What would it look like if schools offered every child daily opportunities to do something in which they excel? What if, instead of just celebrating academic successes, we highlighted the unique talents and joys of all our students?
As a child and adolescent, a classroom held a lot of anxiety for me. I learned to feel comfortable there because of my academic success. By the time I got to college, I was comfortable. I’m naturally a quiet observer, and am most comfortable expressing myself in writing. These traits are well suited for the silent rows and written assessments that are such a large part of the average school. For me, school was a place I was able to thrive. I know, however, that for plenty of students this is not the case. For too many students, school is something to be endured.
Limited opportunities exist for students to move around freely, create projects from scratch and even discuss new material with peers while it’s being taught. These constraints can make just being in the school building a challenge.
What if, I wonder, we designated deliberate times and ways for every child to practice, and maybe even share, the activities that bring them the most joy?
Some teachers might worry that this would take time out of the mandated curriculum. But we could make use of study hall to allow a group of students to work together on choreographing a dance routine. The routine allows students to practice interpersonal communication skills, engage in physical agility, boost memory, and feel empowered to choose this activity. What if a self-taught video game expert acted as a consultant and helped a teacher plan an engaging lesson about percentage or time? What if an outgoing duo presented new material to the class in the form of a teacher or student-written rap or rock opera?
I imagine this push toward true asset-based thinking could take many forms. Perhaps we could offer an assessment “menu” for more projects, where students choose from many different ways to prove they’ve mastered a concept. Maybe it would be built into the structure of homerooms and one child each day would be invited (not required) to share a favorite song, item, dance move, or tell a story. For students who are more introverted, letting them shine might mean asking for their input on lessons, activities, or for their insight into peer relationships.
These strategies are already employed by some educators around the country, but it is also certain that in many other classrooms, students spend years feeling out-of-place, unimportant or unfit. Talk to your peers. Many adults (many successful adults too) will express sentiments like, “School just wasn’t my thing.”
Since school is mandated to be such a large part of young people’s lives, it should support students, and help foster confidence in whatever their “thing” is. And it can be done while simultaneously holding rigorous expectations for academic achievement.
Craven is a social and emotional interventionist in Louisiana.