Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Dismantling the "Master's House": The Urgency of Rigor

My eyes slowly scan the black, metal shelves. A shadow of uncertainty floats through my mind. I am totally crazy, I think, running my fingers along the spines of the books, boldly marked Level U. Suddenly, I see it. My hand hesitates for a moment – but then, I grab the seven copies of The Tale of Desperaux, written by Kate Dicamillo, tuck them firmly under my arm, and tiptoe out of the room.

No, I haven’t just pulled off a major heist of children’s literature. But, I have done something scandalous and radical. I’ve selected a guided reading book that is about 8 levels higher than what my most struggling readers are “supposed” to read. To be completely transparent, these scholars test at Level M, and Desperaux, with its irreverent use of courtly French vocabulary, is squarely a U.

Why have I defied the sacred instructional injunctions of Fountas and Pinnell? Well, no offense ladies, but I really need to try something transformative. In fact, my decision goes back to my years at Connecticut College, when I absolutely devoured the writings of black, womanist scholar Audre Lorde.

"The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Lorde writes, inspiring us to seek and create radical solutions to such entrenched frameworks as racism or sexism – and, therefore, educational inequity. So, when we envision a blueprint to accelerate the growth of scholars who have suffered from the academic achievement gap, we must transgress against the ideologies and systems that have intentionally held them back. To “dismantle” the “house” of injustice in education, we must constantly problematize our instructional practices in the classroom, pushing the level of authentic rigor.

Too often, we shield our students. Bowing to a very real history of inter-generational poverty and racial discrimination, we assume that when a student comes to our school academically “behind” her classmates, she simply cannot waste a moment in confusion or uncertainty. Defaulting to direct instruction, we break essential knowledge and skills down into digestible forms, relying on the premise that learning can only occur when the teacher explicitly presents the term, the algorithm, the concept – and students passively absorb and imitate. Instinctively jumping to correct every misunderstanding, we dread the tentative, raised hand in class that says, “But, I don’t understand…”

But does the historian always have a text to consult? No, he is writing the textbook. Does the scientist have a conclusion in his mind? No, he discovers it. Does a lawyer know the outcome of the case? No, she must craft an argument to win. What do all of these scholars and professionals deal with every day? They must constantly grapple with uncertainty, the “answer” hanging just out of their reach. Therefore, if we continue to shield our students from moments of ambiguity, then we will fail to adequately prepare them to face the challenges of work and life, which require the ability to “figure it out” for yourself.

That’s why my students will read The Tale of Desperaux over the course of two months, three tricky chapters at a time. They’ll struggle to decode some words. They’ll struggle to understand the complicated trajectory of the plot. Yes, they will often feel uncertain. But, as they struggle, they will work through the "stuff" of achievement – of dramatic, house-dismantling, authentic rigor.

About two weeks into this project, my student’s insightful comments about Desperaux surprisingly affirmed my decision:

"Desperaux broke the rule of revealing yourself to humans never ever. Desperaux is going to be punished. Desperaux’s dad is planning to get all of the mice in the council for a plan to punish Desperaux for breaking that important rule."

Like Desperaux, we must bravely overcome our fear of failure or retribution, and break all of “the rules” to dismantle the systems of oppression that attempt to limit the inner potential of our students.

Ms. Nicole LaConte is a third grade teacher and Teach For America Corps Member at BVP Elementary School 1.

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