It is rare that I take time out from professional reading for books I don’t intend to put in the hands of my sixth graders. Most of the time, if I do read a book meant for grown-up people, it is about becoming a more effective teacher.
Recently, a friend sent me The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery, a book I wanted but would never purchase for myself. Since it was a gift, I gave myself permission to indulge. Little did I know it would illuminate the classroom more than many books written by classroom educators.
In the book, Montgomery shares the frustrations of Alexa Warburton, a pre-veterinary student studying in an octopus lab at Middlebury College in Vermont:
Try to make a maze that will show how this creature thinks. We don’t even understand them enough to test them. Maybe mazes aren’t the way to study them. Science can only say so much. I know they watched me. They followed me. But proving that intelligence is so difficult. There’s nothing as peculiar as an octopus.
My eyes widened as I read her words. I nodded in agreement, because my mind had immediately, naturally drawn a connection between the struggle to effectively assess octopuses and the challenges of authentically assessing middle school students. We don’t even understand them enough to test them, my heart cried out. There’s nothing as peculiar as a middle school student, I marveled.
I continued reading. With every new page, Montgomery had me falling more and more deeply in love with octopuses.
Like middle school students, there is nothing inherently cuddly or inviting about octopuses. However, also like middle school students, their very presence in our world makes it that much more enchanting and humbling.
I am thinking about how I communicate to all of my students that their very presence in my world is valued and appreciated.
Honoring Student Identity Through Classroom Management
I introduced a Google form that involved students getting parental permission. I explained that in addition to providing their guardian’s email address to confirm permission, it would save me time and confusion if students could indicate whether I would need a Spanish translator when contacting their families.
Immediately, Braden commented, “I thought English was the national language.”
I froze. In a moment when I was making an effort to be inclusive, he had made an openly exclusive statement. I was angry.
I also knew every student in my class would be watching, listening, and learning from my next move. What did I want to teach them?
“Braden, I am confused. Your comment makes it sound like you are saying I should demand that all people speak English, but I know that would mean my students with parents who speak another language would not have access to the same things as everyone else. So I am confused.”
“Oh,” Braden responded, “I think I confused myself, too. That is not what I meant. I don’t know why I said that.”
I took a deep breath and smiled. All traces of anger dissipated. “Wow, Braden! You just reminded me what I love about this class. You are all so brave. You are willing to take the risk of sharing your thoughts, even though we know it is rare that our first thinking is our best thinking. You are also open to new ideas and wise enough to revise your thinking when you realize something new. That is really mature.”
Another student immediately chimed in, “I am Mexican and American. My parents speak Spanish, but they understand some English.”
I answered, “I have had people apologize to me before for not speaking perfect English. I never understand that. I am so amazed at how people can hold two languages in their brains! Hablo un poquito de Español. I can understand only a small amount of Spanish. So I understand how challenging it is.”
“I know some Polish,” another student offered, followed by, “and I can count to 10 in Japanese!”
“My parents can speak a little English and you can speak a little Spanish, so you probably don’t need a translator to talk to them,” added someone else.
Braden finished with, “I think it’s cool to speak another language.”
I thought to myself how easy it would have been to shame Braden for his initial comment. And I considered how much we all would have missed out on had I done that. I recalled something I heard educator/author Cornelius Minor say: “I am pro-kid.” My reaction to Braden came from valuing all students. Unconditionally.
Honoring Student Identity Through Academic Instruction
Next week our curriculum calls for teaching students to write a claim in response to a prompt. I want students to know their ideas matter. That means I have to be intentional about the opportunities I give them to share their thoughts.
I looked at the prompts provided in our curriculum resources. Every question was a variation of the same sentence frame: Why does this character make this choice?
In each case, although the question appears to be open-ended, there is definitely a single response that demonstrates the most accurate understanding of the story. If students are going to feel their voices are valued, I need to teach them that crafting claims in response to prompts is not about getting the right answer. Rather, it is about developing their thinking about a text.
So, I rewrote the prompts. I kept drafting questions until I came up with ones that met the following criteria:
- Does the question have more than one answer?
- Is there sufficient evidence to support each answer?
The questions I came up with based on the texts provided in our curriculum are as follows:
- Who has the power in the story?
- Is school hard for the protagonist?
With these prompts I am confident students will feel ownership over their responses. There is truly more than one correct answer to each question, and I appreciate the thought that goes into determining which answer to give.
Much like Sy Montgomery with the octopuses, I may never fully understand how these middle school creatures think, but the longer I study them, the more my appreciation for them grows. Honoring student identity through equitable classroom management and in academic instruction that lifts student voices brings me one step closer to proving their peculiar intelligence.