When voting isn’t enough

On a teacher’s group, a question recently came up (again) about listening rubrics. After one or two comments, this was the reply as to why it should be okay to use one that includes eye contact as a requirement to “meet standard” as listening in class:

As a class, students help to make and decide many things we do in class, including what they can do to show that they are listening actively, hence the rubric.

On the surface, this seems like a pretty solid argument, right? If the students themselves approved the rules, then we can assume that all the students are okay with them.

You would think.

But doing this with regard to an issue that has to do with groups of students (both identified and not) who communicate in a significantly different way then other people — that’s where the problems start.

I really hate to use the word “privilege”, as it is so overused these days, but I can’t think of another one that describes the problem underlying this decision. It’s privilege to assume that everyone shares your concept of how the world works, at least if you happen to be able to get away with it — which you can if you are in the majority or in a position of power. And both of those apply if you are a teacher in front of a classroom of students.

How was this decision to include eye contact made? Well, of course, by letting all the students in the class have their say. Do you think a student who doesn’t feel comfortable making eye contact while listening to others talking in class is likely to speak up and say so?

Think about what sorts of cultures do not value this. They are mostly cultures that also value conformity, that value not sticking out or perhaps not making others feel uncomfortable. And the other, very large and very under-recognized group that is very unlikely to speak up is the neurodivergent. There are far more people with autism and other neurological differences than are ever identified. These kids are having enough problem trying to navigate the teen years being different from their peers without doing anything that would make those peers focus on the differences. You can’t become an activist until you’re comfortable being identified as  member of the group you’re trying to help, or else able to show you’re not in the group, just being nice. Kids who are gay but haven’t come out yet don’t go to GSA meetings. And we have to add to this the fact that quite a few autistic teens have no idea that’s the root of their difference. They just assume they don’t fit  in. It’s not always  visible, because they learn to “pass” in many cases. This can be your valedictorian. It’s not just the kids in the special education program, not by a long shot.

Is that what we want, in a TPRS classroom? Do we want kids who have to “pass” for mainstream in order to “meet the standard”?

Go back to the 1950s for a moment. Those gay kids in class didn’t say they were. If there had been any kind of vote about, say, what kind of characters to include in a story, the gay perspective would have been totally ignored, because even though “everyone had input”, actually not everyone did. Some of the students had much less of a voice, but no one really cared at that time, because “that’s how it was”. It was normal. It was still okay to disregard those voices.

Multiculturalism is a great thing. It’s on the rise. But it’s important to realize that it’s not okay to stop thinking about those who are different just because the group you personally identify with or have a connection to is now being accommodated.

Neurodiversity makes people uncomfortable. Neurodiverse people talk, think, and react differently. They are the “not quite” who are excluded from the group because they don’t quite fit in.

It used to be “okay” to do that to other groups, too. The difference is that today you can most likely go talk to your black or gay or foreign teacher colleague, because there are likely black or gay and foreign teachers in your school. Now go talk to your autistic teacher colleague and get his perspective on what it was like to have to “pass” — and what it is still like.

Oh, right. There isn’t anyone to ask.

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