Monday, October 5, 2015
In attempting to connect Nakkula and Toshalis chapters 4 and 5 to my practice, I find myself continually circling back to one idea, that "problems are not rooted in the students, but rather in larger systematic issues."
To begin with, I don't think we can look at the conditions in which we teach, as "problems" but rather circumstances filled with opportunity. If we think about our students through an asset based lens rather than a deficit model, we can begin to think about what is possible rather than what is wrong. That being said, there are some inequalities facing the most economically challenged students in our schools, many of whom I work with. While thinking about this post, I came upon the following article, which ran in the Providence Journal today:
Parents' Talk is the Key to Learning
In it, Dana Suskind, proposes that the single most determining factor in the ability of our students to learn is formed before they ever step foot into a classroom. It is the number of words they hear spoken to them in their first three years of life. Her research has shown that children growing up in poverty may hear as many as "30 million less words spoken to them by age three than their affluent peers."
This is an astounding number to me, and as this number bounced around inside me for a while, I began to consider not just the quantity, but the quality of the words my students hear over the 17+ years before they arrive in my classroom. I was surrounded by words as a child, and I in turn have surrounded my own children. I wasn't, and we are, by no means affluent, but that never got in the way of household literacy. In considering my recent assignments for ELA class, and for my program in general, I must honestly think about the fact that I am literally drowning my students in words.
What seems like a pedestrian 300 word response to a chapter in The Outsiders that we have read, in reality is an assignment that contains thousands of words, many of which, I suspect, my students have never encountered before.
In talking to them, over many years, I realize that many come from single parent households, many have an elderly caretaker during the afternoon and evening hours while parents work second shift, and most do not even have a single book in their homes. Now here I am tossing them into the deepest of oceans, without a lifejacket, instruction manual, or even a floaty. No wonder the blank page sitting in front of them seems so daunting.
Nonetheless, I can't go back and read to them as infants. So what to do?
The Possibility Development Model, allows us to immerse my students in rich conversations, connected lessons, and with peers who are co-creating models simultaneously. Vygotsky and Sullivan tell us that together they can begin to imagine possibilities, and that if I listen and reach, we can together build skill sets that can make those possibilities a reality. There is a great book by Daniel Coyle, which details the possibility of the right conditions creating possibilities that far exceed the typical, and it is in these foundations that I can find inspiration to be optimistic.
I think that is why it is so important for me to build a community within my program, even at the expense of academic curriculum in the early going. Rather than spend the beginning of the year assessing and defining my students by their struggles, I choose to assess their connectedness to each other, and to themselves. I feel like the students I see are so seasoned as to the way our schools have failed to recognize them, that to continue on that path would be pointless. So we read the outsiders, and talk and talk. We prioritize the trust we can build in each other through the "second classroom" and we build belief in ourselves, and the space we create together. Some days (like last Friday) we push everything aside, and cook together (homemade chips and salsa). Other days we fight about the expectations of how to treat each other and co-exist with the general school population. Soon we will be our own family, and we can start catching up on those 30 million words.