To everyone out there waiting for Superman to save education, some good news: I’ve found him.
Wonder Woman too.
They sit in the back row of my language arts class. Superman gets distracted sometimes, especially on Mondays, after a weekend during which he didn’t get his two free meals a day from school. Wonder Woman sometimes puts her head on the desk because she’s tired from taking care of her younger siblings while her mom works a second job.
They’re growing up in one of America’s toughest cities, where murders are so common they sometimes don’t make the front page of the newspaper. Despite this, they come to school. They dream.
In my class, we have a lot of discussions about our community. We read and debate articles of both local and global scope, with a mind toward learning to challenge the status quo and assume new and powerful voices. When my students have concerns or curiosities, they seek the answers – which has led them to hold conversations with our city’s mayor and a videoconference with author Walter Dean Myers, which, according to one student, made her “think that anything is possible since he dropped out of school and had a hard life but still became an author in the end.
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Like any good superheroes, Superman and Wonder Woman often face challenges. But unlike “Waiting for ‘Superman’” star Geoffrey Canada, who recalled crying as a boy when his mother told him that Superman didn’t exist and thus wouldn’t come and save him, my students don’t despair.
Instead, they’re learning that what it takes to overcome those challenges is already inside them. It’s not the isolated skills and rote facts commonly measured on standardized tests. Instead, it’s their creativity and their ability to think independently. It’s their unique voices.
Recently, I talked with Superman about something that concerns him. As he walks around our city, he sees groups of men huddled on street corners. His dad isn’t around — he died before Superman was born — but from what he knows about him, he’s confident that his father would’ve been there to help him grow up. I handed Superman a piece of paper and told him to write down his thoughts.
A week later, the local newspaper published them on its Opinion page: “I want people to go back and be a father to their kids,” he wrote. “It’s too hard for the kids to grow up with no father figure and it’s hard for moms out there with no husband or boyfriend to be a father to their kids, too.”
As for Wonder Woman, she courageously pressed our city’s mayor on how he would feel if he was laid off, just days after she read that the city cut teaching positions, police officers, and school support staff. She recounted a story of how a laid-off guidance counselor helped her deal with a challenging situation, and now she doesn’t know to whom she’d turn. She asked him to look inside himself and consider what he would think if he got a pink slip in his mailbox and learned all his hard work was no longer valued.
To be sure, these aren’t everyday occurrences, and more days in my classroom probably fall flat than result in meaningful takeaways. But what drives me is my students’ pursuit of justice, their nascent awareness of where they fit in the world, and their commitment to achieving futures where they’ve realized their dreams.
In this era of accountability, it can be tempting for teachers to look at a student’s test scores and use those numbers to make judgments about who they are. But numbers can’t account for the unique experiences our students have had. Mastery of some standards likely won’t lead to solutions to the complex problems that trouble our schools and our country. In order to best serve the future stewards of our democracy, we need to acknowledge our children’s experiences and seek out – and listen to – their voices. We need to engage them in the process of delivering an education that meets their needs.
I believe that until we start seeing our children as superheroes, the quality of American public education won’t improve much. Tragically, the dialogue about school reform rarely includes their voices, rarely accounts for their remarkable resolve, and thus, I believe, won’t make a big difference.
If we really want to discover what life in classrooms is like, we need to talk to our students and teachers and use their perspectives as starting points rather than relying on the opinions of so-called experts. There are no better experts about life in the classroom than Superman, Wonder Woman, and their peers. Even Clark Kent needed some time to discover the superpowers within him. We owe it to our children to allow them the same.
Matt Presser teaches seventh and eighth grade language arts at Celentano Museum Academy in New Haven, Conn. He was one of three winners of our Teacher Essay Contest.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.