“Making significant progress in improving student learning and closing opportunity gaps is not only a professional duty but a moral responsibility.”
My seven-year-old started kindergarten at our neighborhood school almost three years ago. He is a fun, happy kid. His primary hobby is laughing and he does it well. He is also a reader in the truest sense; he chooses to read often and enjoys the experience. Over his short life as a reader and as someone who is read to several times each day, he developed preferences. His favorite books in kindergarten included This Is a Job for an Emergency Machine, Leo the Late Bloomer, Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, and the Lego Star Wars Character Encyclopedia.
Like most educators who are also parents, I think about schooling through the lens of my own child.As I observe my son at home and watch how he interacts with text; I’ve noticed certain things. He enjoys the experience of reading itself. From birth, he connected the act of reading with pleasure and joy. His preference for reading is to be snuggled up tight, next to an interested party. He welcomes, and often demands, interaction; will tell you when he wants to read, when it is your turn, when you have taken his turn, and if you have not read the correct word or used the correct inflection. Again, the boy has preferences. His preference is to share this joyful experience with another attentive party.
So, as my son began kindergarten almost three years ago, we had a very specific request of his teachers.We shared what he could do and what he couldn’t do yet as a human, a learner, and a reader. We let them know we understood that there were standards, requirements, and things beyond their control. We also let them know we would be a partner in his learning as much as we needed to be. Understanding all of that, what we would mostly be looking for and asking questions about was his attitude towards the experience of school. We wanted him to equate school with a place where he could derive the same joy and pleasure from learning that he experienced at home. My husband and I reasoned that if he loves learning and understands school is a place where that feeling can be replicated, we and his teachers could support him through the inevitable frustrations and pitfalls of disappointments, mistakes, and failures that accompany continued learning.(I am happy to report that almost three years in, the boy loves school.)
What I know after twenty years in education—fifteen of those focused primarily on literacy in Hillsborough County Public Schools—is that children enter school with different experiences and opportunities. Some, like my son, enter kindergarten reading; others enter kindergarten knowing few letters. There is a spectrum of ability, personality, interests, and emotions found in the children entering our classrooms. What they all have in common is an innate desire for experiencing joy and pleasure.Humans are drawn to joyful experiences and withdraw from experiences that cause pain, embarrassment, or repeated failure. Creating joyful learning experiences isn’t a “nice-to-have” in classrooms—it is a bedrock of a quality learning experience. What does research show about joy in the classroom? Rock, co-founder of the Neuro-Leadership Institute reminds us that, “Interest, happiness, joy, and desire are engaging emotions. This state is one of increased dopamine levels, important for interest and learning…and the ideal learning scenario” (2013).
As I run to serve in a new educational capacity—that of school board member—it is impossible for me not to think about my own sons and the quality of education they will receive. What I want for them during this time of their life. What I hope for them as they grow into adulthood. In many ways, what I want for them as five-year-olds and what I hope for them as twenty-something-year-olds do not look much different. I want them to be happy, to feel successful, to be intellectually curious, and to look at learning as a life-long pursuit. I want for them, at five and twenty-five, to be surrounded by people who accept them for their contributions, their quirks, and their faults. What I want for them to experience at Hillsborough County Public Schools is the same sense of safety, compassion, interest, and love, that they would feel if they were still home. I want that for all children.
When students—my children, your children, the children playing on the corner and riding their bikes down the street—remain at the center of every decision made by the school board, we are not only fulfilling our professional duty, we are living up to our moral responsibility to ensure the success of the next generation.
Educational standards will come and go, but one moral imperative is abiding—the deep responsibility for the learning of EVERY CHILD.