Commentary and Criticism about the National Education Association
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"I will never forget trying to manage a classroom crowded with 39 bright fifth-graders ..."
NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia reminiscing about her time teaching elementary school in Utah.
THE NEA AND INTELLIGENCE REVISITED
I honestly didn’t intend to revisit the issue of intelligence so soon. After all, I just wrote a blog post last week asking “Why Does the NEA Censor Intelligence?”
That post looked into the NEA’s reluctance to use the word “intelligent” and “student” in the same sentence. Through my research I discovered a number of other words used in place of “intelligent.” The euphemisms of choice were: advanced, high-achiever, smart or talented.
WHY DOES NEA PRESIDENT ESKELSEN USE THE WORD “BRIGHT?”
Well, here I am again considering this topic. It was unavoidable after I read Eskelsen’s latest commentary on her Blackboard: “What’s your union story?” Her commentary had nothing directly to do with intelligence, but the first line she wrote caught my attention. This was the line I quoted at the start of this blog post.
I couldn’t help wondering why Eskelsen chose to use the word “bright” to describe her 39 fifth-grade students. I know that my colleagues use this word all the time to refer to the smart kids in class. But was Eskelsen using “bright” in a similar way or was there a possible other meaning?
I ask this because I find it hard to believe that all 39 of those kids were intelligent in the standard sense of the term. So, unless she was teaching a 5th grade honors course, she must have had something else in mind.
Did she mean that they were all intelligent but to different degrees? Perhaps every student showed a degree of intelligence, but maybe Johnny was more intelligent than Jimmy, and Sarah might have been more intelligent than both of those boys.
In other words, everyone is intelligent but can be put on a continuum from least to most.
Or maybe she was thinking along the lines of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence theory:
“In order to capture the full range of abilities and talents that people possess, Gardner suggests that people do not have just an intellectual capacity, but have many intelligences “ [bold and underline added]
Or, to use her own words, maybe the word “bright” was used to identify a group of students who were “… overflowing with energy, mischief, rowdiness, curiosity, and enthusiasm.”
If this was the case, then “bright” probably has absolutelynothing at all to do with intelligence.
Not being able to get into the head of Eskelsen, I decided to turn to the NEA website for some help. I typed the word “bright” into the search bar and got five pages of results. When I sifted through all of the articles, I came up with two possible meanings for “bright” as applied to students.
BRIGHT MEANING CURIOUS, ENERGETIC & AWAKE
Two of the articles on my result page support Eskelsen’s own choice of words. In this case, “bright” has more to do with a student’s demeanor in the classroom rather that specifically referring to his actual intelligence.
For example, in the article “Issues to Consider: What Do You Want Students to Do?” the writer describes a “classroom full of bright, curious, and energized young people”
The second article, “No Girls Allowed” uses similar language.
A second-grade teacher is described as “high-energy,” just like his “bright” students. What is meant by “high-energy?” A little further along in the article I found an explanation:
“The second-graders in Jeff Ferguson’s classroom squiggle in their seats, knees up, arms splayed, faces animated. They spin their pencils, thrum their fingers, and shout out answers. (Score! Gimme five!) Some can’t sit at all—they balance behind their desks on tippy-toes, poised to spring.”
BRIGHT MEANING INTELLIGENT
But the overwhelming majority of the articles use the term bright to mean intelligent. There is no mention of curiosity or energy. Below is a small selection from the results that I obtained.
Are We Failing Gifted Students? - “motivating bright students”
How Educators can advocate for English language learners - “bright young people"
Should More Students Be Allowed to Skip a Grade? - “very bright children"
Bias and Stereotypes Sideline Girls in STEM - “one of the bright kids”
The Twice Exceptional Dilemma - “a very bright girl”
Poems about Teaching and Teachers - “a bright young man”
NEA PRESIDENT ESKELSEN HANDS OUT “PARTICIPATION TROPHIES”
So, after sifting through all of those NEA articles and considering Eskelsen’s claims that “by the end of the day I was always exhausted,” there is little doubt that “bright” does not mean intelligent when she uses the term.
So why DID she use that word to describe all of those fifth-graders?
Why not just say:
“I will never forget trying to manage a classroom crowded with 39 fifth-graders who were overflowing with energy, mischief, rowdiness, curiosity, and enthusiasm.”
Why did she feel the need to add the word “bright” when she didn’t mean it?
Actually, I think that she did mean it. She chose that word on purpose.
I can only speculate on this one, but Eskelsen’s “bright” fifth-grade class was almost certainly heterogeneously grouped. This means that the actual “brightness” of the students was not uniform. Instead, student intelligence and ability probably ranged from 25-watts to 100-watts in her classroom. Average luminosity? Maybe equal to a 60-watt light bulb overall.
Not wanting to draw attention to the obvious actual differences in intelligence of those 39 students (for fear of hurting someone’s feelings), Eskelsen did in the classroom what so many coaches are doing on the playing field these days: She essentially handed out “participation trophies” to everyone regardless of their ability level.
Can’t you picture her at back to school night standing in front of all of the parents and going on about how bright all of their children are and how much she enjoys working with them every day, etc.
[NOTE: I was roundly criticized last month when I used the light-bulb analogy in a blog post called “Did you know that the NEA is homophobic?”
But it seemed totally appropriate here. After all, Eskelsen chose the word “bright” to describe her students – not me. Also, as my research has shown, the NEA uses this word all of the time. I actually never use it when referring to my students. I prefer the old-fashioned word intelligent.]
THE NEA IS ALL ABOUT DIVERSITY … RIGHT?
The NEA is all about diversity.
When you do a search on the NEA website using the word “diversity,” you get over 100 results. Article after article supports diversity.
The NEA even has a Diversity Toolkit which offers strategies to address:
Well, what about recognizing diversity when it comes to intelligence?
What about “Social Justice” for the “Cognitively Privileged?”
Please don’t claim that “differentiation” in the classroom addresses students of different intelligence. Differentiation is basically just a ploy to placate parents. When parents of smart kids complain about heterogeneous grouping, teachers explain how they “differentiate” so that all students receive an education appropriate to their ability.
This is bullshit pure and simple - but it sure sounds good, doesn’t it?
And if you are going to tell me that having a Gifted and Talented (G&T) program solves the problem, you would be mistaken. Intelligent students are not necessarily gifted so they are not covered under G&T.
CONCLUSION: WORDS MATTER
I am going to conclude with a quote from one of my previous blog posts because the idea introduced there applies here:
If you think that words just describe the world, you would be quite mistaken. And when you realize that words literally define, shape and frame the world, you will start to get an idea of how powerful they really are.
Unfortunately, as George Lakoff (University of California, Berkley) points out:
"Most people don't understand this. Most people think that words just refer to things in the world and that they're neutral. And that's just not true.”
So when NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia used the term “bright” to describe every student in her classroom, she did so on purpose. She purposefully obscured the reality of differing intelligence levels, most likely to avoid hurting the feelings of students (or their parents) that were on the lower end of that intelligence spectrum. She didn’t want to damage their self-esteem.
Although I look forward to future NEA articles celebrating intelligent students in the same way it celebrates all the other “downtrodden” minority groups out there, I won’t hold my breath.