The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Inconceivable!

One of my all-time favourite movies is The Princess Bride, an adaptation by William Goldman of his book of the same title. This is one of those movies that I know by heart but delight in watching again and again. Fans of the film will know that one of the characters, the Sicilian known as Vizzini, frequently describes things he finds shocking as “inconceivable!” Eventually, one of his fellow kidnappers, Inigo Montoya, makes this astute observation:

This, of course, does not stop Vizzini from saying it. These scenes and this quote have been weighing on my mind over the past week as I have been contemplating a couple of buzzwords educators tend to use when describing their students. I will openly admit that I have been guilty of using them, but I am making a commitment to weed them out of my vocabulary, at least, when it comes to using them to describe students.

The two words are “struggling” and “bright.” And the problem is that, as Inigo Montoya says, they don’t mean what we think they mean, at least not to others.

If I were to poll my colleagues, I imagine they were define these terms as such:
bright adjective – of unusual intelligence; able to quickly understand topics
strug·gling’ adjective – having difficulties, especially in learning

However, if I were to poll others, I imagine they would define these terms in much simpler ways:
bright adjective –  smart
strug·gling’ adjective – dumb

And that is the crux of the problem right there.

Students all learn at different rates and in different ways. Some students have identified learning disabilities and require specialized supports to help them, as we are prone to say in the Urbana School District, achieve personal greatness. Other students are quick to understand concepts in class, either because of a natural predilection toward the topic or because they have had parents or older siblings who already taught them or, quite often, a combination of the two. The former group is often described as being the struggling students while the latter are the bright students.

But my students who take longer to grasp a concept are not dumb. They aren’t stupid. They aren’t feeble. And my students who learn a concept quickly are not necessarily smarter than everyone else. They have just learned in different ways and in different rates. We do a great disservice to all of our students when we label them, box them up, and set expectations based on our preconceived notions about them. Here’s a clip from another favourite movie, Stand and Deliver:

Do we believe it? Do we really? Are we holding all of our students to a high level of expectations? Do we have the ganas, the strength or will power, to hold ourselves to a high level of expectations? Are we willing to take the extra time to help that student who is giving his all as he perseveres in understanding how to masterfully use the standard vertical algorithm for multi-digit multiplication, or are we giving him a pass because he is a “struggling” student and we are happy that he can add basic facts when counting on his fingers? Are we we willing to take the extra time to find truly challenging work for that student who already knew the standard algorithm for dividing a multi-digit number by a single digit divisor, or are we giving her a pass because she is one of the “bright” students who will teach herself anyway? Are we telling parents about the wonderful successes of their children and encouraging them to encourage their children to push themselves, to stretch themselves, to challenge themselves, not to the point of a nervous breakdown but enough that their students are constantly seeking to learn more and do more than they did the day before?

Here’s my commitment: my students who get it quickly, they are going to be challenged. My students who need more time, they are going to be challenged. I am not going to use adjectives like “bright” and “struggling” to describe them. If someone asks about my “bright math kids” or my “struggling reader,” I will ask if they mean my students. No adjectives, no labels. Because when it gets down to it, my job is to teach all of my students, all day, every day. Nobody gets a free pass, least of all me.

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