cropped IMG 4646

Our Students Are All Smart: Having Conversations and Using Language Which Reflects That

This is part of a series of posts from nominees for our LifeChanger of the Year educator recognition program. We meet scores of fascinating LifeChangers every year who have interesting perspectives to share about children, education and life.

I entered the teaching profession in 1995. I was going to change the world for every student, regardless of his or her neighborhood or the amount of syllables, hyphens, or apostrophes in his or her name. Yes, I learned very quickly in the teacher’s lounge that first year. Certain neighborhoods yield this or that kind of student and the students with more “interesting” names are ones we should avoid.  Try to get the “smart” kids.

Twenty-five years later this has not changed much though I know now to avoid the teacher’s lounge. Teachers’ rosters are quickly examined prior to students’ arrival to “get a feel” of how the year might go. Schools still highly value quantitative and qualitative measures of achievement, despite scholarship which suggests we should do otherwise.  In 1983, professor and psychologist Howard Gardner put forth a notion of multiple intelligences.  His work was revolutionary and lauded nationwide; and yet, schools held fast to their dinosaur curricula which always indicated the “smartest” kids were the ones with high linguistic and math abilities.   This essay is not to be a harsh indictment. I know, in schools across America, that some teachers are actively trying to differentiate and tap into other intelligences (e.g., music, visual, and emotional, for example).  The problem is that this attempt is not widespread, and many state assessments still rely on mathematical and verbal indicators to tell us a kid is smart.

“Don’t you want to go to college?” This question is a way we marginalize students and gauge “smartness.”  My statement may be hyperbolic, but it seems that everything we do is geared towards making sure kids graduate high school and go to a four-year college or a two-year college.  There is nothing else.  I want to challenge us to add to this option. Here are some suggestions—joining the military, taking a GAP year, becoming an entrepreneur, or just plain old working.  If these options do not come to mind, then a good ol’ “what do you want to do after high school?” is a wonderful question. Incidentally, not all advanced or honors kids want to go to college and some of these students are tired of the assumption by their teachers that they do.

Early on, I taught GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) classes.  I learned quickly that my middle school students believed that the GATE teachers and GATE students were superior. Non-GATE (yep, that’s what they were called) sheepishly admitted to being on the non-GATE side of the hall. I was really happy to be a part of an institutional change which led to mixing up the GATE and non-GATE teachers so there would no longer be the “GATE side” or the “non-GATE side.”  I found this was not enough though. The label GATE itself was stigmatizing.  Maybe, I am a snowflake. Maybe, I think every kid deserves a trophy. I don’t think so, but I knew something needed to be done. It pained me how self-aware these middle school students were about these labels.  It was a four-year fight to convince the administration, but I was switched to non-GATE.    People thought I was crazy.  Why would I give up GATE?  In those reactions alone, I became acutely aware of how non-GATE students are regarded.  Let me add that this treatment and marginalization was not unique to my school setting.  I heard such comments time and time again as I attended professional development around the country. “Oh, this is only for my GATE students.”  “Non-GATE students could never do this.”  “It’ll be mostly only the GATE kids who can afford the field trip.”  At every question and statement, I would ask “why.”  I became an instant pariah.

And, perhaps, I am too naïve and idealistic.  I just can’t shake the belief that education is equity and it is my job to provide equality of opportunities for every type of student. So, first thing up was a rebranding of non-GATE classes.  All my classes became GATE (Great Attitude Towards Education). I put this on everything—syllabus, project sheets, website.  I trained kids for a solid week on its use. “You are GATE. What does it mean?”  They loved it and they proudly went around saying to peers and teachers, “As long as I have a great attitude towards education, I am GATE.”   I didn’t alert anyone to this. I just did it. There were a few calls to the school from parents about how their child was not in the right class and how they were accidentally put into GATE.   Oops.  And what happened in my new GATE classes? The same thing that was happening in the traditional ones.   I reminded students that they could do the work, that they could think creatively. They just had to have someone to believe in them.  And you know what?  The students did get better. They loved discovering that they had all these new academic abilities and intelligences.  A student said, “I like your class because I feel smarter when I am in here.”

My GATE students have done well on state tests, too.  I guess that’s important to say.  They have outperformed their honor counterparts. I don’t want you to be fooled though. It’s hard and demanding what I am doing. I had to gain my students’ and parents’ trust that they could meet my expectations.  In the traditional GATE class, maybe it’s one or two steps to get the students to master a content or skill.  In my new GATE class, I may have to use 5-8 steps. This should not shock anyone.  All of this rigor and expectation was new (sadly) to them.  And as the year went on, 5-8 steps became 2-3 steps.

My colleagues, I implore you to think less about the achievement gap which exists and to think more about the investment gap which occurs.  Where in our schools is the investment of resources, time, and quality instruction vastly different for student groups?  Why is this occurring?  How do we fix it? In my idealism, I believe that fixing the investment gap will help marginalized students “catch up.” If this occurs, in addition to positive teacher talk, then I believe we will see that all our students are, indeed, smart.

Pren Woods is a 2019-2020 LifeChanger of the Year finalist. Learn more about Pren on his LifeChanger of the Year profile.