My grandma changed my life, and I don’t think she ever knew it.

She passed away almost 5 years ago now, and before she passed away, I don’t even think I knew how strong her impact would be.  I wrote about this quite some time ago, but it’s taking on new meaning as I delve further into my adulthood; I question the nuances of motivation, the origin of interest, and the true meaning of success.

When I was in college, I used to correspond with “Grandma France” via e-mail here and there.  She loved going online, and we’d find that most of our conversations would transpire over the occasional e-mail, where I’d update her on my life, and she’d respond with more questions.  Every so often, we catch each other on the phone, but in hindsight, I’m grateful for our written correspondences more so than our phone calls.  And why is that?

Because she helped me realize something about myself.  She helped me see something in myself that I wasn’t able to see before.

You’re quite a writer, the e-mail said. You should write more!

I remember stopping and reading her words.  Me? A writer? I thought.  I had always felt simply like I was talking with my hands.  I never saw the value in my own writing, and I never really felt successful as a writer either.  As such, it wasn’t a preferred activity; it wasn’t something I would choose to do.  It wasn’t something I deemed an “interest” of mine.

To me, it is critical that we find things that students are interested in.  In order for our children to feel seen, valued, and heard, we need to channel their interests.  But I believe that student interest is not where learning begins.  If we look at the root of student interest, it is likely that it is grounded in the student’s definition of success–not in the topic itself.  More often than not, a student’s interest is validating to them; it makes them feel good, because they believe that they’re “good” at it and they believe they “know a lot” about it.

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 9.25.45 AMIt makes them feel… successful. 

It comes as no wonder then, that our students that struggle the most are the ones that don’t feel successful.  They withdraw from school and often say they don’t have any interests, not because they’re trying to be difficult; rather, they say this because there are few places in which they feel successful.

I had one student back in Chicago who used to claim that she hated to read.  She’d say the words would “float away from her” as she’d read, and that she preferred to read graphic novels only.  She was also very specific about the types of books she’d read.  She gave me specific plots and character types.  Obviously, these experiences with these types of books made her feel successful.  It was more than just an interest.

One day, I pulled her for a reading group with some other students.  The other students had different needs than she, but also different strengths.  This student, in particular, had a strength in conversing and thinking deeply, something that the other students didn’t have.

“I need you to be a role model today,” I said.  “I want you to be a part of this group because I need your thinking.  Sound good?”

She nodded, still a little wary, as reading was a non-preferred activity.  I pulled out copies of the text, highlighters, and some pencils.  This student also told me she liked to highlight.  It made her feel good when she was able to mark up a story.  We began reading, and I modeled some strategies, showed some pieces of the text I deemed important, and then sent them on their literate ways.  I’d listen to each of them read independently, asking probing questions along the way.

“I think she might be trying to teach the tiger a lesson,” my reluctant reader said to me.

We were reading a folktale about a tiger who had stolen from an old woman.  The old woman then set up a series of tricks to teach the tiger a lesson about stealing.

“Everybody stop!” I exclaimed. “[Jess] has a great thought!”

She shared with the other two students, who then went back into the text to discuss their thoughts, catapulting us into the momentum of the small-group reading lesson.  They continued to read closely and highlight pieces of text that helped support this idea of a lesson in a story.  Our time suddenly seemed to go by rapidly, the inertia of the lesson encountering little friction.

“Alright, I think we need to stop for today,” I said.  “It’s almost 2:00.”

“Can I keep reading it on my own?” my reluctant reader asked.

My eyes widened.  Without thinking, I said, “Really?”

“Yea,” she said back coolly, pretending it wasn’t that big of a deal.

“Sure thing,” I replied, trying to calm my excitement and mimic the “coolness” of my student.

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 9.27.06 AMI asked myself why she was suddenly so interested, and I wondered why she was miraculously so engaged when she wasn’t 30 minutes prior.  The text I had pulled that day had none of the prerequisites she had listed in her interests.  It wasn’t even a story that had a character similar to her.  Sure, it was a good story, an engaging text, and it aligned with previous lessons, but if learning hinged on interest, what was getting her interested?

In that lesson–in that moment–she was interested because she was feeling successful.  She noticed that she had something to contribute to her own reading experience, which was paramount to a sustained interest–to subsequent independent, self-directed practice.  Suddenly, something in which she previously had little interest became an interest to her… and not because she provoked it in herself.

But because she felt successful doing it.

If my Grandma France had never told me I was a good writer, who knows if I would have ever started to write, who knows if I would have learned to love to teach writing so much, and who knows if I would have ever developed an “interest” in it.  In that moment, with those few words in a seemingly routine e-mail, she made me feel successful, and she made me and my written words feel valued.

While student interest is important, I believe that, at the core of what we do as educators, seeing the potential in children and helping them find success in all they do is even more important.  This is why a student-centered education is so important, and this is why meeting children where they are and building them from there is far more effective than pushing them to unrealistic benchmarks.

I’m grateful for my grandma everyday because she helped me to see something in myself that was not visible to me. The power of her perspective, in hindsight, is humbling.  I couldn’t get by simply driving my own experience; I needed someone else’s perspective to help validate, motivate, and drive me into a sustained interest.

And this is exactly what our students need.  They need someone value the parts of themselves they don’t yet know how to value, and they need someone to nurture the malnourished. They need someone to see the the parts that are currently invisible to them.

They need us to believe in them.

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