This piece was originally published on April 21, 2011.
One of my favorite parts of the Passover seder has always been the discussion of the Four Children. The traditional seder discusses four children — The Wise Son, The Wicked Son, The Simple One, and The One Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask. Each of these sons has his own question, and the haggadah explains the appropriate response for each one. Since entering the classroom, I’ve had my own thoughts about each of these children, and their manifestations in my own classroom.
The Wise Son asks, “What are the laws and statutes by which to fulfill the commandments of Passover?” This son is exalted, because he seeks to learn more about the rituals of Passover. Furthermore, this question is considered wise, because it shows understanding of the story of Passover and seeks deeper meaning from the seder.
A wise child in the classroom hopefully offers the same sort of questioning for the teacher. A wise child is not content with the cursory understanding of a topic or a strategy, but asks for more information. While too many children are willing to absorb knowledge passively without further elucidation, a wise child asks for more.
More often in my classroom, however, it has been the “wicked” child who challenges me as a teacher. The response to The Wicked Son’s question, “What does this ritual mean to you?” has always bothered me. The haggadah instructs us to “set his teeth on edge.” Had this child been alive during the time of the exodus, the haggadah explains, he would not have been redeemed. Harsh.
The haggadah’s interpretation that this child has excluded himself from the community and rejects the tradition of Passover only partially explains the reaction to The Wicked Son’s question. I know the frustration and anger all too well of a child who scoffs at the rules and routines of the classroom community I’ve created. However, a child who refuses to include himself or herself in a classroom community is also one of the sadder experiences I’ve felt. Is a violent rebuke really the best response?
I’ve also felt that this child’s questioning is also equally valuable as the wise child’s. What does this mean to you? Whether it’s the story of the exodus, or reading, writing and math strategies in a classroom, we all should feel obligated to understand and explain our own connection to a community. This isn’t to absolve the Wicked Son of his disrespect, but all rituals, whether religious or pedagogical, are ultimately strengthened when they are challenged and questioned.
The third child, the Simple Son, is perhaps the most prevalent in the high-needs classroom. But while the Simple Son of the haggadah is implied to be too young for rebellion or wisdom, the “simple” children of our classrooms are not the youngest. Rather, these students populate our classrooms because of a number of factors that yield huge gaps in reading, writing and mathematical skills.
When presented with tasks that require higher-order thinking, their response echoes that of the simple child, “What is the meaning of all this?” These children require more than the equivalent of the haggadah’s instruction to explain the core meaning of Passover. We as teachers are challenged to create scaffolds and tiered lessons that allow these children to engage in critical thinking consistently until they too are challenging us in the same ways as the wicked and wise children.
Finally, we have the children who do not know how to ask. These are the children in our classrooms who suffer most needlessly. Without the means to attract attention via rebellion like the wicked child, or loquaciousness like the wise child, these children fall through the cracks. Too often, the quietness of these children is lauded as good behavior. They may be partly or completely lost, but they’re scared or unable to verbalize this confusion. As a result they become practically invisible.
The essential challenge of a teacher is to recognize and help all of these children learn in the classroom. The haggadah offers some ideas for how each child demands a different response, but the reality of our classrooms is very different than that of a Passover seder. There are no one-sentence answers for these children. Rather, our classrooms require a sophisticated, diligent approach that makes all children feel welcome and able to learn. I’m not sure it’s possible to create a classroom that erases these sorts of differences in one year, but I’m reminded of the words of another figure from the seder, Rabbi Hillel, who said, “You are not obligated to complete the task, but nor are you free to desist from it.”