I’ve been writing about what “smart” actually means in classrooms. And an unintended definition of a “smart kid” is one who never needs help.
No Help Needed
Imagine this “smart kid” who neither asks for nor is given any one-on-one or small-group help from an adult. The “smart kid” understands immediately (since she already knew it) or figures it out quickly and gets another 90% or above.
As a result, the “smart kid” never gets called over for practice. This means that she never works and struggles in front of an adult. She never experiences getting better at something by working with a mentor.
Because, while struggling kids come over to practice at the kidney table all of the time, the “smart kid” works alone in the corner. The kidney table is not a place of learning and growing to the “smart kid”, but a place of shame. She hopes to never get called over, because (after all) “smart kids” don’t work with the teacher!
I call this The Curse Of The Kidney Table. And it has lasting consequences.
Our “smart kids” see asking for help, working with the teacher, and struggling through tasks as a sign that you’re “not smart.” The Kidney Table isn’t helpful – it’s shameful because simply being helped feels shameful.
I use the word “shame” very purposefully because shame is exactly what I felt when, eventually, (in college) school got very hard for me. I didn’t seek help. I didn’t go to office hours. I didn’t tell a soul that I was drowning. Because I was ashamed to need help – because not only had I never needed help in K-12, I was praised for never needing help. “Ian always gets it! He’s so smart!“
But Smart People Get Help!
Of course, we don’t want kids to think that asking for help or struggling with a mentor are bad things! They’re necessary! But what a tragedy that gifted kids can reach high school or college before they are challenged for the first time… and by then they’re conditioned to struggle silently and alone.
- The answer isn’t a lecture about how asking for help is important.
- The answer isn’t to say “you can always ask me anything.”
- The answer is to gently force your highest achieving kids to sit with you on a regular basis.
The answer is for us, as teachers, to just start calling these students over.
Call ‘Em Over
So here’s my challenge to you:
- Figure out who never gets called over for help. I bet you can already name a bunch of these students. It’s typically pretty obvious.
- Once a week or so, call each one over for a 60-second chat about, well, nothing.
- Ask them what projects they’re working on. What are they excited about? What was tough about that last essay? What’s their favorite part of social studies this year. Whatever! The point is just to get them conditioned to one-on-one or small group time with a teacher.
- Finish with: “Hey, I’m so glad you’re in my class. Thanks for chatting with me.”
They’ll be totally freaked out the first time you call them over. Their face will be pale. They’ll ask, “What did I do?”
But slowly, they’ll get over it.
We’ve got to remove the stigma of talking with the teacher. It doesn’t mean you’re “not smart.” It isn’t shameful. Everyone should get used to sitting in that chair. And, eventually, everyone should feel comfortable asking for help when they need it.
See also: Small Groups for Advanced Students