Tuesday, May 14, 2013

It's the Effort, Stupid...

As an Assistant Principal in a "High Performing" high school (#755 of 21,000+ in the country according to NewsWeek's rankings), I always find it interesting when the "smart" kids tell me that they aren't as smart as others when they are challenged with something new or have to work hard to learn something. Somehow having to really work to find an answer or being asked to do something student driven and novel makes them feel self-conscious and like they don't measure up to their peers in those very competitive classes.

"If I have to struggle, I must not be that smart," seems to be the thought process. When in reality, sometimes the things that you are being asked to do in a school like this diverge from the same old things that got you labeled as one of the "smart" kids in the first place. "Smart" kids are experts at temporarily memorizing lots of information that may or may not be relevant to their lives in any way and (here's the important part, potential "smart kids" of the future) giving it back to the teacher in the manner in which it most pleases them. They expertly examine the teacher's feedback and give them what they want the way they want it. That makes them "smart." They are great at reading the room. I would not want to play poker against our smartest kids, that's for sure.

Meanwhile, in another classroom, kids who feel they "aren't smart" tend to blame their lack of academic success on bad luck, teacher bias, disinterest in the curriculum or it's relevance to their lives, a teacher they had five years ago who convinced them they were dumb or other things they don't control rather than their lack of effort. 

We all know that guy who hangs around and wants to reminisce about the glory days when they were young and good enough to play D1 football or sign a Major League contract if it wasn't for that one coach who passed them over and favorited less skilled players for some inexcusable reason or if that elbow injury just didn't happen that robbed them of their dream, or if their father took them to practice more often, etc.

Reality typically is that they didn't work hard enough to be successful. Larry Bird was one of the greatest basketball players of all time. But he was the first one to show up every day to shoot- a skill in which he was better than anyone else in the world. Here's the secret: It's not an innate skill or talent that makes you successful or even "smart," it's practice, habits and hard work.

So, teachers of both "smart" and "not smart" kids...if you want them all to be smart kids, stop making worksheets, avoid your prepackaged Pearson curriculum to the extent that you are allowed to, stop asking kids to answer things that only have one answer (or worse, answer it yourself when they are disinterested).  

You are a super talented teacher who works very hard. Use all of that knowledge and creativity and the resources available to you in your building and your professional organizations and Twitter (if you aren't using Twitter to learn and share ideas you are doing a great disservice to yourself professionally) and design truly engaging work for kids to do. Work that students voluntarily put effort into because it matters to them, because it is relevant to their lives, because they have choice, because they can work with others, explore, think and create something of meaning or value to them- that will level the field for the "smart" and "not as smart" kids, and eliminate all excuses.

Wouldn't you like to work in a building with only "smart" kids? Let's work together to make it happen.

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