By Pernille Ripp
She tells us that she is not smart. That school is not a place she wants to go to because that’s where all the smart kids go. The ones who can read. The ones who can do things so much easier than her.
She shows us that she is trying. That every word that sits in front of her is a mountain to be climbed, seemingly no matter how many times she has seen it before, the climb is still there. The doubt is still there. The wanting to give up, because “This so hard, Mommy..” and we tell her to sound it out, to try again, to see the letters, even as they move and squiggle and run away from her eyes as she tries once again. Everything taking twice as long as her twin brother. Everything coming at a price of time that seemingly no other child has to give up because to them it just comes easy.
So we search for answers, for teachers who see the girl before they see the problem, for others who like us, sit with a child where reading does not come easy. Where reading is not a magical adventure but instead dreaded work that doesn’t bring happiness but only affirmation of her supposed lack of can. And we get the doctors involved and they tell us their diagnosis and I cry in the meeting because wouldn’t it have been nice if it wasn’t a specific learning disorder but instead just something that hadn’t clicked? Wouldn’t it have been nice if we had it all wrong and she had us all fooled? Wouldn’t it have been nice?
So we sit down with our little girl, who really isn’t so little anymore, and tell her that we did get answers and as we thought it turns out her brain just learns differently. That reading is, indeed, hard to figure out but not impossible. That now that we know more, we can do more, we can get help, we can get support, and we can go in the right direction rather than searching in the dark hoping for something to help us. We can tell she doesn’t believe us, not yet, anyway.
And as summer unfolds, we hope that having this time can give us the time we need to build her back up, not because anyone tore her down, but because this mountain of reading has been telling her for too long that she is not as good as she thought she was. And once those whispers started they were awfully hard to drown out when the proof is right there in front of her on the page.
And I think of how the systems of school play into this self-evaluation. How the grades and the labels so often harm. How we, as educators, sometimes confuse good grades with dedication, as if a child who is failing a class isn’t dedicated? As if all a child needs is to just work harder, or hard enough because then the learning will surely come, and how for some of our kids, that is simply not true. That I can see my child work hard. That I can see my child stay at the table longer. That I can see my child give her best every single day. That I can see my child get extra teaching, tutoring outside of school, and yet the results don’t come because it turns out that hard work doesn’t always equal results.
And these kids, our kids, who are behind are often the ones working the hardest if we really had to compare.
And these kids, our kids, who are behind are often the ones pulled out of recess and fun activities in order to go work more.
And these kids, our kids, who are behind are often the ones given fewer opportunity for choice because it turns out that when you need extra support we have to cut something out of your schedule.
And these kids, our kids, sit with the same kids year after year, traveling as a group because the only thing we have identified them by is their lack of ability.
And these kids, our kids notice.
And these kids, our kids, know it.
And these kids, our kids, feel it.
And these kids, our kids, slowly start to take on the new identities we have created for them in our data meetings, in our hallway conversations, in our quick meetups when we make our lists, where we make our groups, where we share the stories that we think define these kids.
And these kids, our kids, are honored for their efforts by being given new names; struggling readers, lower level learners, behind, and you wonder how they lose themselves in the process.
And you wonder why one day, despite our best intentions, they tell us that they don’t think they are smart and that they don’t want to go to school.
So as my family once again adjusts itself in our pursuit of learning for all. As we celebrate the answers we have been given this week while nurturing the child who is at the center of it all, I ask you to please consider this. My child, our daughter, is not a struggling reader, she is a reader. Period. To tell her otherwise would break her heart.
And so these kids, our kids, deserve to be fully spoken about, to be fully known. For us to start a conversation asking how they see themselves and if it is through a negative lens we actively fight against that. And we tell them we see their effort, we tell them we see their progress. We tell them we see they are smart, and we stop with the labels, and the assumptions, and we see the kid for who they are rather than what the data tells us.
Because this kid, my kid, doesn’t think that reading will ever be something she can do, and I need, she needs, everyone that works with her to believe otherwise and loudly, because my voice is not enough.
Pernille Ripp is an expert in literacy and technology integration and dedicates her research and practice to developing engaged and empowered students and communities.
She is a teacher, speaker, author, blogger, and passionate advocate for education. She is a Skype Master Teacher; recipient of the 2015 WEMTA Making IT Happen Award; and the 2015 ISTE Award for Innovation in Global Collaboration. Pernillesripp.com