Book by Its Cover

We live in this world filled with images. We see photos of the perfect house, the beautiful child, and the stress free vacation. We look at these images and idealize the narratives, but these images are not what they seem. We also see images that are less than ideal. Those people who are poor, uneducated, and struggling. We make judgments about them and their stories. But again, these images are not always what they seem.

The same goes for the students in our classrooms. What we see in students and what they do in our classes is not always a true measure of their abilities or their character.

Over the first few weeks of school, teachers start to form narratives about the students based on initial interactions, but as fall sets in we begin to know them better. Our students’ stories become more complex. We are surprised by a finding or perplexed when they confront our narrative. Over the past couple of weeks, a few stories have illustrated this lesson over and over again: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”


One of my students seems not to care about school. Many of his behaviors broadcast, “I do not care about this!” He often forgets his homework or slops his way through it. He drags himself down the hallway or he runs like he is headed for home plate. He seldom follows classroom routines and he continually tells others they are wrong.

But this student is also the kid who sprints across the playground to get a teacher when a classmate is injured. He is the kid who sits beside a crying 1st grader on the playground trying to comfort him. He is also the kid who asks thoughtful questions about the topics. The more I learn about him, the more information I have to help him.

Another kid in my class does not appear to be a good reader. She looks around during reading time. She has a hard time finding books she enjoys. During reading conferences she never seems interested in the topic at hand. She even tells me directly, “I don’t like to read very much.”

During a recent reading assessment I was surprised. Her oral reading was solid. As she finished the oral reading part, she suddenly stopped reading. She looked up at me with a furrowed brow and began talking. She offered insights about the characters and made an accurate prediction. After we completed the guided section, I sent her off to do the writing section.

Later that afternoon, I scored the assessment. Her written responses were one or two word answers. Her ‘one page’ summary was a total of 12 words. I predicted she did not want to write about it. The next day, I asked her about the story and she answered the questions with ease. “Why can’t this process be simple?” I asked myself.

Another student in my classroom turned in a perplexing math assignment. He is a good student. I thought he had good understanding of the concept, but he missed 12 out of 14 on the assignment. His paper offered no insights because it was a confusing set of crossed out numbers and combinations.

The next day I asked him to solve a few problems and to explain his thinking. He sat beside me and applied a strategy I had never seen before. He could explain each step. When I showed him his paper with all the errors, he could identify and correct his mistakes. This student obviously understood the math; he just needed to be more careful in his work.

As with so many things in education, the answers are not simple. The images are not neat and perfect. Some would like to create this ideal image of school, but they are wrong. Students are complex and there is always more to be seen. Teaching is about gathering data, shifting perspectives, and pulling it together to try one more time. It is about teaching the learner. It is about knowing the individual students and helping them grow their potential.


10 thoughts on “Book by Its Cover

  1. Amy Walling October 16, 2016 / 12:30 am

    Hello! I really like this topic, because it is so easy to make a judgement about a student at the beginning of the year and hold onto it for longer than you should. I really enjoyed that you gave multiple examples, but I want to hear more about them! You intrigued me, and I’m interested in these students’ stories and how they develop. Maybe you could post a follow-up article later in the year.
    Thank you!


    • thomasunc October 16, 2016 / 10:54 pm

      Did you see my comment below? I wrote it in comments and not in reply.


  2. thomasunc October 16, 2016 / 2:38 pm

    I find it curious that you want to know more because I wrote several different versions of this. One version had only one example and I was going to go in depth, but decided that three overviews was a better choice. Writers are always asking this question, “Which direction should I go.” Thanks for reading and commenting.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. jackieb38 October 16, 2016 / 2:41 pm

    I can totally relate to this post! I have started to realize, especially in your explanation of the reading assessment of your student, that writing is all about effort. Like you said, she can read and understand the text, but how do we motivate the students to show that thinking in their writing explanation? Same in math, to show critical thinking skills students have to write their explanation of how they got to the answer. Many of my higher learners don’t even take the time to do this. This piece is what is going to make them critical problem solvers. I’m struggling getting third graders to do this also! I love how you take the time to individually know your students because I think in that is when we will learn crucial ways to motivate them. The


    • thomasunc October 16, 2016 / 3:37 pm

      Yes, taking time is the hard part because we live in a hurry up, get it done, do it faster world. And when we are hurrying around, it is so much easier to make assumptions and cast judgements. Knowing, whether it is content or people, takes time.

      When you write of higher learners not taking the time, I can relate. I struggle with that too. Here are some things I have done to help them take the time to explain their work.
      – give them a mentor paper. Show them examples of when someone one explained their thinking and the steps they took to arrive at the answer. Another part of this is showing the paper, highlighting all the work and then giving each step a name.
      -share a yuck example paper with the group. Ask students to explain how the student arrived at the answer. They have to touch the steps (which are not on the paper). Purpose, “see the steps are not here even though they have arrived at the right answer.”
      – give them a problem with the answer on it. Have students show how a student could have arrived at the answer.


  4. leighahall October 17, 2016 / 12:17 pm

    Remember our video on the first day of class (; It’s not minus 12 but +2. 🙂 I thought of that when reading your post. It’s the idea of earning vs. taking away if that makes sense.

    I enjoyed this post. Every student has a complex narrative. I am reminded that one of the dangers in our current educational political climate is the tendency to reduce students to numbers and connect those numbers/scores to a specific (and very thin) narrative.


    • thomasunc October 22, 2016 / 10:32 am

      “Very thin” narrative. I love that term. It rings across the culture. In schools, sports, politics, parenting… people make judgements based on one aspect of a person. I know people have always made quick decisions about others, but now we know so much about other people. It doesn’t seem like we take time to ‘read thick narratives’ anymore or anywhere.


  5. goodm1bd October 19, 2016 / 6:29 pm

    We just discussed this in another class! I raised a question about teachers from different grade levels discussing students. I know that it’s important for teachers to collaborate, but I worry that it could lead to teachers judging students’ potential based on how they performed in other years, which can be dangerous and unfair for the students. However, it is important for teachers to collaborate and share strategies that can help the students. So, it is a difficult topic to find a concrete answer to, but it’s important to talk about.


    • thomasunc October 22, 2016 / 10:37 am

      I agree. At my school, we do transition meetings before the kids arrive on the first day. I do not like these meetings. I want to form my own opinion as I get to know each student. I think the transition conversations would be much more effective if they took place 4 or 5 weeks into the year. This would lead to each teacher creating their own narratives of students.


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