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Do We Want Kids to Belong or Fit In?

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Guest post by Kimberlee Kiehl

I've been thinking a lot lately about a key question for us as educators - do we have a system that tries to make children fit in, or do we have one that makes them feel like they belong?

Think about that for a moment. It's a question our school team has begun wrestling with together and, for me, it's a question that changes the way I behave with students (and teachers), as well as the way I look at our classrooms.

Currently, most teacher education programs, not to mention the entire education culture in this country, push us toward making children fit in. We have pacing guides that say all children have to learn the same materials at the same time, whether they are individually ready for it or not. We have a mandated curriculum that says everyone has to learn certain things and perform on certain tests in certain ways to be deemed "successful." We have discussions about preparing all students to go to college even though a traditional four-year college may not be the best thing for everyone. We use things like desks and circle mats and rules to make children fit in. We fret when a child doesn't act like the rest of the children in our classroom and when they learn in a way that doesn't fit our mold. We want children to fit in, to toe the line, to mimic what we think is appropriate behavior in our classrooms. And it's not entirely our fault that we do this, since we, too, are managed by a larger system that imposes rules, curricula, and judgments about whether or not we are "good teachers" - judgments that are often based on how well we have gotten our students to play by the existing set of rules.

But what if the rules are all wrong?

This much seems clear: young or old, our deepest need is not to fit in; it's to feel accepted for who we are as individuals, and to belong to something larger than ourselves. What, then, would an education system need to look like if its primary concern was making children feel a greater sense of belonging? How would it change the way we see and work with our students? How would it change the way we see and work with our colleagues?

Over the last year, our school has begun to answer those questions by shifting away from a monthly, theme-based curriculum that spanned the entire school (and repeated every year), and toward an emergent curriculum that is age-specific and based on the interests of the children. Just last week, our lead teachers talked about how this shift has deepened the levels of student engagement and left the teachers feeling renewed and rewarded as well.

For example, all four of our preS and preK classes have been using The Wizard of Oz as a jumping off point for their work, but they have each explored the ideas that the children in their particular classrooms have shown interest in - instead of having all children study the same ideas at the same time. Some might criticize this method of teaching, saying that it doesn't guarantee that they will all learn the same material. But even with four very different areas of focus they have all learned strikingly similar information. They know how and why a tornado forms, and can explain the science behind it as well as any meteorologist. They know where emeralds come from and how they are formed. They have learned to count and to read words. They can follow a map. They understand that all people have weaknesses and worries. And they've done all these things because they're deeply engaged in the process. Just yesterday, in fact, during our trip to see a rare copy of the original printing of the book at the Library of Congress, I heard different children speak to what was most meaningful to them, and I felt the deep sense of belonging that had taken root in their classes as a result.

We will be the first to tell you we have a long way to go on this journey. We still need to learn how to get past our own ideas, let go of our own experiences, and transcend our own assumptions about what a classroom should (and should not) look like. But we're talking about it. Maybe your community can begin talking about it, too.

Kimberlee Kiehl (KiehlK@si.edu) is the Executive Director of the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center in Washington, DC.

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