A phrase that stood out to me most from reading “Lies My Teacher Told Me” was:
“We seem to feel that a person like Helen Keller can be an inspiration only so long as she remains uncontroversial, one-dimensional. We don’t want complicated icons.”
This was the chapter where I also learned that Helen Keller was a socialist — and indeed, that it was so much a part of her adult life, that it’s truly shocking that most of us never learn this fact in our history books.
I own one of the “Value Tales” biographies of Helen Keller, the very theme of which is “The Value of Determination.” While I certainly want my kids to be inspired by her determination, I also want them to learn about her complex activism and beliefs, and to form their own conclusions. She wrote:
“I had once believed that we were all masters of our fate — that we could mould our lives into any form we pleased…I had overcome deafness and blindness sufficiently to be happy, and I supposed that anyone could come out victorious if he threw himself valiantly into life’s struggle. But as I went more and more about the country I learned that I had spoken with assurance on a subject I knew little about. I forgot that I owed my success partly to the advantages of my birth and environment…Now, however, I learned that the power to rise in the world is not within the reach of everyone.”
It is truly an injustice to our students to assert that people can only be inspirational if they are essentially perfect.
Unjust because it creates a false sense of unattainable achievement (“only those kinds of saint-like people make a difference”).
Unjust because it conveys that we don’t trust them with complicated truths.
Unjust because it’s the kind of rhetoric that fuels partisan politics and the idea that people are only worthwhile if their views 100% align with our own.
Let’s trust our students enough to trust them with truth. To create spaces where they can sort through difficult topics. To encourage them to form their own conclusions and realize that all people are messy, with strengths and failings. Let’s preserve the complexity of our icons.
Is it bad that as I attended a training meeting for an online preschool, I was:
1) reading Free to Learn by Peter Gray, and,
2) internally rolling my eyes while the trainer extolled promises of kindergarten readiness and motivation tips for consistent use from our 4 year-olds?
I probably didn’t earn any gold stars at any rate.
But I’m not in it for performance anyway. I’m in it because my son has started to exhibit interest in letters, and I wanted to see whether this program might further his interest. It is not to replace or even complete with our story time, library trips, or casual chats related to literacy.
If he’s not motivated, it’s not because I need to do more to motivate him — it’s because he’s not developmentally ready for it.
If he’s not “performing” on later tests, it’s not because I didn’t do enough to drill ABC’s with him in PreK — it’s because standardized tests are an inherently poor measure of authentic learning.
These are truths whether we face, as Kristine Mraz put it so eloquently, lowercase “s” struggles (ordinary variation of learning pace) or uppercase “S” STRUGGLES (systemic barriers that disproportionately impact families and students of color).
However, when we look again at this program with the lens of STRUGGLE, it becomes clearer why we might hope it will aid in closing socioeconomic achievement gaps. After all, it’s free, home-based, and equipped with personal consultants for each family to support their children.
But even so, I would caution all users against being overly dazzled by promises of future academic performance. I would probably be more enthusiastic if the introductory folder (full of opt-in sheets for motivational texts and tips for establishing user routines) also included information on the local library and tips for establishing meaningful literary routines. (I’d like to be clear, I am grateful for the resource to be able to help my son investigate his growing curiosity about letters in a new way; I just don’t attach the same weight to it all that the program seems to expect).
No matter our background, and no matter our kids’ ages, books > programs. Connecting with a good book is much more likely to produce readers than drilling skills.
For other parents worried about kindergarten readiness, here are some other posts you might enjoy based on our experiences with my now 3rd grader:
My first year of college, I enrolled in a freshman support group of sorts. One of the requirements was to take a student development course on building a sense of community. The main mentor text in this endeavor was Paul Fleischman’s Seedfolks.
Seems innocuous enough, right? I really like Paul Fleischman, too. But I hated that course, and as a result, I also disliked the book.
Looking back, I can more clearly pinpoint why. It was the pressure to conform, to pretend inspiration in order to feel a sense of belonging.
Sometimes, an approach, text, or training might dazzle most but not all; when that happens, does it lead to blame or shame or even exclusion? Are labels applied like “not a team player” or “not fully invested,” when the truth sounds more like, “Still thinking about this application” or “Stressed about my massive inbox right now.”
