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Lighting the Wick of Learning

Author: Dr. Shonda Huery Hardman
July 20, 2016

Teaching 928637_1920

Recently I have been spending much time reflecting on the connection between school culture and the jaw-dropping achievement gap that exists in our country. Within the last few weeks, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) released its 2015 report, which compares the performance of students across this nation. The startling realization is the fact that our technologically advanced nation, where iPhones and iPads are staples in most homes, cannot figure out how to ensure the academic success of every student in our country. As I look over the latest statistics, I am deeply saddened that we haven’t figured out how to give each child in our country a chance to excel. I worry about my own two daughters and the type of education they will receive, and I am thankful they are still in preschool, which will give me and our nation’s schools, districts, and states more time to figure this out. Yes, there is hope. The question is where does this hope rest? Is the hope in our constant pounding of an accountability system that pushes the sink-or-swim mentality? Is the hope in the thought of pouring more funding into schools? Is the hope in vamping and revamping—over and over again—teacher-evaluation systems? Is the hope in hiring, firing, and rehiring school leaders, all the while crossing our fingers that maybe this time we get the right one?

Let me propose that the little hope we have rests in the idea I have grown to love, which is this: EVERYONE HAS GENIUS! I am willing to place all of my money, eggs, fingers, and toes in a basket to bet on this fact. Most people in schools do not really believe this; therefore, we create a schoolwide culture that mimics the words only—yes, “I believe all children can learn!” BUT the actions that are lived through the school’s culture do not line up with this belief.

geniusThe greatness behind everyone having genius is this simple truth: every person possesses a learning “wick” inside of them. Our job as educators is to light that wick. Think about this. When we buy candles, they are simple objects sitting on a shelf or desk waiting, waiting, and waiting some more for something exciting to happen. The candle’s excitement is tied to one person taking a few seconds to light the candle’s wick. Our children are like candles, only waiting for that one person to ignite their flame. The glory in all of this is the fact that it doesn’t take a million people or a million dollars to do this. It just takes one willing person.

I am reminded of my first-grade teacher, Ms. Waters. She was scrawny, wrinkled, and at times very, very fussy. I can remember her white hands holding tight to my brown hands as she whisked me to the front of the line. “Shonda!” she would say, as I cuddled behind her legs, “I want you to stand up straight when you speak and look me in the eye. Stand up straight!” She would say this on more than one occasion. The timbre in her voice scared me and I knew she meant business. So, in an instant, I stood up straight and looked her in the eye. She went on to tell me and everyone in her class that no one would leave first grade without being the best readers in the school. Now, over thirty years later, I realize that what she exemplified was the idea that everyone in her class had genius.

teaching-928637_1920I have worked in school districts across this country and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that what we are missing are the Ms. Waterses of the world. She did not care that I was a poor black girl who lived in the apartments across the street from the school. She did not care that at that time my mother was single and my father had been incarcerated. The only thing she cared about was making sure I learned how to read. At that time, there were no tests such as DIBELS, NWEA, STAAR, NAEP, etc. What she had was a set of flash cards—“ready, set, go!” We did have a weekly spelling test. How could I forget that! Her formula was simple. If I show my students what it means to work hard and demonstrate for them what it means to care, then they will succeed. This seems so simple now, yet so hard!

So how do we fill our classrooms with more Ms. Waterses? The complexity of today’s classrooms far outweigh a simple solution. I would only suggest that we start doing the following:

  1. Speak truth to children. The truth is this: life is not easy and survival comes only to those who have a plan (Habit 2/Habit 3).
  2. Find the genius in every human existing in schools. This suggestion is for both children and adults. Let’s all stop looking for someone to blame for the misfortune happening in schools and let’s all get better together (Habit 6).
  3. Engage in uncomfortable conversations about race and cultural differences. These conversations are necessary if we are going to survive as a nation (Habit 5).

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