Believe in…

This year, the Dallas, Texas school district hosted the usual meeting for teachers to kick off the school year. The unconventional choice for convocation speaker was Dalton Sherman, a 5th grade student in the district. His speech, I Believe in Me, Do You? was given to the 17,500 teachers in attendance. It was a huge hit, won him a standing ovation and national acclaim. This video is making the rounds of education blogs (some a little over the top breathless) and being played in lots of opening day staff meetings. The YouTube version has had over 34,000 views so far. I have no doubt we’ll be seeing this in numerous keynotes this year.

In the speech, Dalton asks Dallas teachers to believe in him and all students, “…what we need from you is to believe that we can reach our highest potential.” He asks that the teachers believe in their colleagues too, “…trust them and lean on them when times get tough – and we all know, we kids can sometimes make it tough.” (Full text of the speech.)

It’s a good speech, but it’s the performance that takes it to the next level.

Dalton won his first oratory contest in the first grade, and his rightly proud parents say his talents are “a gift.” But Dalton works hard at his craft and has earned his acclaim. He’s given speeches at churches and events all over Dallas. He enters (and wins) contests. He practices. For this speech, Dallas ISD contacted his family in June with the invitation. They wrote the speech for him, and he practiced three times a week all summer long, working on his timing and performance to turn the words into a powerful, inspirational message.

He’s great, isn’t he? But wait…. there’s more to think about here.

Like… Is it cynical to put words like “believe in me” in this child’s mouth, no matter how admirable the performance? This is what some anonymous adult in charge wanted other adult underlings to hear, and they used the passionate talent of a youth to deliver the message. They knew that the message would better reach its target that way. Does it matter that it’s a “good” message? Is it manipulation or simply smart marketing?

We talk about “student voice” all the time, and this obviously is NOT an example of student voice. There is not even the pretense here that the message came from a student, although the performer was young and talented. That’s a tough distinction to puzzle out, because praise flows easily to students who deliver adult messages and play by adult rules. It’s easy to believe in them, because they validate what we believe about ourselves.

But what about the “other ones”. You know the ones, the students who don’t toe the line, the ones who have checked out. The ones who deliver uncomfortable messages in voices at times eloquent and at times spectacularly clumsy or even crude. The ones who challenge the world and the ones who seem not to believe in themselves. Do we listen when the message isn’t so pleasantly packaged, isn’t so clear, isn’t so crafted? Do we believe in them too?

Sylvia

10 Replies to “Believe in…”

  1. You are asking one of many important questions.

    It is fine to believe anything one wants but that doesn’t bend reality. We all know too many children who are so self-confident because they have one thing going for them that when they stumble, they can’t get up.

    The boy is a fine speaker but the kick he gets from public speaking may be a drug that is insufficient in life. The message he delivers is filled with warm platitudes and makes people feel good.

    However, as you point out there are lots of other kids who are different whose message might be, “Why can’t you believe n me, why aren’t I good enough as I am, and why must you try to make me someone you want me to be?” Well, the Departments of Education has no use for such ideas and will steamroll anything like this into an Orwellian exercise in forcing the kids into conforming absolutely to the government formula.

    Another form of this message are the children who can’t speak for themselves and who might be saying, “I believe in myself as someone you aren’t relating to or as someone you would be horrified that I am.” And of course dealling with that is a whole ‘nother discussion.

    But there is something deeply disingenuous about this stuff aside from the blatant ghost-writing. And that is that kids’ brains are not fully developed and their experiences are thin as Governors of Alaska. Even if this kid says stuff that is authentic, it is still just a kid talking.

    The example that always strikes me are the child and teen evangelist preachers or witnesses to faith. Now, as a person who reads voraciously and takes all this stuff into consideration I always have a hard time claiming expertise and people I respect have similar stands.

    The more you know, the less you’re sure. But every day there is some huckster claiming to *absolutely* know what Jesus, God, the Holy Books, the mystics, the prophets, and so on really mean or what *your* personal values should be. To me, this is fraud because it is not even qualified as speculative or a thought experiment by the speaker.

    So when children lecture teachers or administrators on education, some of it is spot on co-incidentally and some of it isn’t but the kid is the last to know which is which. Listener beware.

    – krasicki

  2. Thank You! As an educator and a parent of a student who shuns mainstream due to the hypocrisy of it all, I can tell you she has checked out because no one listens. I have read many blogs about this speaker, but your questions are what we should be asking.

  3. Wow! It is awful early in the year to be as depressed as the first two commenters. I agree to a point. I think there are overlooked, underappreciated, or just plain irritating students in our classroom that don’t get the extra attention they require. I also know that my first responsibility is to educate the students to the best of my ability, which may not include all the extras these students need. My belief is that you can’t change every student, but you may be able to change one. Which one will you try to change?

  4. Sylvia great questions … thank you for raising them … our affection for “student voice” is not without complication … it needs a deeper critique and this post is a great start to the thinking we ought to be doing in school …

    I have been exploring a different angle on “student voice” at Artichoke …. on being the “safe one” invited to represent “student opinion” by those with institutional authority …. I’m going to add a link to this post in the comments … it complements the ideas I want to explore well

  5. I like you’re questions. They’re important and need to be asked. It seems like the message is often, “Believe in those that believe in the system.” What if a student isn’t buying it? What if he/she is actually a critical thinker and despite going to school, wants to become educated? These thinkers clog the pipes leading to the extruders, don’t they?
    It reminds me of politicians reading speeches written for them by speech writers. One, Sarah Palin, particularly comes to mind recently.

  6. Sylvia,

    So this is a post that has stuck with me for several days now. I think the questions you pose are very important, but an ever-increasingly difficult pill to swallow. Related to this topic, I recently heard a story that very much fits in line with what you are questioning:

    How think ye? If a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?

    And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.

    We frequently have students that simply don’t fit our mold. They rebel, they whine, and quite often they dominate our time. Nevertheless, if our motives are pure, we would be the teachers to help them find their way – just as we would help those with whom we “jive”.

    After all, are we not also recurrently in that precarious position of being the one that has gone astray?

    I know I am – more often than I like to confess.

  7. I am in agreement, Daltons speech was a rehearsed performance. However, he needed to be rehearsed to reach his critical audience. Please watch the clip again, and don’t pay attention to Dalton, do as I did, survey the crowd and see the tears in men and womens eyes. He touched them in a special place. the research shows one of the biggest problems of educators of all stripes, is they don’t have high enough expectations of students of color. (See Jonathan Kozol) Daltons presentation, “do you believe in me” challenges the very being of everyone in the room. In addition, the adulation and prasie from the audience is good for him too. I am sure, he can touch his peers in ways adults can’t, which also makes his gifts, give even more. If Daltons presentation makes one educator raise their expectations for their students, I say, Dalton keep on performing………Bravo Bravo!!!!

  8. It is a travesty, it is crass, it is callow. Those school district administrators need to be called to account in a very public way. IMHO, teachers all over the USA should be flooding the offices of the Dallas Independent School District and the Texas State Board of Education with messages questioning the ethics of this blatent piece of marketing!

  9. Thanks everyone for all the interesting comments. I’m not sure I’d go as far as calling this a travesty, but I do hope people see it for what it is (marketing) and what it is not (student voice).

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