This applies just as much for teachers during professional development as it does for students during back-to-school icebreaker games.
Adding a large dose of agency to our approach (actual agency, not the pretend kind — a concept that Doug Robertson nailed in a post a few months ago), is a great way to move away from this sense of in-group/out-group. It also conveys that you trust teachers and students to find their unique way forward, which ultimately leads to greater success.
“It’s great to be successful. It’s even better to make sure you followed your own distinctive, and not necessarily always obvious, path to the success that can truly fulfill you.”
How we can show our teachers and students that we are as open-minded as we hope they will be? How can we help co-define & construct success? How can we promote an atmosphere of agency in our learning?
A few resources below might provide some ideas to help all participants find inspiration!
Despite my commitment to follow my kids’ lead when it comes to their natural developmental learning pace, I still find myself worrying at times. What if they never indicate readiness? What if I miss the signs? What if I wait too long before possible interventions might be needed?
Once again, it has proven to be unnecessary worry. Over the last few months, my 4 year-old has started to indicate interest in identifying letters. This began with, “A is for Captain America!” He began identifying “A’s” everywhere, connecting both to the shape of the letter and its sound.
When he started to add others, like “B is for Black Widow,” I decided to turn to our environment help build this growing interest. We put some vinyl sticker letters to use, reinforcing both superheros and household objects that begin with each letter. How many can you name?
While this was a simple exercise, we’re already seeing him make even more connections beyond the home environment. It stands as a reminder to me that building early literacy does not need to be very complicated. Following the child’s lead is more powerful than we might think.
Now that I’ve finished my PYP essential elements provocations, I plan to begin the next series of inquiry-based provocations on the SDG’s (UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030).
But first, I’d like to pause and do a couple of inquiries into more general learning identities. We all hope our students will move from “doing” math, writing, reading, or science” to seeing themselves as mathematicians, writers, readers, or scientists. Amidst the many curriculum-mandated tasks associated with those subjects, however, it can be difficult to hold on to this sense of identity.
This week’s provocation is meant to help students inquire into what it means to be a writer.
Resource #1: My recent post, “18 Best Videos to Get to Know Children’s Authors/Illustrators.” I had so much fun putting this compilation together with my kids. Almost a month later, my kids are still referring to specific videos in our house, recalling some funny thing Oliver Jeffers did or requesting a re-watch. Each of the videos offer a unique lens for what it means to be a picture book-maker, but below are a couple I would especially recommend in this context:
It was the end of lunchtime. I finished up in the teacher’s lounge and was just about to head up to my classroom when I suddenly had to run to the bathroom.
After a long journey of trying to conceive, multiple rounds of fertility treatments, and finally a positive pregnancy test — I felt sure I was losing that baby.
The details of all that followed are a bit of a blur. I managed to get someone to cover my class as my kids returned from lunch, managed to get down to the office to explain why I had to leave.
But what will forever remain clear in my memory was the compassion of my principal, Kathy Watson. She listened as I sobbed. She held my hands, hugged me, reassured me that I could take all the time I needed.
Equally precious was what she did not do. She didn’t bring up sub plans, she didn’t hint at a meeting she was probably late for, she didn’t remind me of leave policies, and she didn’t try to minimize my pain in any way. I knew that in that moment of crisis, nothing was more important than her being there for me.
In short, she valued my humanity as a teacher and as a human being.
I wish valuing teachers’ humanity is something we could all take for granted. But somehow, as we wave our banners for what’s best for students, sometimes what’s best for teachers gets forgotten. A sad recent example (with many more in the thread):
When I was a class-teacher my son was rushed into hospital. It was touch and go.
My headteacher’s response was “Why aren’t you coming into school his mum is with him?”
This defined how I treat staff at my school…essentially I do the opposite.
As in many instances when I’m writing about something vulnerable, I’m reminded of something author Brene Brown wrote:
What I’ve also learned from Brene’s work is that it’s impossible to be selective about our empathy. We cannot profess to have empathy for our students and then deny it for our teachers. We need to find ways to let all those around us with whom we would like to make meaningful connections that they are not alone, that we are with them in the arena, too.
