“Students will write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.” -5th Grade Opinion Writing Standard
Sounds like a lofty goal for children, doesn’t it?
Opinion writing is now part of the Florida writing standards for children in grades K-12.
As much as I love talking about education, this article is not about teaching kids to write.
This article is about advocacy.
Because a person’s ability to express his opinion is so much more than just a writing skill.
It is a life skill.
Recently, a group of colleagues and I got together to talk about how elementary school children could learn to write opinion essays. Our goal was to look at how opinion writing progressed across grades, starting in kindergarten. Are children as young as five years old capable of doing this work? We believe so. Our goal is to first teach children how to engage in conversations where they will learn to present their point of view using evidence, and then teach them how to apply this concept to writing.
During the summer, I had the privilege of attending a Teacher’s College Reading Institute held at Columbia University in New York City. One keynote speaker, Mary Ehrenworth, spoke on this very topic. One of the first questions that she posed to us was this:
Why would we want to have teachers and kids become good at argumentation?
After the audience discussed this for a few moments, Mary quieted the audience. She looked around the auditorium packed full of educators from around the world and asked us, “Do we want to teach a generation of compliant kids or a generation who can be activists? Kids may think they are being polite when sometimes they are just being compliant.”
This statement has replayed itself in my mind months after the keynote. I find myself coming back to it, turning it over in my mind. I am still thinking about the implications of her statement for myself, for my son, and for all of us.
As a child, I was quiet, meek, and mild mannered. Looking back on it now, I realize that I was compliant, and I was rewarded for being compliant.
I was a good student. I followed the rules, got good grades, and didn’t cause any fuss. During each parent and teacher conference, the teacher would tell my parents some variation of the following: “Jessica is such a pleasure to have in class. She is a model student. She is a bit shy, but she always gets her work done and is such a good helper. I wish I had a whole class of Jessicas!”
However, my quiet, passive approach to school did not necessarily translate into a positive learning experience for me. I have very few memories of my elementary school years. They passed in a hazy blur of watching the clock and finding quiet ways to pass the time. I was a smart student, but school did very little to challenge me, especially the elementary school years.
There were times when I needed things from the teachers but was afraid to speak up and ask for them. It wasn’t that I was scared of my teachers. It was that I didn’t know how to respectfully speak up and ask for what I needed, especially if it involved interrupting them when they were teaching or when they appeared to be busy.
One very embarrassing example was in first grade when I really, really needed to use the restroom. However, the teacher kept talking and talking to the class. I waited and waited until she would take a breath from her instruction so that I could ask her to go…until I could wait no longer. I still feel the shame of being that first grader who had to go to the clinic for a change of clothes.
As I grew older, I rarely got into in any sort of argument with another person or expressed my view if I knew it was different from what the other person felt. Most of the time, I would agree with the other person’s idea, whether it was a place to eat or a topic of conversation. I rarely corrected someone, even if I knew they were wrong.
As a young teacher, I was excited to share new and innovative approaches with other teachers on my team. I quickly learned that not all appreciated these new and different ideas. Once a particular teammate cornered me in the hallway and told me that “we’ve done things this way for the past ten years. Who are you to change that?” After that, I stayed very quiet at team meetings. I was afraid to voice my opinion. I would close my door and do my thing. It took years and a different school before I felt brave enough to share my ideas again.
Since then, I have grown into my ability to engage in respectful self-advocacy. In my role as a literacy coach, I often have to play the part of facilitator, a person who helps to ensure that all voices are heard. I have learned how to engage in respectful dialogue that honors different points of view. I have learned that it is both important and necessary to engage in this type of healthy discourse. It allows positive change and growth to happen. I also learned that listening to points of view that I don’t agree with, without giving my own perspective, is tacitly agreeing with that person’s thinking. I have learned to add my own perspective to the conversation in a respectful way. Even if it doesn’t change the other person’s mind, at least I have voiced my own opinion and thus provided an alternative point of view for others to consider.
