Disempowering Stories

It starts so early — the stories we make up about ourselves and our capacity to learn. My nephew, the golden-haired king of playfulness and daring flips off the trampoline, came home from first grade and told his mother he was stupid.

She is concerned about his abilities to learn too — as are his teachers. 
He is not keeping pace with his classmates. His ability to shape his letters, use scissors, and make meaning from little squiggles on a page is not progressing as fast as his age-level peers.

My sister got a letter sharing his teacher’s concerns and plans for “intervening”.

She is worried.

I am not.

I work with students all over the country who did not keep pace with their peers. They did not master making meaning from squiggles on a page. They too made up stories about themselves and their abilities to learn. They too were labeled by their schools and given interventions — which maybe helped and maybe didn’t. Regardless of the effectiveness of those interventions, they all ended up with a seat at a Read Right™ table. 
They were placed at those tables by their schools because previous interventions had not worked well enough to help those students master the complex task of making meaning from text.

They likely were not given a choice (a mistake schools often make), but placed into this program because their test scores or their grades were too low. They usually start out hating the work that we ask them to do — or the fact that they have a seat at that table at all — because they think it means that their school thinks they’re stupid…or slow…or unmotivated…or some other unhelpful story.

But they got a seat at that table and now they are working with a tutor who is trained not to “intervene” but to empower.

They got a seat at a table with someone who is trained to ask not, “What grade is this person?” but, “What is the right level of challenge for this person?”

They got a seat at a table with someone who is trained to ask not, “When should this group move up to more challenging text?” but, “When should this person move up to more challenging text?”

They got a seat at a table with a tutor who is trained to help students understand that the brain learns by making mistakes and fixing them, that there is nothing wrong with making mistakes, and that there is nothing wrong with not yet being excellent.

It can take a while for those students to switch from disempowering stories about themselves to empowering stories, but when they do — they unleash the amazing learning power of their brains and make incredible progress in making meaning from text. The results are usually life changing. 
It doesn’t just help them to become better readers, it helps them to see themselves as people capable of learning, of growing, of risking and daring.

So, no, I’m not worried about my nephew.

I work with him on reading. He is making great progress. His joy as he reads “Green Eggs and Ham” is a beautiful thing.

I teach him that all people learn at different rates and that his job is not to compare himself to his classmates, but just to show up and be a superhero brain man who is always willing to learn, to fail, and to try and try again.
When we finish reading, I smile at my sister, and tell her not to worry — he is doing just fine.

Please note: To all teachers and educators involved in interventions — I am not intending to demean the work that you do. I recognize the intent and the challenge of working with students who are falling behind and needing extra support. I applaud all efforts to make a difference for these students. I am intending to suggest that our schools and our systems need to shift to a different mental model that does not view these students through the lens of, “Something is wrong,” but rather through the lens of, “Where are you on the learning curve?” and “How can I give you what your brain needs at this moment of learning?”