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Parent blog: Honoring my daughter's passion

Denver mom Jennifer Holladay wonders if she’s boxing her daughter in by allowing the 8-year-old to see the world through only one lens – animals.

Like most parents, I want my child to be successful at school. I want her to be successful more broadly, too. As my spouse and I once defined it, we want to “raise up a healthy, happy, think-for-herself African-American woman who has a strong sense of identity and community.” We wrote those words four years ago, when our daughter was just 4 years old.

She’s 8 now, and there’s really only one thing she’s highly passionate about: animals. When she picks a book to read? Animals. When she picks something to watch on TV? Animals. When she’s outside digging in the dirt, what is she looking for? Animals. When we’re out riding bikes, what is it she really wants? To see animals.

As someone who once worked in the field of anti-bias education, I’ve long been a proponent of culturally responsive teaching. What culturally responsive teaching means to me is that educators ensure curricula and instruction match up with the prior knowledge and life experience of the children in their care. We’ve consistently looked for it in the public schools we’ve chosen for our daughter and in the specific classrooms she’s joined as a learner.

I expect my daughter’s teachers to hold true to the fundamentals of culturally responsive teaching. I also expect that they will notice her specific passion and incorporate related themes as they can in her individualized work. Her prior knowledge in the “animal area” is unparalleled, even among most adults. (Do you know why the platypus, a mammal, lays eggs? She does – and did at 5 years old.) At the same time, I’m pragmatic about the reality that my child’s teachers have tens of other children in their care; she’s not their “only” – even if she’s my only.

At the same time, my daughter’s passion for animals has tested my ideals about teaching and learning at a very micro-, one-family, one-child level.

Seeing everything through one lens – animals

What I’ve done as a parent of a child with a singular passion is supplement school units with related material about … you guessed it: animals. If she’s studying the nervous system, we’ll do something at home about a rat’s sense of touch (dominated by whiskers) or a horse’s sense of vision (binocular, like humans, but also monocular, like most prey). She and I have even created a blog of her own that’s dedicated to… animals. It’s an outlet for her passion and a place for her to practice her writing skills in a way that’s interesting to her.

It’s my hope that these steps bridge her passion and her coursework, help her excel academically, spark her interest in learning more broadly and foster a true sense that she holds meaningful knowledge. These hopes reflect the fundamentals of culturally responsive teaching.

At the same time, I worry that I’m boxing my child in. A former colleague of mine once cautioned against “teaching [that is] adapted to students’ ‘learning styles’ in ways that limit cognitive development and tend to stereotype.” His warning wasn’t an isolated one. My issue isn’t that my daughter is an “auditory learner” or a “kinesthetic learner” (although she might be), but rather that she currently presents as an “animal” learner. In meeting her where she is, am I actually narrowing her possibilities, rather than broadening them?

This quandary makes me think of career-coach guru Marcus Buckingham who once talked about how American parents tend to focus on what their kids are “not good at,” rather than what they do well. If a child struggles in math, but excels in reading, for example, American parents and schools will expend enormous energy on the deficit area – with tutoring, intervention blocks or what have you – and often will overlook purposeful development of the skill or passion that drives a child’s innate love of learning.

I, for one, am choosing to focus on one of my child’s gifts.

The worst that could happen is that she’ll one day be a happy, passionate African-American woman who knows more about animals than almost any one else – and who, even 15 years from now, is likely to be one of few STEM professionals who are female and of color. That wouldn’t be a bad day’s work. It’d be a great one, especially for my kid.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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