My
eyes slowly scan the black, metal shelves. A shadow of uncertainty floats
through my mind. I am totally crazy,
I think, running my fingers along the spines of the books, boldly marked Level U. Suddenly, I see it. My hand
hesitates for a moment – but then, I grab the seven copies of The Tale of Desperaux, written by Kate
Dicamillo, tuck them firmly under my arm, and tiptoe out of the room.

No,
I haven’t just pulled off a major heist of children’s literature. But, I have
done something scandalous and radical. I’ve selected a guided reading book that
is about 8 levels higher than what my most struggling readers are “supposed” to
read. To be completely transparent, these scholars test at Level M, and Desperaux, with its irreverent use of courtly
French vocabulary, is squarely a U.

Why
have I defied the sacred instructional injunctions of Fountas and Pinnell?
Well, no offense ladies, but I really need to try something transformative. In
fact, my decision goes back to my years at Connecticut College, when I
absolutely devoured the writings of black, womanist scholar Audre Lorde.

“The
master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Lorde writes,
inspiring us to seek and create radical solutions to such entrenched frameworks
as racism or sexism – and, therefore, educational inequity. So, when we
envision a blueprint to accelerate the growth of scholars who have suffered
from the academic achievement gap, we must transgress against the ideologies
and systems that have intentionally held them back. To “dismantle” the “house”
of injustice in education, we must constantly problematize our instructional
practices in the classroom, pushing the level of authentic rigor.

Too
often, we shield our students. Bowing to a very real history of
inter-generational poverty and racial discrimination, we assume that when a
student comes to our school academically “behind” her classmates, she simply
cannot waste a moment in confusion or uncertainty. Defaulting to direct
instruction, we break essential knowledge and skills down into digestible
forms, relying on the premise that learning can only occur when the teacher
explicitly presents the term, the algorithm, the concept – and students
passively absorb and imitate. Instinctively jumping to correct every
misunderstanding, we dread the tentative, raised hand in class that says, “But,
I don’t understand…”

But
does the historian always have a text to consult? No, he is writing the
textbook.
Does
the scientist have a conclusion in his mind? No, he discovers it. Does a lawyer
know the outcome of the case? No, she must craft an argument to win. What do
all of these scholars and professionals deal with every day? They must
constantly grapple with uncertainty, the “answer” hanging just out of their reach.
Therefore, if we continue to shield our students from moments of ambiguity,
then we will fail to adequately prepare them to face the challenges of work and
life, which require the ability to “figure it out” for yourself.

That’s
why my students will read The Tale of
Desperaux over the course of two months,
three tricky chapters at a time. They’ll struggle to decode some words.
They’ll struggle to understand the complicated trajectory of the plot. Yes,
they will often feel uncertain. But, as they struggle, they will work through
the “stuff” of achievement – of dramatic, house-dismantling, authentic rigor.

About
two weeks into this project, my student’s insightful comments about Desperaux
surprisingly affirmed my decision:

“Desperaux broke the rule
of revealing yourself to humans never ever. Desperaux is going to be punished.
Desperaux’s dad is planning to get all of the mice in the council for a plan to
punish Desperaux for breaking that important rule.”

Like
Desperaux, we must bravely overcome our fear of failure or retribution, and break
all of “the rules” to dismantle the systems of oppression that attempt to limit
the inner potential of our students.

Ms. Nicole LaConte is a third grade teacher and Teach For America Corps Member at BVP Elementary School 1.