I remember one of our first class meetings this semester – if I remember correctly, it was the first – we were asked to take on the identity of a group of students. Some were 3’s – those students that performed right on average, right on grade level. Some were 2’s – those who were making growth but just needed a bit more of a push. Others were 1’s – those who just seemed to fall behind no matter what you tried. And then you had the 4’s – the high fliers – the ones who you are always finding the need to challenge further. When we were first introduced this task, I thought, “Oh I’ve got this in the bag. I am well acquainted with the traits of these students and what types of scenarios might land students in each category.” But as we went around and shared, I soon came to find that I had totally missed it. We cannot group students into academic levels and give them a set of traits that they all have in common. We cannot skim over them merely as a number and give them a prescribed set of learning strategies. No they are not a number. They are so much more than that. In fact, we should really learn to look at students without any numbers at all.
This is one of the things I learned most from reading Choice Words and Opening Minds. We need to stop evaluating students on proficiency – particularly on proficiency that is on an individual basis. And we need to start focusing on students’ processes. It’s not so much about where you are or where you’ve been but rather where you are going. It’s not really about how fast or direct you are going but rather that you are in some way going forward in your learning. Even after a semester of reflecting on these books, this still seems like an impossible task. This is likely because I was born into a world of fixed-performers. My parents and teachers told me that I was good at math and so I succeeded even under pressure. Other friends of mine were not so lucky and so they struggled in math all the way throughout their years as a student. Was it because they truly were not good at math or was it because their mindset was such that they didn’t believe they were? It’s impossible to know but after reading Johnston’s books, I learn toward the likelihood that it was their mindset rather than their ability that hindered them from achieving their potential.
I got into teaching because I wanted to help kids become good people. And really when I think about it, so much of what Johnston taught me in these books came down to that at its very core. Being a good listener, developing social imaginations with empathy, asking deep questions, considering others’ viewpoints, using words wisely, and the list goes on. It’s time for me to stop stressing over whether or not by students are learning everything that they are supposed to. It’s time instead for me to start focusing on whether or not my students are becoming the people they are meant to be. People who can teach their teachers. People who can question the status-quo. People who can change the world.