By Nicole Salvitti and Lisa Simon
As we write, we are adults who have passed successfully through many layers of education (Nicole has her M.S. and Lisa her Ph.D.in literacy education). But, like so many learners, our school histories included painful times when we were defined as struggling learners and readers. These experiences were confusing and shameful and left marks that remain to this day. So much so that we clearly recall their specifics - the shabby red books, the red 60% written on top of the returned quiz.
However, less visible, even to us, are the complex and sophisticated reading and writing we were doing in our out-of-school lives even while we were identified as below the norm. Nicole, relegated to the “red” reading group, was busy at home making up complicated stories and studying the meaning behind lyrics of the songs she loved. And Lisa, failing World History, was spending hours researching the history and geography referred to in the historical novels she read constantly. Just think how different our experiences would have been if our teachers had recognized and incorporated the literacy and learning work we were doing all along.
Eventually, we both learned how to perform well on the assessments used to measure academic success. In this, we were lucky. Many educational researchers have documented how often children’s talents and passions and knowledge are ignored or demeaned in their classrooms. And their research shows how inter-connected that marginalization is with school struggle. A particularly telling and poignant example is Nicole’s former student Christine (pseudonym):
Of all the kids I taught, I feel luckiest to have gotten to know Christine. You could tell from the moment she opened her mouth, that she really had something important to say to the world, even as a 6th grader. When she spoke she was like an adult, commanding the attention of everyone in the room, able to see everyone’s perspective, and to eloquently explain her ideas. Everything she said sounded as though she had spent hours searching out the perfect words, yet of course she hadn’t. Christine was a poet, living and breathing in the beauty of words and ideas. All through middle school, she shared her poetry with me, her dozens of notebooks, torn and dog eared from overuse, every crevice filled with words.
In high school, though, everything changed. Her literature classes focused on test prep and required her to write in the specific test essay format. But the thing is, Christine can’t fit into a prescribed structure! She thinks and speaks so far outside the limits of formulaic writing tasks. As she got failing grades on her essays, it was as if the poet inside her died. I saw her lose all interest in writing and the belief that she was capable. I’m not sure Christine writes at all anymore since she graduated.
How many of us and how many students have been, to quote Gerald Campano, “ground down by [school] tasks that seem to have no relevance to their immediate lives” (2005, p. 191)? And why does this happen to even one when the result is the opposite of what schools and teachers intend?
Bringing the outside in:
We can’t even begin to account for how many times we were floored by the learning our students were doing outside classroom walls like the failing high school student who spent his weekends writing and performing spoken word poems at a local bookstore and the child who claimed to hate ELA class who was actually an avid reader of fantasy novels. On their own time, our students were studying Japanese, critiquing the ads that surround them, producing anime and fanfiction, and acting as translators for their families. In this regard, our students, though amazing, are not unique. Many other educators and researchers have documented the extraordinary range and sophistication of children and youth’s funds of knowledge. Our students have also taught us how valuable it is to incorporate these funds of knowledge into our literacy curricula.
How to learn about and incorporate your students’ out-of-school knowledge:
- Have conversations with your students. Conversations not just about school, but about their real lives, about what they enjoyed, what they think about, what they spend their time doing every day that has nothing to do with assignments or tests.
- Observe. Pay attention to what your students do when they have free time (before school during lunch, recess, study period) and when they think you aren’t looking. While at first some of the things they do may not seem significant, remember they are to the student. And if they are significant, they are probably complex. Those of us who have tried to learn how to play Yu-gi-oh or read manga will quickly realize how complicated those texts are. And as you learn about them, you will see how you can connect them to your learning goals. For example, when Lisa finally realized that Gabriel (pseudoynym) loved making mazes, she was able to link that to the class focus on resistance to enslavement. The result was a maze widely admired by Gabriel’s peers and that incorporated facts about the Underground Railroad history they had been learning.
- Take the stance of learner with your students. Ask your students to tell you what they are expert in and what they could teach you and others. Nicole did this by having each child teach a short class on something they were expert in. Students took the assignment seriously, writing up lesson plans, developing hands-on activities, and participating intently. Additionally, it created a class community where peers recognized and respected each other's’ talents. Kids who struggled in reading were recognized as experts in other valuable aspects.
- Have an in-class talent show. When Nicole did this, at first the kids wanted to do all kinds of things, like demonstrate basketball skills, or running speed, but as time went on, more and more students wanted to show off a literacy skill they were proud of, like a story, poem or song they wrote. Some students even performed mini skits they’d written on their own.
Why it's worth doing:
Teaching in this way is both exhilarating and challenging. It is also crucial if we want to create a classroom, and a world, of motivated and inspired learners. How different would school be for our students if they know their teachers recognize and care about their talents, regardless of whether or not those talents fit into an essay or can be measured by a test? For students to see school as significant, they need to know that we see their lives, in all their complexity, as significant.
As educators, it is our responsibility to help our students discover what they are capable of and what they offer to the world. When we focus on bringing children’s outside interests into our classrooms, we are building the bridge to academic success that is often missing for too many of our students, especially those who struggle the most.