Ask a Teacher: Are Some Students Just Stupid?
Q: Do you think some students are just plain stupid?
A: No. No. A thousand times, NO!
I encounter this mentality a lot as a Special Education teacher. Sadly, it’s often manifested in the attitudes of some of my students. Maybe it’s the label they got in elementary or middle school, or it’s a comment or particular grade made by a classmate, teacher or parent, but they have it in their heads that they cannot accomplish their goals because they’re deemed “stupid.” It pisses me off to no end when I hear this attitude expressed in my classroom or school—whether it’s from the student, their peer, one of my peers or superiors.
Whether you call it intelligence, talent or something else, there’s an archaic belief that there’s only a limited amount of ways to be deemed “smart.” Much of this ignorance stems from the well-intentioned enlightenment beliefs of 18th and 19th century Europe. Sir Ken Robinson, a noted education reformer, speaks about this concept eloquently here. And instead of looking for new, interesting ways to help students unlock their potential, our solution to helping all students is to test the hell out of them with standardized testing. Whether it’s a district test, a state test, the ACT or the SAT, they all approach intelligence with ONE type of test (pen, paper, fill-in-the-bubble, write-an- essay). It’s like being a doctor and seeing a guy with his tibia sticking out of leg, a woman going into labor, and a child hacking up their lungs…and deciding that all three patients need a CAT scan to determine what’s wrong with them.
We have millions of intelligent children who are told that there’s only one way to be intelligent—read a book and then write about it. Now, I love reading and writing (I specialize in English, after all), but there’s more than one way to skin that cat. Literacy can be performed—which is why most people have an aversion to Shakespeare. They’re told to read it before seeing it, which is inane. That’s like if we had conversation:
Me: “I love The King’s Speech! Colin Firth was amazing!”
You: “Really? I should put it in my Netflix queue.”
Me: “Wait one minute. I have the script here in book-form. You need to read it before seeing it.”
You: “Wait? Wasn’t it written as a movie? Shouldn’t I see it first?”
Me: “NO! YOU HAVE TO READ THE WORDS!”
Multiple intelligences are not encouraged. In fact, they’re stifled for the sake of uniformity. Throw in disabilities or life-changes that occur at inopportune times of development, and you have many students who were given a story that they “aren’t good at reading” because they read a passage in a minute when it takes other 30 seconds to read, or “they’ll never get math” because the teacher wrote the answer on the board in such a way that it didn’t make sense. And heaven forbid you ask them to explain it a different way.
Before school begins, I usually ask my special education students what their strengths are or their favorite/best classes. Many times, it’s Gym, Tech Ed. or something with their hands because those are more active subjects. That tells me that they’re visual/tactile learners. So my co-teacher and I use a lot of manipulatives (simple things, like post-its and note cards) and play out readings (she’s an excellent drama teacher, so she’s really good at getting them up and moving). And wouldn’t you believe it, their comprehension skills are up from their previous grade because they can talk things out or build something instead of writing a paper. And when we get to writing papers, they have more confidence in their abilities because they have a larger base of understanding.
So no, I don’t believe in stupid students. I believe the only thing that’s “stupid” is that we see square pegs, round holes and believe the best solution is to hammer them mercilessly until it awkwardly fits. And if it doesn’t, we blame the hammer and the peg.
How do you learn best?
Mr. Jones is a high school teacher in Wisconsin. Surprisingly, he is married, and is the doting father to a lovely 4-year-old golden retriever.
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