I am grateful to report that after a couple of dark weeks, we found that the baby’s heart was still beating. My son is a thriving 4 year-old today. I am also grateful to have had the chance to experience such empathy from my principal. Both are precious moments I will carry with me for a lifetime.
What are ways we can show teachers we value their humanity even when especially if it throws a wrench into plans? How does modeling this kind of empathy impact our students and their learning?
But as another typical day progressed with my 3 small students, I kept thinking of Edna’s post. I realized I could definitely benefit from inventorying my culture of agency at home, not least because of how I’ve learned that more agency leads to less classroom management — and we could really use less “classroom management” in our home right now!
The questions in bold below are her overarching questions, to which she also attached sub-questions for more in-depth reflection (be sure to check out her post to read those)!
“What sort of language will you use?”
Overall, we have good metacognitive dialogue happening, including naming learning skills (“Wow, you are making an interesting connection right there!”) and referring to my students as authors, scientists, etc.
Two questions that stood out to me most as opportunities for growth were, “Do you talk about learning, rather than tasks and work” and “Do you ask the learners’ opinions and really listen to what they say?”
It’s so easy to get swept away by all the tasks that must be accomplished each day, and it becomes a temptation for me to focus on the work, as well as to multi-task everything. But I have noticed that when I do make time for undivided attention, it goes a long way in the culture of agency at home.
“How is the environment organised to foster agency?”
This one is always a work in progress, but overall, I feel like we’re moving in the right direction for agency.
As I reflect on opportunities for my two- & four-year olds, my thoughts turn to games, blocks, Lego’s, play dough, and other creative experiences we could engage in together with more regularity. I think that especially as my daughter starts school again, I could renew the self-selected magnet schedule below for my 4 year-old to consider the possibilities for his time.
“How is time managed?
Self management of time has often been encouraged, and our approach is constantly shifting (especially to make sure my kids aren’t wasting their time “waiting for the teacher”). In addition to the magnet schedule above, we have tried…
…the week wheel:
…general week/month planning:
…planning hours to scale (½ inch = 1 hour)
…digitally shared to-do lists:
“What dispositions do you model?”
All three sub-questions Edna asks here regarding openness and vulnerability fluctuate with my emotional state. I notice that when I’m feeling stressed and behind-schedule, I am less likely to discuss my process with my kids.
However, my kids are merciful; when I share how I’m feeling, they tend to be patient. All the same, I would like to do more to explain my strategies for getting back on track so they better comprehend self-regulation.
“What routines are in place to encourage agency?”
I actually just recently added a visual prompt for our morning and bedtime routines. Secured to the bathroom mirror with packaging tape, these little pictures help my kids get on with their daily routines independently.
“What kind of expectations are clearly set?”
We’re always having conversations about the importance of intrinsic motivation. But there’s definitely still a major learning curve for initiative over compliance. Part of this may be that initiative still looks pretty destructive for my 2- and 4 year old boys. But I am working to adjust my expectations and our environment to meet their needs.
Here’s a recent example: from time to time, we check out what’s called a “Discovery Kit” at the library, a themed box including new toys, books, puzzles, etc. We love playing with them, but it’s difficult for me to keep track of everything, and the fines for missing pieces/late dues add up fast.
One day I was telling my 4 year-old that I didn’t know if we could get another discovery kit because he had misplaced one of the pieces. Later, I expressed my concerns to my husband, and he thoughtfully said, “Well, he is 4. Maybe it’s just that the discovery kits require us to supervise them.”
Another option would be to stop borrowing the kits for now, but I see now that I would want to make sure my 4 year-old knew that it wouldn’t be his fault.
We have high expectations for responsibility, but developmental readiness must factor into those expectations.
“How do interactions foster agency?
I really like the question, “Can they tell that you trust them to learn?” It’s clear through his expression that even my 2 year-old can tell a lot about what I’m feeling about him and his choices. When I work to reassure him, especially when he’s trying new things, he grows in his confidence to act independently.
“What small action will you take to shift the culture in your class?”
Processing my thoughts through this inventory has been a great step for me today. As parents and teachers, we need to be honest but kind with ourselves in this process. Working with kids is messy, but as we work toward a stronger culture of agency, they will astonish us with what they are capable of!