October 15, 2019
Years ago, an 11-year-old student came to my fourth-grade classroom. He had been diagnosed with multiple learning exceptionalities that affected his ability to decode words which impacted his literacy skills. He was embarrassed by the reading material he had with him, a “Clifford” book and a “First Grade Buddies” reader, and he thought those books meant that he couldn't read—that he wasn't ever going to be able to do the things other kids his age could do.
The materials we give kids matter, in part because the materials we use can signal the expectations we have as teachers. When we lower expectations, even if our intentions are good, we send an unintentional message that kids can’t succeed. When we give an 11-year-old “Clifford” to read, we’re telling him, “Not only do I not expect you to decode words, I don’t expect you to think.”
My class was about to read “The Lightning Thief,” and I was determined that he would get to experience it with us. So I went the other way: I said, “You know what? I know you can't decode all of these words, and we're going to work on that. But at the same time, we're going to expose you to this quality text that is going to challenge and engage you and show you what you’re capable of.”
When we give an 11-year-old “Clifford” to read, we’re telling him, “Not only do I not expect you to decode words, I don’t expect you to think.”
At the time, this student had zero confidence. He didn’t want anybody to know he was different, so he would sit in the back and just never say anything. He didn’t participate even in small group conversations. If you asked him to write, he didn’t fight back. He’d just write his name on a piece of paper over and over again. And he was sure there was no way he could get through this long, complex book.
But I believe all kids can and should experience high-quality, complex texts—we just have to give them the supports they need. Some of the tactics I used to help him were to break the book into manageable sections and provide him a reading buddy. Because he was accessing the same material as all the other students, he started to believe that his thoughts were equal to anybody else’s thoughts.
For a while he was still afraid to put himself out there in front of his peers. Then one day, the class and I were having a rough time. Suddenly, I heard this quiet little voice say, “Watch out, you guys, she’s about to go all Miss Dodds on us!” and I realized the joke he was making. One of the characters in the book is a teacher who turns into a monster, and he had internalized that and applied it to our tense moment in the classroom. And the way he lit up when the other kids laughed—that made every bit of our work worthwhile, because it validated him in a way that was never possible from a “Clifford” book.
Because he was accessing the same material as all the other students, he started to believe that his thoughts were equal to anybody else’s thoughts.
Reading that book completely changed the way he saw himself and set him on a new trajectory in his education. He left my class believing that he could do what other kids could do, understanding that he was capable of complex thoughts, and finding joy in reading.
Recently, he let me know that he's going to graduate from high school. He knows he has a future. And I truly believe without access to high-quality materials and teachers raising the bar for him along the way, he would've been condemned to the low expectations he had for himself when we first met.
This is why I always say, “Don’t lower your materials. Raise your supports.” Low-quality curriculum conveys to students, “We don’t expect much from you.” And if we don’t expect much, we’re not going to get much. But if you give kids quality materials and challenge them to think, you can change their lives.