A Different Sort

Monte Syrie
November 7, 2018
Maybe instead of clinging to the “some-win-and-some-lose” approach to education, we should embrace the “all-need” approach.

Maybe instead of clinging to the “some-win-and-some-lose” approach to education, we should embrace the “all-need” approach. The former pushes competition, forcing us to rank and sort kids, enabling us to wash our hands, for the results fit the model — it’s the natural order of things. It’s how it’s been. It’s how it is. It’s how it will be. But it doesn’t have to be. I reject wholeheartedly, in spirit and practice, the notion that we have to award winners and, in turn, name losers in the classroom. Such sorting carries serious consequences.

What if we sorted kids differently? What if instead of letting them win or lose the game, we simply let them play the game? I know, this is where those who cling to competition will object to such openhanded offal, warning that we have to have to winners and losers, but we don’t have to, not in school, not in the critical development of our young humans whose growth is dependent not upon the labels we level but the help we hand.

Let’s, then, sort by need, for that is where help begins. But such sorting is not so simple. John needs this. Mary needs that. And sometimes, Jane’s needs lead us down a spiral from which we may never return. I recently went down such a path.

“Can’t avoid it any longer, Mr. Sy.”

“No, ‘spose not, kiddo.”

She had turned it in blank. Well, she never even started. I knew–we knew–there was no point. Her anxiety had come to haunt, so I just told her we could do it another day, maybe during the next day’s Access Time we could sit down and work through it together. But that day came and went (the ghosts still lingered) and so did three other Access Time opportunities. But yesterday, will intact, she decided we needed to get Performance #4 done. So we did.

We cleared off the corner of my desk; she pulled up a chair; we gathered our materials, and we set to work.

We set to work. But I didn’t walk for her, I walked with her. She needs me to. She is plenty able but her needs are a little different, so I meet her at her needs. She gets easily and confused and frustrated; her anxiety creeps along, settles in, and she shuts down. So we walk at her pace.

“Okay, kiddo, let’s go to the passage. Read it and look for the universal theme(s) that Elie is addressing.”

“Loss of Faith.”

“Great. Now, what is Elie saying about the loss of faith?”

“Um, well, in dark times, people question their faith, and…”

“Okay, let’s write that down.”

And she did, or she tried, and then she stopped. Wringing her hands, she began to recite “d,” “b” making symbols with her fingers.

“Dyslexia?” I asked.

“Yeah, she sighed. Elementary was awful. Teachers yelled at me all the time.”

Yelled. All the time.

“But you seem to be dealing.”

“Yeah, I just gotta slow down and focus. My fingers help. My dad taught me that.”

And so, we made our way, me giving little nudges here and there, her working with her hands to find her focus and avoid her anxiety. And many minutes later, her Performance was done. And done well.

With help. And, of course this brings questions. Is it learning? Did she do the work? Did I do the work? If we did the work, is it then invalid? Can she earn a 3 on the Performance since I helped her? Is it fair to the other kids? Will this prepare her for the future when she may not get help? Is teaching helping or is teaching testing?

Teaching has to be helping, right? If helping is not teaching, then why does it feel right? Testing has never felt right. Never. It’s always felt that it was something I was doing to the kids. Not with the kids.

Yesterday, I walked with her. I helped her. I taught her. And I think that is the essence of my job. Help.

Sadly, I cannot help all my kids in all the ways they need help all the time. But I will try. It’s all I can do. As for the other questions and criticisms that may come with my giving such “help,” I don’t care.

I. Don’t. Care. Not anymore. It’s my room, and I will help kids. That is my purpose. That is my why. And as the outside world puffs and proffers under the pretense of what is and isn’t “good teaching,” I will be here helping kids. I think it’s that simple.

Monte Syrie
Monte's motto: Do. Reflect. Do Better. HS ELA Teacher, Project 180 Founder.
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