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What Does it Mean to be Smart?

What Does it Mean to be Smart?
Michele LeBlanc

As an adult, when you see this question what goes through your mind? What is your own definition of smart? How do you think a person becomes smart? And are there different types of smart? These are some of the questions your children are thinking about as we read and react to the book Save Me a Seat.

We are about a third of the way through the book and have been having excellent, in-depth conversations about the characters. Feel free to talk to your child about the book and what they think about the characters. To give you just a little background information, the story takes place in a fifth grade classroom in New Jersey. It’s the first week of school, and the teacher is Mrs. Beam who isn’t sensitive to other people╩╗s cultures or learning styles. There are three main characters in the book. Joe is a returning student who has a processing disorder and has to go with a learning specialist on a daily basis in order to do his class work. Dillom is a student who is somewhat of a stereotypical bully. He makes fun of Joe quite often, calls him names, and implies that he is dumb to his friends. Joe has learned to block out Dillon’s comments and ignores him. Ravi is the new student from India. In his home country, his parents had achieved a high economic status. They lived in a big home, had a personal chef, and a personal chauffeur. But when the dad‘s company transfers him to New Jersey for the same salary, their lifestyle changes significantly. They are living in a much smaller house, and the mom has to begin cooking for the family and her mother-in-law is often critical of her meals. The grandma will make Ravi his lunch because she doesn’t trust the mother to make the food good enough for him. Just imagine adults discussing that at a book talk!

In India, Ravi was the top student at his school and one of the top cricket players. He is eager to make an impression on his classmates, and teacher because he wants to have the same status at school. Dillon is an American-born Indian, so Ravi wants to become friends with him. But Dillon has never lived in India, so he doesn’t understand the references that Ravi makes, and in return, is dismissive of him or makes fun of him.

This past week we completed a chapter where Ravi felt defeated at proving his intelligence by trying to do a complicated math problem on the board. I asked our class to describe him, some of the comments included.:

  • He seems like a nice kid.
  • Ravi wants to make friends with the class.
  • It must be hard for him to leave a country and come to America, which is so different
  • No offense, he seems like a nerd.

First we had to discuss when you begin a sentence with the words, “no offense” it actually is offensive. But then I wanted to know what our fifth graders definition of a nerd could be so I started to ask them, and here were some of their comments:

  • A nerd is the kid who wears his shirt crispy, ironed, buttoned up to the top like Ravi.
  • It’s a kid who is very smart and only cares about school
  • It is a kid who doesn’t do sports, go to birthday parties, or have any fun.
  • I think a nerd is a kid who is extremely intelligent, and his parents see that so they want the child to continue to be super smart.
  • A nerd doesn’t care about the things that other kids care about.

I then asked the class if we have any nerds in fifth grade, to which they replied no and I asked if we have any nerds at the elementary school to which they replied, no. So I asked them if Elon Musk was a nerd as well as Steve Jobs, Steph Curry, Jeff Bezos? At first, the entire class said no, those aren’t nerds, and when I asked why, one student replied, “well, they are very intelligent, and good at what they do so they may be nerds, but they are COOLnerds. “ Interesting take, don’t you think?

When I asked him what context do they ever hear or see nerds, and they all replied, it’s always in books and movies, not in person. So I had to explain that books and movies use stereotypes to make characters likable or unlikable, and I don’t think the term nerd is a very accurate term to describe somebody’s learning style. So then I posed the question “what does it mean to be smart?”

  • A smart person is someone who has a lot of knowledge.
  • An intelligent person is someone who has a lot of knowledge and one subject, and they are an expert in it like a scientist.
  • A smart person knows a lot and understands a lot about everything and can explain it
  • In school, a smart kid is a kid with straight A’s
  • In school, a smart kid is a kid on the honor roll.
  • The smartest kids get to go to Harvard or USC.
  • There’s actually another kind of smart called street smarts. When I asked what this meant, the student said “well, if I’m walking in Chinatown and I see a homeless person that appears scary, I will walk to the other side of the street to avoid that person”
  • Actually, I heard of another type of smarts called money smart, that means you’re good with money. You use money to make money and you invest in the stock market.
  • I have heard these quotes, “work smarter, not harder “ and “think smarter not harder,” but I’m not sure what they mean.

This was just our first foray into the discussion of what it means to be smart. We will be talking about this all semester, and we will be doing a deep dive into ourselves into how we learn how we operate and how we operate differently in different realms. Or for example, does a fifth grader bring a different set of skills to school than they do to the soccer field? Do they think differently and pay attention differently? Do they master skills differently in different realms?

I don’t know about you, but I’m very excited to see where all these questions take us!

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