I Think They Can; I Think I Can

Like many childhood classics, the story The Little Engine That Could shares a great lesson for growing children. Certainly the lesson in being determined to meet a challenge applies to our students. Maybe it applies to us teachers, too.  

A few years ago, one of my son’s favorite books was The Little Engine That Could. He loved the story of the little blue engine who bravely volunteered to take the trainload food and toys over the mountain to the village in the next valley. The messages of trying difficult things, believing in oneself, and doing for others are powerful and appealing. It was fun to see him get excited about the story.

This story has come back to mind in the past few weeks as teachers have shared their thoughts about the Common Core State Standards. It seems that middle school and high school teachers tend to have a more favorable view of the standards. I don’t usually hear comments about the standards being developmentally inappropriate for their students. However, elementary teachers tend to explain that the work required by the standards isn’t appropriate. Usually it’s framed in something like, “I like these parts of the standards, but these parts in ELA and math are too hard for children.” I hear it most from the primary-level teachers. It’s been a part of the debate over the standards; the National Association for the Education of Young Children shares their thoughts here.

I can see this whole issue from two different perspectives: my own as a classroom teacher (middle grades), and as a parent.

My perspective as a teacher is best illustrated through a story. A few years ago one of my language arts classes was focusing on the 1940s. Through this study, written by the Center for Gifted Education at the College of William and Mary, my students were involved in high-level reading, writing, thinking and speaking, examining stories and articles. The major writing task of the unit required students to take one aspect of the 1940s and trace that aspect forward to the present day, seeing how what happened in the 1940s has made an impact on our society. Many students wrote about how the roles of women in families and society have changed, starting with women entering the workforce to support the war effort in the 1940s. Others wrote about the impact of the 1940s on the arts. One student crafted a paper that traced the impact of U.S. involvement in the post-war economies of countries from the 1940s through the present day. He focused on Germany, Japan, South Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq. I was confident in most of their topics, but I thought the economics paper was going to be more than the student could handle.

I was wrong.

It was a long paper, given the scope of the topic. But this seventh grader wrote an impressive analysis. When I gave a brief synopsis of his work to my teaching-team colleagues, my principal said, “Wow. That sounds like a master’s level thesis.” I agreed. My student was certainly “the little engine that could.”

While I was excited for him, I was embarrassed for myself. My kids could research, analyze, synthesize, and write like this? Why hadn’t I been challenging my students with these kinds of assignments in the past? My only conclusion was this: my own biases about what students are capable of doing had kept me from taking the risk and challenging them in this way. I needed to reconsider the kinds of tasks I was putting in front of students; I needed to give them those opportunities to fly.

As a parent of a third grader, I’ve also seen some “little engine that could” moments when it comes to the standards. Sometimes I’ve heard that it’s not reasonable to expect primary-level students to develop a conceptual understanding in math. Yet my son is doing just that. He was three days into learning multiplication when his homework included a division problem. I mentally cringed when he got to that problem, but he dove right in, saying, “Division is easy. It’s just the opposite of multiplication.” That relationship was something I didn’t understand until much later in school. In the last few weeks he built a diorama for a scene from Harry Potter and Sorcerer’s Stone, and I listened to him work through Harry’s hair color, first considering the movie, then looking at the book cover, and finally deciding to look in the book itself, since covers and movies aren’t always true to a story. He went for textual evidence. He might not view it this way, but he’s really “a little engine that could.”

What limitations are we putting on our students and ourselves? How often do we say, “They can’t do that,” rather than saying, “Let’s find out what they can do?” It’s a delicate balance to walk; we don’t want to frustrate and discourage, but we also shouldn’t hold back because that can be just as frustrating and discouraging. Are we underestimating ourselves, thinking we can’t possibly lead that professional development session, mentor a new teacher, or go for that advanced degree or National Board certification? Justin Tarte wrote about this recently in his blog. Are we bowing to the “conventions” of thinking, saying, “I can’t,” when really, we might be those little blue engines that could?


The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper, originally published by Platt & Monk, 1930.

Photo by Cliff is licensed CC by 2.0

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