I’ve been thinking more about equity since Grace, Brette and Sammie’s great session at Twitter Math Camp. In particular, I’m working to pay attention to the elements of equity that I attend to in my reading and thinking about teaching this summer, and the elements that I want to get better at seeing, recognizing, and acting on.
One thing I’ve been paying attention to the last few days is how I talk about groups of students. Most teachers see a difference between “high” students and “low” students and find this distinction useful in their pedagogy. At the same time, teachers use all kinds of different euphemisms to communicate their perception of different students. My go-to descriptors in the past has been “struggling students” and “high-achieving students”. I’ve heard other teachers talk about low-ability and high-ability students, students who are behind, gifted-and-talented students, top and bottom students, and more.
I’m coming at this with the assumption that words matter, and that the way that I talk about students influences the way I think about students and make decisions about teaching.
I’m also coming at this thinking about what it means to have an asset-orientation toward students and their learning. I want to avoid deficit thinking — talking about students in ways that assume they are static, that their challenges define them, or that their prior experiences predict their future success. Lani Horn uses phrases like “lazy”, “a C student”, and “at-risk” as examples of this perspective. Whether or not these descriptors are true, they aren’t particularly helpful in moving forward and teaching that student. An asset-orientation replaces this language with a focus on students’ strengths and their potential to grow in the future. Importantly, an asset-orientation doesn’t ignore students’ prior challenges, but it is focused on the future and next steps moving forward rather than students’ past performance and experience.
Teaching toward equity and empowerment means acknowledging the differences in students’ prior achievement. It means paying particular attention and putting focused energy into supporting students who have been less successful or felt less included in the past. I don’t want to hide from those distinctions. At the same time, doing this work with an asset-orientation means approaching each day by acknowledging students’ prior experiences but leaving behind assumptions about what they can do that day and in the future.
When I’m talking about students who teachers might call “low students” or “strugglers”, I want to try to start using more language like “students who have struggled in the past”, “students who have been tracked into lower classes”, and “students with low prior achievement”. Those are more specific phrases, and they make no assumptions about what students are capable of in the future. I want to work on always accompanying that language with an explicit focus on what I am going to do to support students and what my goals are for them moving forward. My goal is not to erase students’ prior challenges in math class; my goal is to acknowledge those challenges but leave them in the past, and focus on what all students are capable of in the future.
I hope that this type of thinking will allow me to see one aspect of teaching and learning through a new perspective. I have no illusions that changing my language in small ways will make a large difference in my teaching. But as I work to see my classroom and my pedagogy through an equity lens, all I can do is add to my toolbox, one idea at a time.