This last week as we started #projectspeak in my 8th grade LA class I have spent a lot of time thinking about student voice and choice, who is being represented in the books we choose, the discussions we have and work we do. We currently face in Alberta an election where one party suggests we need a more rigid curriculum focused on skills and “the basics” and moving away from guided inquiry work. To say I disagree with this thinking would be an understatement but it is not because I don’t think the basics are valuable or because I think kids for the most part have mastered these skills, they haven’t. I disagree because if we really want to help students learn we need to look at each INDIVIDUAL student. We need to understand how they learn, moving to a rigid curriculum that makes no room for that inquiry, that exploration, is bound to isolate students that don’t learn the “regular way”, this path will only lead to greater extremes in student success. Those who are more traditional learners will thrive and those who are not will be forced to conform or left behind. Conforming is the opposite of education.
As I was at the gym today I started thinking beyond this, instruction is not the only way we isolate our students. We also do it in what we place our focus on, who we choose to give the spotlight and who we leave out in the cold. Last year my eyes were opened to this thinking when a student, who is not an athlete, wrote in his journal about how much he hates being in a school that doesn’t see him. At the time I was reading a short story about a Basketball player and thought, “Yup this is going to engaged the kids because…Basketball” The false narrative in my small community that I had bought into is that because we are so sports centred that it must be engaging for all. Man was I wrong. When you think about school sports there is only a small percentage of the student body that excels at a certain sport. In a student body of 200 kids only 20 make the basketball teams, 10 percent, and yet if we were to ask around the kids not in sports would say, “[athletes]” get 90% of the attention. We can just look to a sports event, say a Volleyball game or Basketball game, the people that come to attend those events outnumber the Band Concerts and Play by a relatively large margin. At least in the eyes of the students in those activities.
After this conversation around my student’s written response last year I committed to getting to know as many of my students by their interests as much as their academic abilities. I learned about Manga and Anime, I went to judge 4-H speeches, students talked to me about their novels they are writing with their friends and their parkour adventures (those scared me). But the difference that my students felt, as my interest in them as awesome unique people, was measurable. This year as I ate some lunch with past students one said, “Mr.Gilson we loved your class the most but it was more because we know you care about us, like actually care, and try to get to know us more.”
Small simple things make the biggest difference. Our decisions as a school, the intentional creation of a culture that sees ALL students needs to be just that INTENTIONAL. We need to celebrate the kids who have started a garage band as much as the kids that make the basketball team, we need to know about the artist that has created their own comic book universe as much as starting point guard.
A schools success depends on the success of all students and as I sit and reflect on the future I wonder about how I can dedicate more time to getting to know those students I still don’t. The number shrinks every day as I pause between classes to visit with a sibling of a student that I have yet to meet or stopping by the foods lab to sneak some goods (my favourite). These simple actions have introduced me to more of the student body and built those connection, shining a spotlight on the corners of the school that don’t always get it.
It is easy to say ALL KIDS MATTER but if our focus doesn’t show it they are only words typed in all caps.