by Marsha Rakestraw

A few years ago I read an essay from a teacher who was reading the story of the Three Little Pigs to her class.

She had students who’d emigrated from other countries in her class, and it occurred to her that the story made a judgment about what kind of house was the best kind. How might her students who had lived in houses made of materials like straw feel about this assertion that brick is best?

The story reveals assumptions about the experiences of readers.

Similarly, in another essay, a teacher noted how horrified one of her new students was that the class was using food as a tool of play.

As countless classes have done before, students were using beans to create artwork. This student, for whom food was a precious and never guaranteed resource, such cavalier treatment was shocking.

The art activity reveals assumptions the teacher had made about appropriate uses of food and her students’ relationships to food.

And, in a Rethinking Schools essay, a teacher of Inuit children noted that one of the questions on a standardized test asked how people get to the hospital. The “correct” answer was car (or it might have been ambulance — I can’t remember for sure), but most of the students had marked airplane as the  answer, because in their part of the world, that’s indeed how people get to the hospital.

The test makes the assumption that everyone shares the same experiences.

And now a recent story in the New York Times profiles a school that uses the real world as an educational tool. At P.S. 142 in New York, where nearly all the students qualify for free lunches, teachers are exposing their students to experiences and language that many assume most everyone already knows.

Principal Rhonda Levy “has made real life experiences the center of academic lessons, in hopes of improving reading and math skills by broadening children’s frames of reference.”

For example, if you’ve never been inside a car, or to the doctor’s office (other than the emergency room), or used a parking meter, how can you make connections about those experiences when you read about them? How can you understand the vocabulary? P.S. 142 is working to change that.

Stories like these are a great reminder to us as educators to be mindful about assumptions we might be making about our students’ experiences, values, and frames of reference.

Are we creating lessons inadvertently designed to allow some children to fail?

What messages might our lessons be sending to people who’ve not lived a privileged, Westernized life, for example?

Mindfulness about assumptions also extends to those of us who work with adults.

We can’t assume that our audiences know about global warming or factory farming or poverty or fracking.

What assumptions have you caught yourself making about your students’ experiences?


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