Unfortunately, the art of self-advocacy and engaging in healthy debate was not something that I learned through school, but now I have the opportunity to teach it to other children, and most importantly to my son.
It is even more important for my son to learn self-advocacy than it was for me.
My son has a disability that impairs his ability to communicate with others.
When Ben was first diagnosed with autism, teaching him self-advocacy did not even enter my mind.
It should have.
When Ben was little, he had difficulty expressing his needs with words, and I was embarrassed by the attention that Ben would draw on us. I remember when he would have a meltdown in the grocery store, I thought that every person in the store was hearing him and judging us. And, even if they were, back then other people's opinions bothered me a lot more than they should have. I had not yet learned that behavior is communication, and Ben was expressing his needs to me.
Then came a brief period of time when I wanted Ben to act like the other kids. I thought this autism thing was temporary, and that I could outsmart it. I believed that through great therapy Ben would eventually overcome his autism. And then, when he was finally like the other kids, everything would be better. I have since learned that autism is a part of Ben’s neurological makeup, and the ultimate goal is not for Ben to "beat" his autism. The ultimate goal is for Ben to become a confident, successful autistic adult who knows his strengths and limitations.
Many (not all) autism therapies teach compliance and strive to make the autistic individual indistinguishable from his “normal” peers. They reward for good eye contact. They reward when the child raises his hands on command. If the child won’t raise his hand, then the therapist raises the child’s hands for him and gives the child a reward. I have read many, many articles written by autistic adults that speak of therapies such as this. They tell of how they felt physically violated by these approaches. Rather than learning to be “normal”, the message that they learned is that their bodies are not their own anymore. Rather than learning tools for self-advocacy, they learned to obey adults at all costs, even if their mind and body was telling them this was wrong. Passive compliance makes this already vulnerable population especially susceptible to abuse of all kinds. You can read articles like “Quiet Hands” and an article about ABA, or Applied Behavior Analysis, that offer an autistic adult's point of view on the ramifications of these different approaches.
Encouraging self-advocacy does not mean ignoring the rules. I expect Ben to be respectful and to have good manners. Autism is not an excuse for bad behavior, but it is important that those in his life recognize that his behavior is communication, and to look for what he is trying to communicate through his behavior so that we can channel him towards more appropriate forms of communication.
The child who is a self-advocate at school is so much more than that impertinant student who tells the teacher that they spelled something wrong on the board, or they marked an answer wrong on a test.
Already, Ben is learning to ask for what he needs and wants in appropriate ways. He is starting to label his feelings and recognize when his environment is becoming overwhelming. He is learning to let his teachers know when he needs a break. He is starting to tell the children on the playground who play too rough, “I don’t like that. I want you to stop.” All forms of self-advocacy.
Ben’s actions may never appear “normal” to the rest of society, but I don’t believe that he should have to change the person who is to make society more comfortable. If he’s different from the rest, that’s okay with me. Being different is not a character flaw. Just because he doesn’t act the way certain people think he needs to act, it does not make him inferior. It just makes him Ben.
It hurts me to know that some people who will come into his life will not understand this. They will seek to change him into something that is easier for them to accept…something closer to what they need him to be. But, in doing so, they are forcing him to compromise on the very essence of who he is, and I’ve watched the repercussions of those actions.
And so, I plan to teach him respectful self-advocacy.
This starts by giving Ben a voice.
This is why Ben now orders for himself in a restaurant and asks the server when he needs more lemonade or cheese on his pasta.
This is why, whenever an adult asks me a question that is meant for Ben, I tell them to ask him. I want others to see Ben as an individual and recognize that his point of view matters.
The more Ben has the opportunity to express his feelings and ideas, the more he can begin to change a belief system about what people with autism can and cannot do.
And, if he can’t succeed in changing the thinking of others, at least he can know, deep inside, that he is a person of worth, and that his ideas have value.
This is my hope for my son, and for all children.
Because I would like to raise a generation of activists.
Our world needs it.