Education reform is overflowing with suggestions for what to do. It’s easy to find new ways to differentiate, new ways to incorporate student response, and improved methods for increasing student engagement. Suggestions, recommendations, tips, and tricks abound each one adding to an educator’s tool box, knapsack, and quiver. The implication being that the more robust your repertoire, the more capable you are to meet student needs. Sensible.
A quick scan of Edutopia alone will return more options than a single educator could implement in five years of practice. Randomized student response and cold calling students both improve student participation substantially. Project Based Learning is a fantastic change in practice that requires a lot of work and preparation that can improve outcomes for students. Sometimes, however, it’s what you don’t do that has the most impact.
I’ve written about “Andy” before. He was a student in my AP World History class and I’ve continued to work with him during his time as a running start student. In particular I’ve been working with him on writing for the college application process.
He was asked to respond to the following prompt as part of an application: [Our] students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development. (100 to 250 words)
Andy was initially a bit perplexed about how to respond so I encouraged him to just write a bunch of ideas and then we’d come back to it and sort out the mess. This was part of our general pattern of working together. Write a bunch of rough stuff and we’ll work it out later. He came back with the following two paragraphs. I’m including them with his permission:
When I was just a bit younger, I was apathetic to education. Tell a kid to give up on his hopes of being an astronaut enough times and he just might. The ceaseless snorts and guffaws that erupted from my math teacher did little to improve my feelings about algebra. In the midst of this rather bleak time, I met Mr. McCormick. Mr. McCormick taught AP world history. As much as I disliked math, it was still leagues ahead of my disdain for history.
However, Mr. McCormick introduced something new. He brought a human element. He showed me to the idea that a teacher could care, and in doing so was the first person in years to tell me that if I wanted to build rockets, I should try. While seeing the stars reaffirmed my desire to work in the space industry, I would have never been using the telescope had Mr. McCormick not shifted my attitude to what it is now. I believe that I have intellectual vitality, I have the hunger to learn and the need to improve the world. I’m not sure I would, had it not been for Gabe Mccormick.
I don’t remember the interaction. Andy’s statement that he wanted to go to space didn’t impact me. To me it was one in a series of things kids say: “I want to be an astronaut.” “I want to be a senator.” “I really need to pass this class.” There’s a huge category of things kids say that begin to just wash over you as an educator. My response was likely automatic.
“Mr. McCormick, I want to be an astrophysicist.”
“Cool, go for it.” And then I’d move on.
To me I was acknowledging his participation without making a big deal out of it. To him I was validating his dream.
“Tell a kid to give up on his hopes of being an astronaut enough times and he just might.”
What if we reverse the pattern? Tell a kid to pursue his hopes of being an astronaut enough times and he just might.
As educators what we say carries weight. Often far more weight than we imagine. In the way that every one of an artist’s brush strokes are intentional, so should an educator be intentional with their language. In education we talk a lot about how to encourage kids and the danger of negative interaction, but it was never real to me until Andy described it this way. My sentence impacted his life. I gave an automatic response. How much more impact would I have made if my response had been deliberate? In conversation with him about it I asked him what made the difference. He said simply, “You didn’t laugh at me.”
How many other people did laugh at him? How many times does a student offer up a desire to be president, or a scientist, or a rock star and get laughed at? Some students are resilient enough to keep going, or they have support at home, or from peers, but not all of them.
When a student becomes vulnerable and shares their desires our responsibility as educators is to help them see the possibility. I don’t encourage lying to students or misleading them about realities, but far be it from me to shut the door for them. Some of our students only have their teachers for guidance.