Gatekeeping Greatness

I started this school year promising to do things differently than in the past. I am teaching English 30-1 which is the Alberta equivalent of Senior English, I guess. In the past, this course has been primarily test-focused; students spent most of the time learning to take a high-stakes test at the end of the year. The year consists of Critical Analytical essays, reading comprehension, reading Shakespeare (not that it is a bad thing), and minimal opportunity to explore what interests them. Time is such an issue. This year I decided that I wanted the students of room 157 to have the chance to dream with me, to explore what interests them, to approach learning in new ways. And we are. We have started looking at multimodal representation. Students are taking time to explore different ways to respond to text. We are writing about ourselves and exploring essays outside the traditional examples. Ultimately we are exploring learning.

A hand painted response to Jason Reynold’s For Every One

Students have been creating brilliant pieces of work, and all I have had to do was tell them it was ok. This week, students asked me if they could still submit a multimodal response to a book we are reading even though it is not a “required” assignment. They want to write and perform a song inspired by The Great Gatsby. A few weeks ago, another student made a time-lapse video making bread and attempted to make artisanal designs in it to represent her dreams. The bread didn’t work out; however, the true meaning of the work she responded to came through. Dreams don’t always work out as we intend, but that doesn’t mean we give up on them.

The joy that quietly moved through room 157 while students worked on their self explorations of theme was palpable.

This year’s class is not the first that I have explored multimodal work, choice writing, and inquiry. Last year the class that we all affectionately referred to as “The Patchwork” because it was a mix of students from different grade levels and abilities, created masterpieces in both writing and design. They were my inspiration for this year’s journey. Sadly, it seems that so many kids in their shoes would never have had this opportunity because this kind of work is often reserved for the top achievers. There sadly seems to be some bias established that only the best students should have access to freedom to explore. That students who struggle and need help or “intervention” can’t possibly benefit from work that is not the traditionally accepted form. That “enrichment” is reserved for the top students or whatever label you crown them with.

There is gatekeeping in education where students who struggle to succeed in the traditional setting seem to be locked into it until they either give in to it or give up on themselves. The secret that I have discovered is that allowing all students to explore learning together levels the playing field. Last year the Patchwork kids wrote some of the best poetry I have heard; they pursued areas of interest. They also started writing better and reading more. We probably wrote more than the “high achieving” classes. We trusted each other and embraced our strengths lifting each other along the way.

The dreams I have for education are fluid ones. They move with the bumps along the way. But I will keep jumping and hoping things work out because the alternative means I am not serving all my students.

All students deserve a chance to explore and learn and celebrate who they are. Not just as people but also as students and learners on their journey. Shame on those who lack the belief that all students have greatness just waiting to shine.

There is room in Room 157 if you want to join us, heck we just moved to a Theatre.

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