Second Graders as Superheroes

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How two teachers helped their students celebrate their unique brain strengths

By Zalika Gardner '90 and Herb Jahncke

From the Winter 2010-11 Caller

See 16-minute video below for more

For most people, classroom learning means reading, writing, math, and social studies— skills and facts. It’s easy to overlook some of the more fundamental questions bouncing around in a student’s mind: Am I good? Who is better? Will I be strong in math? Will I ever learn to spell? And the all-important: Am I smart?
 
We saw how our 2nd grade students were already thinking about their own thinking, wondering how they fit into the classroom community, discovering their strengths, and worrying about their weaknesses. We began to wonder: what would it be like if the students learned about themselves in a way that celebrates who they are, and accepts them, imperfections and all? What would it be like if a major focus of learning allowed students to learn about themselves and how their brains work?
 
When we consider the development of the brains in our boys and girls, we have an overall idea of what to expect when they enter the classroom. As we get to know our 2nd graders, we are able to more specifically identify their unique brain strengths and challenges. We know who needs some extra time to think about a concept before being able to apply what he or she learned. We know who works more successfully with a pair of headphones in a quiet spot. We know who needs to move around in order to listen and learn. We know who thinks deeply and makes connections that many others will miss. We know our students and we help them to know themselves. When they are able to identify what they need to help them learn best, they are empowered to take responsibility for their own learning.
 
While everyone has a unique perspective on the world, we all have some basic commonalities in the way our brains function when we learn. The All Kinds of Minds approach, led by a national nonprofit institute, helps break these commonalities into specific, observable phenomena that are most relevant for learning and help us better understand the infinite diversity of individual profiles. All Kinds of Minds provides a neurodevelopmental framework that allows us to observe and identify the unique strengths and challenges present in each child’s mind.
 
When we explain to the students what we see about how they approach tasks, this helps them learn about their own learning. When we infuse them with optimism about their unique ways of thinking, we help demystify how their brains work. We replace the worry and misinformation children tend to attach to their challenges with specific information and observation, supportive recognition, and tailored intervention. When learners are clear on their strengths and recognized for their affinities, they are much better able to sustain effort and identify growth.
 
What does that look like in the classroom? In 2nd grade we want the students to recognize that everyone is different, and that’s actually a really great thing. Some students can think numerically and solve math problems quickly. Others in the class may be challenged by writing. Some may be reading challenging chapter books. Our goal is to help them understand who they are and how they learn. We also want them to learn who the other individuals are in the classroom and how they learn. Our journey towards learning about the individuals in our community begins with the work of Howard Gardner, who proposed the existence of multiple intelligences. We all know that people seem to possess particular affinities and strengths. After all, adult careers generally are not “be good at everything” endeavors but rather the practical application of specific strengths. There is a reason we are teachers rather than accountants or electricians or astronauts. While certainly “nurture” or the combination of people, events, and experiences in our environment play a role in our adult successes and choices, clearly “nature” provides different brains with innate strengths that affect our school success, from academics to relationships.
 
Theorists have further refined this thinking by adding to the idea of intelligences evidences of different styles of learning. Some learn best by hearing, some by seeing, and many by doing. Some learn best in quiet and some with a little background noise. Some learn easily through pictures and diagrams, some learn well by words and explanations, and some will remember best when given the opportunity to move or doodle. In our pursuit of best teaching practices we tackled readings on attention, memory, social skills, and learning, and all continued to raise the question: What if we not only acknowledged the unique composition of learning strengths in our classrooms but actually taught children to recognize the presence of these differences as the “norm?” What would it mean to help children look at their strengths as a means to contribute to their community, and their challenges as opportunities to grow?
 
Metacognition, thinking about your thinking, is a novel concept to most 7- and 8-year-olds. Yet we’ve found that they are ready to start thinking about themselves, their brain strengths, and areas for growth. As we were thinking about how to teach these ideas to the students, we pooled our collective brain strengths to plan and design a project that would help them better understand themselves and how they learn.
 
It’s OK (cool even) to be different. This was the big idea that we started with in 2nd grade in our exploration of ourselves. We looked at our outsides, including the colors of our skin, eyes, and hair, recognizing that we are all a mix of dark and light shades of brown. We also looked at the globe and discovered that skin color, along with the rest of our outside features, comes from our ancestors and where our families are from in the world. As we studied ourselves we also considered that there is so much to know about people that you “just can’t tell by looking!”
 
We can tell how different everyone is with one look around the classroom. Some students are reading curled up in a corner, and some are most comfortable working at their desk. Some writers find that words fairly leap onto the paper, while others work very hard to fill the page. Some mathematicians like numbers and calculations, while others enjoy geometric shapes. Some kids live for soccer at recess, while others prefer to gather in the library around a board game.
 
Since our main objective in the classroom is to learn, we want the students to think about how they learn best. Taking ideas from Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, and the principles from All Kinds of Minds, we work with students to discover ways our brains are wired for thinking and understanding the world. For example, one person may have a “words and language” brain strength which makes reading a pleasure, and an activity sought out during quiet times. Another individual may have a “numbers and logic” brain that loves to solve puzzles, play with numbers, and think mathematically. Other strengths we explore include problem solving and creative thinking, friendship, music, nature, body movement, and drawing, design, and construction. We all have these brain strengths to some degree, though one or two tend to be super strengths for us.
 
Our students, after considering this list of brain strengths, identified their own super brain strength, their super power. Of course, when you have a super power, you really need a superhero identity. And a cape (you really need a cape when you have a super power!). The students created their superhero identities based upon their brain strength, designed their superhero logos on capes, and illustrated comics about their superhero identities. Taking what they learned about physical features, affinities and brain strengths, we invited families and friends to join us in celebration of a lot of hard work and learning. Everybody in 2nd grade loves this project. It’s fun, it’s active, and it involves some serious thinking.
 
Now the students are able to use their strengths to help others, and to get help when working with a brain strength that presents more challenges for them. They are beginning to find their place within our community, and understand that there is strength in differences and in knowing who we are. We are strong as individuals, but together we are stronger.
 
Having explored the idea of differences, affinities, strengths, and challenges, we hope the answers to those internally asked questions sound something like this: “So what if I can’t do everything brilliantly? I have brain strengths that I know and can use to help negotiate my weaknesses. I can engage with and give to my community while both acknowledging and working on the shortfalls that bring me pause. I am free to hold both wild successes and repeated failures in the palm of my hand knowing that of course, my journey will look different from others and yes, I am smart.”