believe that you will do what’s right for all kids even when compromise, negotiation, and forgiveness feel uncomfortable to you. Believe that there is a better way to approach teaching and learning than the way we school children. There are no billionaires hiring researchers and bloggers to support this. This is our work; it is not yet theirs.

Believe that one day we’ll find it and recognize it as such in our schools.

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About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.

Discussion

14 thoughts on “Say it ain’t over the rainbow

  1. I definitely feel your turmoil. I taught high school for ten years and unschooled my three kids throughout. I had a “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” mindset, but I never felt completely ‘well’ working in the system. To be blunt, I hated “gifted and talented” programs. I still do but not enough to want to take them away from anyone. I just get the most profound sadness when I consider how the goats and sheep are separated. I wonder in awe how “gifted” can be so easily defined and how undiscovered talents don’t get uncovered.

    At the risk of being hyperbolic, TAG programs make me think of Lenin’s “saving remnant” or perhaps the vanguard of the proletariat. I wonder what schools would think if they were confronted with sanctioning such anti-democratic “cells”. Ok, that really is over the top, but I suppose my point is that the really big question is this: are schools leaving the non-gifted behind to fend for themselves. Of course they are and they always have. How do we deal with that? Is it a problem with the very structure of public schooling? Is reform wasted? Like I said, I took money from that system. I was one of those teachers who was left to deal with the ‘leavings’. I loved them all and they taught me that they were the saving remnant. They saved me every day. They still talk with me about it even after I moved on to higher ed. The work is good, necessary, but almost hopelessly difficulty. It is killing work for teachers who care. I really wish it wasn’t.

    Posted by tellio | September 15, 2011, 1:48 pm
    • Terry, I feel the same way about my students – they save me over and over again. The very structure of public schooling is the problem. And I think it’s a good thing to repurpose some of the system’s money to give more kids access to learning they value.

      Why do we operate our schools as if there’s a scarcity of kids who deserve the work our system considers its best?

      Here’s to students’ discovery of their talents and selves.
      C

      Posted by Chad Sansing | September 15, 2011, 7:46 pm
  2. So many interesting thoughts here-thanks for sharing them. I, too, am mighty conflicted while working with a new DI model this year. Hoping things get less murky as the adults feel our way around collaboration. Push-in only works when everyone has a stake in it and everyone feels that they are all “our kids”. I remain hopeful and am learning how to be professionally forceful on behalf of the kids.

    Posted by Kathleen Gillis | September 15, 2011, 4:37 pm
    • Thank you, Kathleen – it’s really difficult to advocate for kids and help adults shift pedagogies in ways that they don’t find threatening. I am glad you and your colleagues are pushing through the murk and I hope you’ll share more with us as you find ways to make experiences like DI (dare I say it) normal for all kids to experience in schools.

      All the best,
      C

      Posted by Chad Sansing | September 15, 2011, 7:35 pm
  3. I really dig your list of four at the end. I’ve long argued that what works for “gifted” kids is what works for ELL kids as well. Poverty, language and special ed status shouldn’t mean a kill-and-drill approach to teaching.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | September 15, 2011, 6:37 pm
    • Thank you, John, for your comment and work to help teachers teach and learn that matter to – and help – kids. Acknowledging, valuing, and following curiosity are always great steps to take in the classroom.

      What would you add to the list or amend in it?

      Best,
      C

      Posted by Chad Sansing | September 15, 2011, 7:37 pm
  4. I so enjoyed this post. “The privileged often confuse privilege with being gifted. They confuse wealth with authority.” I wholeheartedly agree. In fact I think this confusion that schools help create continues long after school for many people—i.e., the privileged continue on as adults stuck with the illusion that they are gifted. Obviously it’s damaging not only to be the kid left to feel untalented and ungifted but also to be the kid made to feel superior. Tragic on so many levels! I agree with Einstein, John Taylor Gatto, and a lot of noncelebrities who’ve noted that genius isn’t rare—we all have it naturally. It’s in us and comes out in various ways if we’re not manhandled and interfered with too much, or duped into believing we’re either dense or superior.

    Posted by Mindy | September 16, 2011, 1:06 am
  5. “Our local school division redistricted my son this year. He is happy in his new school. What now?”

    Exactly. Is he still going to be smart next year? And the year after that? But you are the parent. So the system can treat you badly. The system knows that you are not going to do anything to endanger your child’s current good experience. And then you will be gone. And they will have another batch of newbies to BS until they get a clue and maybe fight for or fall into some decent accommodation for their child. Etc. With no regard for any real, long-term change to actually help most kids.

    We went through this G/T business over ten years ago with our son. Then we left ps and he was happily unschooled. Where his relative intelligence did not matter. He could be who he was without having to constantly be compared to the kid next to him. And that’s a good thing because his very bright sister might have caused him to lose his seat in G/T class. :)

    Anyway, best of luck with your child. And thanks for being kind to other children along the way.

    Nance

    Posted by Nance Confer | September 16, 2011, 7:48 am
  6. What’s more, I don’t feel like a newbie after teaching for a decade (but maybe I am) and I know the BS.

    I can’t think of a solution as immediate or equitable as I’d like, but there’s the goal.

    Thank you for the wishes – I’ll do my best to honor them.

    With thanks,
    C

    Posted by Chad Sansing | September 16, 2011, 12:34 pm
    • Newbie — maybe you are when it comes to your child, maybe you are every year as the rules shift, maybe you’re not. But the school systems knows that it will get a new crop of parents every year.

      People who can be stalled with every line ever used — “really? we’ve never heard of that” “really? well, we’ll have to test for that, don’t know when that will be available” “we can’t make an exception” “we can make an exception but it needs approval from on high” “we’ve always done it this way” ” we are required to do it this way now” etc., etc., etc. My “favorite” is the statement that a principal or staff member who has been in the school system for years has never heard of. . . whatever. . . g/t, homeschooling, early readers, late readers, skipping grades. . . on and on. Leaving a newbie parent with the clear impression that they are crazy and their child is decidedly odd.

      And, btw, if you want any of that oddness addressed, you’d better mind the rules until we get around to you, which won’t be any time soon.

      But why worry about whether or not the parents are happy or the child is well served. They have no choice. They have to put their kid in school in order to work. Their whole lives are scheduled/budgeted to fit the school schedule. It is a system that doesn’t work for a lot of people but they don’t have any choice.

      And it is not about individuals — teachers or admin. They may well be lovely people. But they are working in a system that puts the same stresses on them that the parents and students feel. It is unnecessarily adversarial. As you point out, the kids who have less are given less. How is that sane in any system?

      Posted by Nance Confer | September 16, 2011, 1:30 pm
  7. Chad, It would be a great thing for you to come back to these 4 principles a couple of times throughout the year, to describe how they are evolving in your own practice and school this year.

    What are you learning?
    How has it been for you to let go?
    Redefine?
    How have students reacted?

    I’m hoping this kind of continuity might be built around a post like this. We’d all learn from this…

    Appreciatively,

    Kirsten

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 20, 2011, 8:46 am

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