Smile, fish, you're a genius, too.

Smile, fish, you’re a genius, too.

I was having a conversation with someone I respect. He’s a member of MENSA. MENSA is a society for geniuses. This made my conversation important–I can say, “I was talking to a genius.”

Wait! I am a genius. There is a test score in a box somewhere from when I was little that says so. People might not realize this at first–I’ve been known to troubleshoot appliances that aren’t plugged in, leave stoves on, forget stuff, lose keys on a daily basis, and one hot summer I felt dismayed because the fan I put in the closed window didn’t seem to be circulating any air.

I wonder how they determine who’s a genius anyway.

Like the kid in my class who solves Rubik’s cubes, but gets bad grades. And a guy I know who can fix nearly anything but doesn’t really read. Why aren’t they “geniuses?” If the world’s destroyed, they’ll recreate it. I’ll just think.

When I was little, they gave us tests and separated the geniuses from the non-geniuses. Then they assigned us special classes to help us feel more genius-like so we could cure cancer and such. I felt sad for people who weren’t geniuses. As Forrest Gump said, “Genius is as genius does.”  I didn’t do much. I’m told I nearly got kicked out of genius class because I always did the bare minimum. While some kids invented stuff and filed for patents, I asked how many sentences I had to write and did just that. Somewhere, there’s a book called “My Dad,” with four sentences per page. It doesn’t look like a genius wrote it. Maybe I was a genius and a minimalist–it’s a possibility.

My mom didn’t reveal my scores; she was afraid I’d become a know-it-all. Everyone else’s moms made baseball jerseys with theirs and put signs on the front lawn. I nagged my mom. Finally, she told me, “It’s 84.” I was proud. 84! A nice number. When people rubbed in their 124’s and 128’s, I was finally able to share my score of 84. I was a genius, too.

I never got kicked out of genius class because we moved. I saved face.

Many times since, I have been asked to retake the test. I declined. I found the real score in a file. It was a good number, which I’ll never beat, therefore there’s no incentive to retest–the score can only go down. What if I’m no longer a genius, but only…normal?

I think about this when I teach. I’m good at tests. Many kids are not. Most schools have classes separated by ability level, assigned by tests. Students are tested to move up and down levels, and tested to graduate.

Ironically, it’s is rarely the “smart” kid that succeeds in life, but he does pass tests and gets the best classes. The kid that succeeds is the kid with enthusiasm who often gets put on the bench. “Smart” students are often so accustomed to the entitlement that accompanies the label, that they get soft, like Rome in its heyday. I know. I was that person.

“Miss,” said one scholar, “Why is school so boring? I like this class, but school’s boring. I want to learn about Oceanography. It’s ‘not in the curriculum.'”

“Would you work harder,” I inquired, “If I made school about Oceanography? You’d have advanced math, science, your history would be around conquest and exploration, maritime law? It wouldn’t be easy–you’d study math about biochemistry, environmentalism, fish populations, ocean-related tourism, the economics of fishing…would you learn that?”

“Math about the ocean?”

“Math about the ocean.”

Pause. Deep consideration. “Yeah! I’d learn that!” Soon, a half-dozen eavesdroppers joined the conversation, pondering the awesomeness of a school that personalized their curriculum around cars, nature, medicine, technology…

Right now, I do this sort of thing with students on the side–give them things that interest them, usually for no credit. There is no test–only a conversation with me starting with “How did you like it?” They take off from there–totally intrinsic learning. No testing, no benchmarks–only me, the professional, smiling because I just got a kid to read three-volumes of Japanese history. On his own. Asking for more. Yet in the mainstream world, we measure, rate, label, assess, exhaust, process, and make kids ask “Miss, why is school so boring?” Because we need to shift the paradigm. Open up curricula–de-standardize and re-individualize. Let them go crazy learning what they want to learn. And more.

We have the ability to make education work any way we want during this time of great reform. I hope it turns out fun–because a score on a piece of paper isn’t what motivates students to learn or predicts their success. Their dedication and love of learning is what does. But I don’t think it takes a genius to figure that out.


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