In the past couple of months, I’ve been consumed with two parental pursuits: helping my child take his first steps and coaxing out his first word. With the help of early intervention and a great physical therapist, he’s started walking independently. With walking, I could see his progress, help him on some (rocky) initial attempts, and cheer loudly when he attempted any new physical moves. But despite my trying a variety of tactics to elicit his voice, Sully still wasn’t speaking. This was the headspace I found myself in when I visited the Inspired Teaching Demonstration School (ITDS) for our #EngagingSchools tour. Though I’ve visited the school once before, my particular focus on language allowed me to see a clear strength of the school in how they honor their students’ voices.
There was an incredible amount of student work on display at ITDS. The school just completed what they call a Learning Showcase, which is much as it sounds. The public is invited into the school to see the really great work that’s happening there. Let me paint a picture for you (in words and pictures): Student work took over the hallway spaces. It seemed to be put on the walls by adults (the papers were generally evenly spaced and level with the floor), but the work itself was clearly done by kids. It was not showing off what any teacher deemed “best,” but instead included seemingly every child’s work, or a true representative sample of the class. Nothing was listed as a model or exemplar, and there were diverse answers to the same question or problem. There was lots of color, different media were used, and some of it was accompanied by longer explanations.
The project that particularly stuck with me came from the first grade, where they’d been learning about maps. These students, from two classes, were tasked with creating a singular model of D.C., complete with what they found important. And they found a variety of essential elements that they wanted to build models of: The Washington National Monument, the Air & Space Museum, the White House, Cost Co., Target, and a parking garage, among others. The teacher had included some of their process work, so it was clear that they’d compiled a list of what they wanted to include and then delegated who would do what (I’m sure that was an artful process led by their teacher). I didn’t love this because their work was perfect; I loved this work because you could so clearly see the kids in what they had made. Their burgeoning handwriting spelled out the names of locations; you could see hard work and effort behind the construction paper and cardboard structures. I can imagine some kids being incredibly taxed by the fine motor skills they developed during the course of this work, and I can also imagine the delight they must have taken in seeing it all come together. In a superficial sense, I think it’s easy to see how this shows the school honoring student voice; student work was everywhere. The work hadn’t met any kind of “good enough” threshold to be included; the fact that it was made necessitated its inclusion. But what hammers home their strong commitment to this ideal is how, for their students who cannot yet write, teachers document exactly what students say. Some of that work takes on a “Kids say the darnedest things” vibe, but then you also realize that kids are brilliant and thinking about the world in some spectacular ways.
In observing classes, I was able to visit one of the two kindergarten rooms, where students were learning about letters and words. As I approached a table working on letter recognition I was promptly asked if I was an author. When I said no, the same young lady asked if anyone in my group was an author. Then,
Student: “Well have you ever written anything?”
Me: “I’ve written short things.” Student: “Well have you ever sold anything you’ve written?”
I almost immediately felt inadequate; I hadn’t sold anything and clearly I was not the right person for this student to speak with. She, however, didn’t miss a beat and went on to talk about books that they liked. We talked a little more about reading and writing, and I was entirely delighted by the table group (they were also playing a modified (and cutthroat) game of “Go, Fish!” which involved some pretty smooth trickery). While I wish that I could say I must have just looked like someone who wrote prolifically, it seemed pretty clear to me that these kids were deeply involved in what they were learning and wanted to find out what other people knew about it. This student wanted to delve further into what her class was studying; she wasn’t looking to be distracted from the work. I think this is a teacher’s dream. At first blush, it might appear that I was the one honoring this table full of precocious children. But I think that the way the students approached me (and the way they extended the conversation) shows that they are used to their voices being heard. These kindergarteners took themselves seriously, asked about what they wanted to know, and seemed incredibly confident. While I can hope and imagine that their families might be supporting this as well, it also seems clear to me that their teachers are instilling in them the sense that their questions, thoughts, and concerns are important and should be listened to. And that’s the essence of democracy right there: Each one of us is important; each one of us has a voice; every person needs to use theirs. So I returned home and tried to honor what my son could communicate. He could gesture that he wanted to be picked up, he could sit outside of the refrigerator to show both his interest in exploring its contents and that he wanted a drink, and he could cry in any one of many ways to share that he was tired, hungry, bored, or displeased. I needed to honor those things. And in less than a week, after my signing and saying we were done with dinner, he looked at me, waved his hands, and said “all done.” Like the young students at ITDS, my son will probably say lots of things in the coming years that will be fantastical, or nonsensical, or funny. I also know that he’ll say important, thoughtful things that I need to hear. I’m going to try to honor every word. Do you want to hear more about the work that the Inspired Teaching Demonstration School is doing? Follow them on Twitter @InspiredSchool. You can Follow us on Twitter and Facebook @AstraInnovate, follow our #EngagingSchools tour, and Follow our partner in this project @InspireTeach. Images by Rebecca Bauer & Center for Inspired Teaching staff.