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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.