In my first real year of teaching, my first-born son had trouble in elementary school.
I knew him at home as a bright and curious kid who loved to read; I knew him as a kind, dinosaur-obsessed game-changer with an impossible recall for song lyrics and an affinity for imitating the way jaguars walk. I had him young and (for his first six years) raised him on my own without many resources, so he learned how to make his own fun with what he could find around him. Like all parents do, I knew my son was an original, and watching him engage the world gave me hope for the future. (And it still does).
His fourth grade teacher didn’t see what I saw. She saw a kid who found it difficult to sit still. She saw a kid who secretly read novels in his lap while she taught. She saw a kid who rushed through his work and forgot important details — a kid who turned in shoddy products and didn’t appear to care much about learning.
It was hard for me to imagine how a teacher with so much experience could fail to see my son, to see all that he had to offer this world, all that was inside him that was begging to be cultivated. His teacher was obviously a caring professional who worked hard everyday to support her students. How did she overlook that beautiful eagerness to discover and create that beamed so clearly from his face?
And if she could overlook something that seemed so obvious to me, what was I, a brand new English teacher, also failing to see? Were there kids I had already decided couldn’t do advanced work or engage rigorous texts? Did the kids I’d written off as unmotivated have passions that brought out the best in them, like my son’s dinosaurs? To what extent might race or gender play into my assumptions about students’ potential?
Ultimately, what I was really asking was: whose gifts and abilities am I rendering invisible by the way I design and assess learning? Whose greatness and potential are hidden from me?
These are questions I believe all teachers committed to students’ humanity should ask. We have choices about how we craft learning experiences and check for understanding. And those choices privilege certain students over others. The learning outcomes in our classrooms are not inevitable or immutable. They are, at least in part, the product of our instructional design.
My literature courses, for example, tend to disadvantage introverts, students who process information more slowly, and students with social anxiety. The conventions and pacing of the seminar discussion simply do not give everyone an equal opportunity to demonstrate mastery. This doesn’t mean that I will scrap the seminar altogether. But if I want to create a just and inclusive classroom, I must give all my students access to the work of the course. I must design activities and assessments that help me see these young people as they are — indeed, I must design activities and assessments that help these young people see themselves and all they can be.
This article is a beautiful reminder of what a difference this can make in the classroom. Tara Malone recalls her experience as an introvert in college humanities courses. After some difficulties, she finally meets a professor willing to experiment in her students’ best interests:
One day after class, Professor Simon spoke with me after the other students had gone. She matter-of-factly but sensitively told me that she noticed I had trouble speaking in class and proposed a solution to boost my class participation grade. She invited me to email her after class with my thoughts and impressions about the readings, and to include anything I had wanted to say during discussion but was unable to. I greatly appreciated this alternative and returned to my dorm room and composed an email to her that very night.
It was amazing to me how quickly and easily the thoughts flowed onto the screen, and I realized that I had a lot of insights and original ideas when I was alone, free from the pressure of the classroom environment. I developed the habit of composing a thoughtful email after each class, which Professor Simon would carefully read and respond to with some ideas of her own. The exchange of ideas and dialogue was rewarding, and it made me realize that I had a lot to contribute, even if I wasn’t the biggest talker or the fastest debater.
The last line haunts me. Without this intervention, she may not have discovered all that she had to contribute; she may not have realized her capacity for insight or originality. The choices we make as teachers are ultimately about creating the conditions that allow our students to be seen in all their fullness and potential. If we truly care about cultivating our kids’ humanity and helping them all flourish, we must reflect on whom we empower and whom we marginalize through these choices.