— Ben Wilkoff (@bhwilkoff) February 22, 2016
Are you doing particle physics at grade level? How about your saxophone playing? Is it on par with your age group? Your ballet? Chemistry? Calculus?
My best guess is your answer to most, if not all, of these question was somewhere between “huh?” and “nope.” That’s to be expected.
Let me take one from my own learning – particle physics. First, look at your thumbnail. Turn it so you’re looking along its ridge. If all of space is what is known about particle physics, then one percent of the width of your thumbnail represents what I know about the subject.
That isn’t to say I know nothing about particle physics. I have certain facts and concepts catalogued in my brain and connected to the rest of the knowledge and experiences I’ve got up there. A secret? I’ve never taken a class on particle physics. Heck, I’ve never even taken a class on physics.
Yet, there’s the knowledge – one thumbnail deep. I learned it because I was curious. Something I’d run up against in the world inspired a question, and I was motivated to learn.
Given all of this, would you say my knowledge of particle physics is on grade level?
My answer would be yes. My ability to speak to the topic is aligned with any intrinsic needs I have to understand it better to accomplish any external goals I might feel. It has nothing to do with my age or how many years I have or have not been in school.
Somehow, though, we let the phrase “on grade level” determine not only the value we place on a child’s learning in a given subject, but the approach we take to helping that child advance his learning in that subject.
Reading is the most frustrating example in this conversation (with math not lagging too far behind). When a measure of a student’s ability to read is not commensurate with his “born on date” (to borrow from Sir Ken), we react as though all brains develop at exactly the same speed and that reading is intrinsically-driven by a person’s genetics. I say this as an English teacher and one who decided to spend four years of college reading and talking about it, there is nothing about reading that is biologically inherent to the human experience.
I learned to read because I was curious, and thank goodness I did. It meant I was dubbed on-level from the beginning and thus allowed free choice in the books I selected inside and outside of school. I knew how to read, and according to my teachers, this meant I was allowed to read.
My classmates who weren’t grade-level curious or weren’t interested in reading early enough were not so lucky. Because they were destined to wonder too late, they were also destined to be forced into (s)lower reading groups. We all knew it. Whether coded by bird species or color, my classmates and I knew that some of us were welcome to pick up whatever book we wanted and others were relegated to only specific shelves.
Walk into most reading classes today and things have gone further south. Students can tell you their reading level by reciting a number to you attached to nothing other than their knowledge that the bigger the number, the more worth they have as a reader. Reading capitalism.
I’ve taught these students when they’ve arrived at middle and high school. “I don’t read,” the tell me early in the school year. When I ask why, they tell me they aren’t good at it. That makes me sad. Delving more deeply into their histories of being schooled into reading, they explain they never liked the books their teachers made them read in earlier grades. Many of them simply didn’t read and figured out how to passably appear as though they had.
This realization is what convinced me of the need to open my classroom to student choice. I didn’t care what students were reading so long as they always were and could show consistent growth in their ability to talk and write about it. Sure, we read some shared texts so I could understand students’ progress at grasping key concepts of the discipline. When it came to grade-level reading, though, all I was working toward was disabusing my students of the idea that reading was something people did so they could reach a certain level for a certain grade.
What I’d like to see, and what holding tightly to the idea of “on grade level” prevents, is not students who see their worth as readers, scientists, mathematicians, or musicians, but who see worth in those activities and are members of communities that foster their curiosity to know and do more.