On “Low” Students

Here’s a version of an exchange I’ve seen on Twitter more and more often:

Person 1: “Help! I’m struggling to engage my low class with rich tasks. How can I get these students to be willing to try harder?”

Person 2: “Respectfully, I wonder about your use of the word “low.” What makes those students low? What assumptions might you have about those students? How might expectations play a role in the challenge you’re describing?”

These are really thought-provoking conversations! How we talk about students matters — do we talk about students in ways that reinforce stereotypes, or in ways that remind us to seek out every student’s brilliance?

Reading these conversations reminded me of something in Rochelle Gutiérrez’s article “Strategies for Creative Insubordination in Mathematics Teaching.” Gutiérrez references that many of the teachers she works with teach Black, Latin@, historically looted, and/or emergent bilingual students, with this footnote:

Thinking again of the term “low” students, I love Gutiérrez’s term “historically looted.” In other contexts, someone might describe those same students as of low socioeconomic status, underprivileged, lower-class, or other euphemisms for poverty. All of those terms are fundamentally passive; they say that this group of students is lacking access to economic resources, but do not ask why. They are also loaded with assumptions about “those students” and “those schools” that many people bring to conversations about education.

“Historically looted” chooses a different emphasis. If these students lack economic resources, it is not because of any fault or deficit of their own, but because they live in a country that has chosen to extract resources from some at the expense of others, and to allow poverty to exist despite the fantastic wealth of the ruling class.

Here’s the thing. No matter what language we use, it’s loaded with assumptions. We can choose language that is passive, that lets those assumptions go unchecked. Or we can make the assumption that students’ challenges are because of a system that has chosen not to support them. Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter form a Birmingham Jail:

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?

It might be radical to call a group of students “historically looted.” But maybe being radical is a way to start conversations, question assumptions, and begin to see students from a new perspective.

So how might one describe those formerly referred to as “low” students? I’m not sure. Students whose brilliance we haven’t yet learned to see? Students whose talents aren’t valued in our education system? Students who we have taught not to take risks in school? Students who haven’t received the quality of education they deserve?

Any of these phrases and many others check assumptions at the door, and just might start a conversation that helps to reset expectations and see the challenges of teaching from a new perspective. And as I talk about students in new ways, I find myself acting differently, and acting myself into new ways of being and seeing students and schools.

4 thoughts on “On “Low” Students

  1. eweker

    Great thoughts, but I think I hear “low” differently than you have mentioned above. Most often, when I hear teachers talking about “low” students, they are talking about students whose grades/test scores are low, and the teachers imply that those students are under-performing, and are also using “low” as a code word for “dumb”. I do think there’s often an assumption or stereotype that connects students with low test scores and students with low income, and in both cases, I absolutely agree that the language needs to change. The language of “historically looted” instead of “low-income” is a phrasing that I absolutely endorse. I think the language around “low” needs to reflect something different than student ability, though. Perhaps it could be something about how our assessment methods fail to provide evidence of student learning, or our teaching methods don’t properly prepare students for our assessment methods. Something where we as educators take at least some of the responsibility for what this group of students is experiencing in our classes.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      That’s interesting — so “low” is often conflating test scores with intelligence or potential or something much broader, and we’d love to have language that can both distinguish those, and acknowledge the shortcomings of the assessments we use in thinking about what students are capable of.

  2. Nic Petty

    I have the enornous privilege of teaching adults who would have been labelled “low” at school. I think of them as students who were not taught in a way that enabled them to identify as mathematicians. And contrary to perceived wisdom that the maths has to be useful, I find that many of them love puzzles and maths games. We have to stop labelling early and grouping to maintain their groups. Good post.


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