Smart. . .

“You don’t understand, Mrs. Porter. I’m just not smart,” said one of my talented and promising young students yesterday. Tears beaded on her eyelashes, and her little shoulders trembled.

She had misplaced her notebook containing a month of journal  entries and her “Idea Details Chart,” or “IDC” -affectionately christened the “I Don’t Care” log by my 6th graders. (See Teaching That Makes Sense, Scott Peha's site for excellent and free teaching resources.)

Through regular conferences with her, I knew that her “Idea Details Chart,” a method of note taking where students log the main ideas and details of a novel as they read it, was meticulously and conscientiously completed. She had worked very hard for over a month on this project. While I commiserated with her-I live in a very “ADHD style” family, and I spend copious amounts of time locating lost items-my heart hurt at her logical leap from misplacing a project to being “not smart.”

Over the years, I have taught a number of students convinced that they are “not smart.” Some of them are following academically able older siblings who have the honors and accolades to prove it, or the students fall short of a parent’s unrealistic expectations. Others have struggled due to learning style differences, stress at home, or disorganization. In fact, when I have studied student performance data, I have found that the students’ cognitive ability scores have a low correlation with their academic performance. The students with a tested “average” ability who also possess organizational skills, support at home, and/or a determination to succeed, none of which show up on standardized testing, often outperform the students whose cognitive ability testing reveals intellectual gifts. (This study by Duckworth and Seligman published in the Journal of the Association for Psychological Science validates my observation.)

I could go on about Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences, which has always made perfect sense. I have always been able to read and write fairly easily, and walking in nature brings me solace and joy. I can draw and paint, but asking me to sing on key is a dodgy proposition, and not even Saints Cosmas and Damian, the patron saints of chemistry, could teach me how to accurately balance a chemical equation. My daughter, in contrast, can sing beautifully, actually enjoys biochemistry, and speaks Japanese. She struggles with reading and actively avoids it. Neither of us is “smarter” than the other. We just have different strengths. Here is a quick and easy survey to evaluate your personal intelligences based on Gardner’s theory.

I suspect, however, that the “I am not smart” issue springs from somewhere more insidious-from the same type of inner wounds that spawn the “I’m ugly” and “I’m worthless” lies. These lies damage children.

I have taught hundreds of young people, and every one of them has had their own abilities and strengths.  One of our most important missions as teachers is not only to bolster students in the areas where they struggle, but also for us to find those strengths and encourage our students to celebrate them.