Can Students' '-isms' Strengthen the Learning Process?
I have always bucked a system that tries to pigeonhole young people in its quest for measuring what has been learned. As a mom of five children who all learned in very different ways, I never felt that a one-size-fits-all approach could ever be enough to define any children. As a learner myself, I would get Cs in English classes because I could not diagram a sentence or tell the difference between a dangling participle and a participle phrase. To me, it just wasn't relevant or necessary to become a writer. I loved writing poetry and writing lyrics for songs, but no one ever asked me to do that. If they had, they would have found strengths in me that could have been built upon to improve my writing capabilities. You see, I have written and recorded numerous songs, and I am a published poet. I did that on my own. Education needs to have a sense of urgency in regards to personalizing the learning experiences for today's students. Too many people are labeled by others because of medical, physical, and/or emotional factors that make them differently abled. Our future depends upon our ability for all students, regardless of their "isms," to find their inner life-long learner.
Just this week, one of my students gave a beautiful introductory speech regarding D-Day. He had previously practiced all of the skills needed for a strong public speaker: tone, volume, making eye-contact, using depth of knowledge, and actively engaging his audience through guided lessons and independent practice. This is ordinarily exceptional, but even more so this time because he is in a self-contained classroom for all but my class because of his "'isms." This student who is differently able spontaneously answered a question and then asked if he could give a talk about the anniversary of D-Day. He did such a phenomenal job that his classmates were staring at him in awe and applauded him when he was finished. To say that this was tremendous progress would be an understatement. It has taken two years to find where this child and education meet. Had I stuck only to the curricular documents and mathematical data, I would never have found this student's passion and pathway to new learning. How different would it be if we could do this for all students? We owe it to them to be our best selves. As educators, we need to help students imagine all the possibilities for their lives and then help them bring those ideas to fruition. A one-size-fits-all mentality will never succeed in creating this type of learning environment.
Part of our responsibility as educators is to help children develop the capacities for accepting and respecting differences as a normal part of life and then helping one another understand that having different perspectives, backgrounds, or being differently abled are all part of what makes our world a beautiful place. We are blessed with the daily privilege of helping young people make sense of the world, creating the peaceful, accepting, and safe spaces in their learning experiences so that they grow to provide the same for others. Maybe I am a dreamer, but as someone who has lived with chronic illness and hearing impairment, I understand that being differently able is actually a gift and not a detriment to one's learning. Wouldn't it be wonderful if these differences were accepted as just the norm? How different learning would be and in turn how different the world might be.
Our students face so many challenges, and our job is to help them understand that strength lies in the belief that anything is possible and no challenge is insurmountable if we work together. There is always something to look forward to, to hope for. My hope is that as educators we begin to focus more on our accountability to provide an education that helps to create polite, tolerant, and compassionate citizens who appreciate and cherish our diversity in learning. Students, regardless of their "isms" have voices that need to be encouraged and heard. It is what makes our world interesting and filled with love and possibilities. As Johann Pestalozzi wrote in 1792 and it still applies today, "The ultimate end of education is not a perfection in the accomplishments of the school, but fitness for life; ...a preparation for independent action." (From Letters on Infants' Education) The strength of education lies in our differences melding together so that we are able to see and accept the beauty in each person's "isms." It is what creates the spark for all other things that children will experience in their lives.
By LéAnn Murphy Cassidy, 2018 Connecticut Teacher of the Year Finalist