A student told me the story of training baby elephants the other day The chain attached early Just strong enough to hold them Just strong enough they start to doubt their own Potential As the elephant grows up the chains stay the same The elephant stops trying to break free Stops testing the system because it learns it is stuck I can't help but think about the parallels in learning The limits we place on students early You can't read those books You just don't have a math mind That is not an exciting idea This doesn't look like it took much time Kids have heard it all Heck I have heard it all These chains attached early limiting the movement later The "you can't" becomes "I can't" I am not sure how we break the chains The elephants are set free but what does freedom look like in school?
Lately I am flooded by social media memories from when Covid first disrupted our lives. It brings me back to all that talk that we needed to “change the system”. We had new voices in equity movements suddenly championing the cause ( many of the newly concerned abandoned this goal when their immediate needs were met) and we had those who had been and still are carrying on the work of change saying the system itself needed to be redesigned and/or abolished because the current system was built to promote inequity.
Those early days I poured myself into looking at how I, in my little isolated town, could chip away at a system that I know causes so much harm. Assessment practices, testing culture, pedagogy that is nestled in the traits of white supremacy it is all so present and looking wide it was so overwhelming. But just like these dang meals that I am eating right now on a training plan (WAY TOO MUCH FOOD) I can address these challenges a bite at a time.
I started with assessment. Asking how I could honour my students more by letting them focus more on growth and less on grades. It has been a process and there have been a lot of tweaks but generally the kids are happier, the results are better and that little chain link has weakened just a bit. I have tried to look more at my teaching, how I can be more impactful and effective. Talking less, working more. Covid has put some barricades in the way with trying to keep distanced but we are making it work. Students are getting more feedback and we are finding out their strengths and incorporating those more.
I think largely the greatest freedom granting move I have made is giving kids time to explore ideas. Explore who they are as readers, writers and well… people. There is a degree of growth going on that I really was not prepared for. I had dreamed about it but so often dreams don’t come true.
I have this one big idea. I have this interesting group of kids that make up multiple grades and tiers of instruction. We call our class the Patchwork. To end the year I wanted to build kind of multi-genre, multi-modal experience. When I talked about people said, “Don’t you think you are putting the bar too high? Are you sure those kids can do it?” The funny thing was that moment felt like a chain was put on the Patchworks, on all of us.
In a PD once Kylene Beers mentioned the term “soft bigotry of low expectations” I hadn’t heard it before. Thinking back to it now these are the chains that limit our movement. The freedom we can give to our kids is believing they will work to reach the bars we raise high for them. As long as we are not chaining them down that is.