Yesterday at school, something beautiful happened. I was working on a project in an environmental club meeting after school with a friend. To celebrate Earth Day, the club has split up into small groups and is going to present different ideas on how to better care for the Earth (these topics include recycling, sustainable agriculture, animal welfare, and gardening, among others) to Elementary school learners in the district. My friend is especially knowledgeable about animals, gardening, and agriculture because she cares for so many animals at home (dogs, ducks, cats, turtles, fish, alpacas, chickens, etc.), rides horses in her free time, cares for a garden, and is a member of the 4-H where she helps to raise chickens and seeing-eye dogs. From all of these experiences, she knows A LOT about animals and agriculture. So today, when I came in a little late to the meeting, she was talking with other students and the club’s adviser about what the technical term for a cow’s individual stomachs are (each individual stomach has a different name, by the way. From beginning to end they’re called the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum). After some discussion and debate, the teacher advising the club looked up the names for the stomachs. Some part of what he thought was correct was confirmed to be true from this search. He then looked up and said in a sing song voice “I knew something that Em didn’t!”. He then smiled and said “That rarely happens. You usually teach me so much”.
This struck me to the core. It was so beautiful.
This teacher is a math teacher. Although I’ve never had him as a teacher for a math class, from what I have heard from other math teachers and students, he is incredibly brilliant.
Em is incredibly knowledgeable about animals and agriculture. She’s hardworking, a super creative problem solver, and one of the most resilient people I know. She also takes a mainstream support class at school to assist her in her studies.
This moment where an adult, regarded as brilliant due to his abilities in mathematics, was sharing a moment of curiosity and playfulness with, and learning from a teenager who is regarded as needing extra help in academic studies, made me realize how much school restricts, labels, and separates learners.
Too often students are sorted, labeled, and separated by their abilities. While it is necessary to not put every learner in the same math course, cultures are created which encourage divisions between learners. I have interviewed other students who have reported feeling these divisions as well. (Like a cow’s stomachs, there are four levels of courses. From lowest to highest – Academic, College Prep, Honors, and AP). In every AP class I’ve ever taken, I’ve been made to feel intelligent and thoughtful. Teachers have said their AP classes were their favorite classes of the day. One teacher even called us her “AP Angels”. In contrast, in college prep classes (not all of them), I’ve been made to feel slow and unintelligent. I often have the feeling that the teacher is simply trying to move through the class to reach the end (although I do understand this might not necessarily be the case).
While I understand and acknowledge the importance and necessity of having classes that are taught at various stages and levels, I fear that these levels too often grow into divisions between learners, separating learners from learners and preventing students from seeing each other and valuing each other as the complex, thoughtful humans they are, thus inhibiting further learning. I also often feel like my experiences in college prep classes are almost always significantly more tiresome and less exciting than my experiences in a higher level course. Its as if because I may grasp the subject more slowly than another subject that it seems necessary to teach the concepts with less enthusiasm and less context in order to avoid confusion. Usually, this seems to create more confusion.
My sophomore year in high school, I had a college prep geometry class with a teacher who explained to us why she loved Geometry. Occasionally, she shared power points about what fascinated her and what confused her. This was the first time in my life where I felt like someone was discussing math with me as a critical thinker and curious learner, sharing their wonder of mathematics with the class. I was deeply touched, and as a result, a fiery curiosity was lit in me to know more. It was the first time I understood the math I was learning rather than just memorizing the steps to math problems.
I fear that when teachers teach courses that are regarded to be at a “lower level”, they forget to show students why they love the subject and why the subject is beautiful because they think it’s unnecessary and that perhaps students won’t and can’t understand. These students are the students who need this wonder to be shared with them most in order to help spark their curiosity. I fear that when students are made to feel separated because they are considered slower or less intelligent, that they become self fulfilling prophecies, never stretching their thoughts further because they are never introduced to new ways of thinking about a subject, but are only reaffirmed that they are learning at a slower pace because they don’t have the brain to “get it”.
Witnessing this beautiful moment yesterday was rare. A moment where two learners, agreed upon by school to be vastly different, were able to connect and learn from each other.
From interviewing many teachers and students, I know this culture of divisions between learners is prominent at my school. Do you feel this division in your school?
How can we create less divisions between learners and make schools a place that spark student (and teacher) curiosity, rather than dividing learners by how quickly they grasp material, thus making them lifelong empowered learners?