Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. once wrote a story about a society so equal that no one ever felt insecure about any aspect of their lives. The most brilliant thinkers were bombarded by loud noises, scheduled to interrupt any original ideas. The most graceful were made to carry clumsy weights, so that no one else would feel inferior. Those with melodic voices were asked to intentionally squawk. No one ever felt self-doubt or envy. And no one ever struggled with the desire to improve.
When we transcend into a philosophy of getting a trophy just for showing up, what incentive is there for progress? I have worked with educators who have asked me to be careful about highlighting students who excel at a task. They find that it sometimes frustrates the rest of the class. And I understand – to a point. I would never pit a student’s work in competition with that of a peer. I am, however, very much in favor of reflection and improvement – competing with the self, you might say. I need not be better than anyone else, but shouldn’t I be better today than yesterday? Learning is a process that differs for everyone.
It’s okay to not be great at everything. Few people are. Everyone contributes to society in their own way. If one excels at reading and comprehension, why is it such a travesty if they should test average in math? Why this obsession with marks, when critical and creative thinking will take us much farther in the world?
It’s also okay to point out students who demonstrate a natural aptitude for a subject. They might really need this recognition. During a recent poetry collaboration, we asked students to write five to eight lines of free verse. One student went above and beyond, writing three pages of gorgeous images. I told him, in front of the class, that I expected to see his work in Barnes and Noble in fifteen years. For a moment, I worried that the teacher might not appreciate this praise. Imagine my delight when I ran into her in the front office with the poem in hand. Because her student had been struggling with effort and academic engagement all year, she was on her way to show it to the principal. This boy had found his knack, his voice. And what could possibly dissuade us from affirming his success? Why not teach students to appreciate each other’s talents?
If we remind students that we all have unique strengths and encourage them to try their very best (especially when a subject is not to their particular inclination), we truly embrace diversity. I don’t mean the little boxes we check on forms and surveys, but diversity of the mind, of creativity, and of spirit.