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.