Educational Equity and Robinson Crusoe

Last night my ten year old daughter asked me about Robinson Crusoe. For the past week or so she’s been grilling me on vocabulary as it relates to a book her fifth grade class is reading. We’ve discussed “parole” and “inclination” and I’ve been impressed by her curiosity and ability to understand increasingly complex language and ideas. But Robinson Crusoe?

photo (1)“Sure,” I answered. “Do you know the story?”

“No. I just saw the book when we were in your office.”

Clever girl.

So I explained to her Crusoe’s shipwreck, his fight for survival, self reliance, and ingenuity. “You know, your brother has a classic comic book of the novel,” I told her. She shook her head.

“I’d rather read the real thing, but I don’t have time.”

“Time before what?”

And she explained to me that she wanted to know about Robinson Crusoe because there was a question in her study guide asking her to compare the main character from a book the class was reading with Defoe’s castaway.

She could, surprisingly well, after she found out who he was. As I watched her, pencil in hand, go back to finish her homework, I thought: what about the kids whose parents don’t have Robinson Crusoe in their offices?

I’m not talking about the “help” from parents that means building their mission projects for them or stepping in to do all the work for the science fair. This isn’t help at all, but well intentioned robbery of their kids’ education.

photo 4 (1)More analogous are the ubiquitous projects that ask students to research and complete a visual about a topic at home. These celebrations of construction paper and salt dough are great …for those with construction paper and salt dough at home, or for those with parents willing and able to make a trip to the craft store.

Even when it is the student who does the thinking and the work, parental support goes a long way to defining how well our students will do in school, and it brings up questions about equity that make me consider how we go about this business of education in our often inequitable society.

I’d love for every student the opportunity for parents to check over their homework, though the pressures of adult life preclude some from this modest luxury. Students thrive when parents are engaged, even when, as high schoolers, they pretend they don’t want mom to ask about what happened in English class.

And yet, as an educator, I recognize that students come to our schools from a huge diversity of backgrounds. They bring with them different levels of affluence, poverty, support, and neglect. Parents may be gone every night for a week covering an extra shift at the restaurant or taking a kid free vacation in Costa Rica. As a principal, I’ve seen both.

Some students come to school fragile, some with shocking resilience. Most, when inspired by strong teachers (and how I wish all were) are curious and ready to learn.

yeatsSupporting this desire to know more is as big a challenge as inspiring it. The old poet Yeats talked of education as the lighting of a fire, not the filling of a pail, but fires need fuel and tending to burn bright. Knowing that not every student has firewood stacked up at home means that more than ever educators have the responsibility to both challenge and support all of our students.

How important is this to true student success? Right now perhaps the best predictor of how well a student will do on the new state assessments is the education level of her mom and dad. As a principal who believes that each student should have the potential and opportunity to rise to her own level (not just her parents’) it falls on us to develop systems and supports that give each kid a chance.

Like a good mystery writer, we need to be sure that all of our readers are given all the information they need to be able to form a solution. Holding back clues isn’t fair. To understand or go beyond a reader (or a student) shouldn’t need an understanding of 19th century horticulture or the philosophy of Quine …or have parents who do.

ASL 1 Art Collaboration - 2015 199What does this look like in a classroom? A thousand different things. Hands on lessons in math and science, primary source readings in history, genius hours, coding, music, poetry… in any discipline students can be pushed to excel and supported by teachers.

Technology can be a great equalizer, or a damning divider. Helping students understand how to critically use technology and then giving them access at school can show every student that the wealth of information that defines our age is at their fingertips. At school we can help them touch it.

Outside the schoolhouse walls technological equity can be a slipperier beast. Smarter people than I are working toward answers, and I’m heartened when I think of the steady progress toward more universal wi-fi and increasingly more affordable devices. We’re not there yet, but every year sees us closer to more and more equity.

This isn’t to say that educational mindfulness or goodhearted technological advancement erases all the advantages some students enjoy. I’ll always answer my daughter when she asks a question about Daniel Defoe. Still, being aware of these issues can help us as we consider what types of questions we ask our students.

photo 1 (3)Reflecting pushes me to have an eye toward equity, a heart toward students, and a mind bent on creating learning opportunities that challenge all students to think critically and know that they have all the relevant information they need (or they can get it through onsite collaboration and technology).

When we provide this support within the school day, or during an extended school day on campus, we help each student. We owe it to our kids. If we don’t, we leave some feeling …shipwrecked.

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