The Calvin to My Susie

“I have an amazing life.” These are some of the last words my brother shared before he passed away this fall. Since his passing, I’ve sifted through hundreds of photos that celebrate the small moments that made up his life. The day he was born as he was held in my parents’ arms. Blowing out birthday candles. The skeleton costume. The sports events. School pictures. The mustaches. Top hats and sunglasses at New Year’s–our family tradition. Hugs from his nephews and niece. In this moment of loss, I’m reminded even more powerfully that we are only here for a short time. That our lives are full of stories. And we are all worthy of love and belonging. 

For many years now, Jimmy has been my greatest teacher showing me how to live a more loving and joyful life. In my work with teachers and children in classrooms, I am guided by Jimmy’s legacy. I remind myself that all learning is about becoming a better human. It’s about showing up in life for those you love and what you believe. It’s about recognizing the gift of our existence. 

I’m also guided by the reality that there were years in school when Jimmy was simply not seen, heard, or loved for who he was by his teachers. He thought his life was amazing. School was not. His busy body and boisterous energy wasn’t always understood. He was a Calvin. And I was a Susie. 

If you’re familiar with Bill Watterson’s comic strip, you know that Calvin’s brilliance and energy is consistently and predictably overlooked in school. His imagination drives his learning, not some external standards. Dinosaurs and aliens–yes. Multiplication and memorizing dates–no.  Paying attention and sitting still are not his strengths. So, what he’s seen and heard for is not paying attention, not knowing the answer, not showing up in acceptable ways. 

Susie’s brilliance and energy matches school expectations. She is driven by recognition and is eager to please. She knows the answers. She sits still. She raises her hand. Gold stars fill her college-ruled notebooks. 

Calvin and Susie have become so iconic, because in many ways they’re true. The thing is we’re all a little bit Calvin (if we’re lucky) and a little bit Susie. But the ratio of how much Calvin-to-Susie one has can have an impact on how children are recognized in school and for what. 

What we assume about children based on how they show up in our classrooms challenges us to ask ourselves what we can learn from our students, rather than just what we can learn about them. As a teacher, I’m drawn to the Calvins because I see my brother, Jimmy, in each of them. I know they are probably the students in the room with the biggest hearts, the widest imaginations, and the most to teach us. 

In honor of my brother, Jimmy, I invite you to consider the Calvins in your classroom and to see, hear, and love them a little bit more. Here are some ways to start:

  1. Get curious: Notice and name the kinds of behaviors you see in students and get curious about them as sources of strength. For example, a student dominating discussion could be reframed as someone with a strong voice and sense of self. A student who is distracted could be reframed as a daydreamer imagining new stories in their head. A student who likes to make others laugh can be reframed from class clown to wordsmith. 
  2. Use intentional language: Rather than constantly redirecting or calling attention to Calvinish behaviors use affirmational and presuppositional language: “I knew you were the kind of person who…” and “Remember what you can do…” and “You can decide what to try next…I trust you…”
  3. Offer scaffolded choice: Use the 5W1H rule to consider the kinds of choices students can make to have agency in their learning. For example: Who are students reading with? What are they reading? When are they reading? Where are they reading? Why are they reading? How are they reading? If students don’t have agency about any of those things, chances are some students will find the stories in their heads more interesting than the ones on the page. 
  4. Incorporate more play: Invite students to play with materials, play with language, and laugh out loud together. Incorporate daily jokes, riddles, or puns. Now’s the time for humorous read-alouds like Snappsy, the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book) and the shape trilogy, Triangle, Circle, and Square by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen. Let students know your classroom is a safe space to be light-hearted and to take ourselves less seriously. 
  5. Invite movement: We have a human need to move. Incorporate gestures and small movements as a part of learning. Not only will it give students a chance to reconnect with their bodies, but their learning will be strengthened. Inviting movement doesn’t have to require a lot of planning but regular bursts of integrated movement can boost comprehension and joy. Incorporate movement as a natural part of read-alouds and small group instruction. 
  6. Keep track: Lastly, keep track of the children you are giving positive recognition to. Take a class list and put a checkmark next to a child’s name each time you say something meaningful and affirmational. Our voices have the power to become their inner voice. Are their voices saying I am worthy to be loved?