Monday, September 1, 2008

Back to School...

Hi, friends. Following is an early version of the post that'll go up first on my new learning support site in a couple of weeks. I've been dreading figuring out what to say first, but I realized this morning that this is it. I'll obviously leave out most of the first paragraph. I'd appreciate any feedback you have about parts that are difficult to follow, etc.

The sunlight is doing its splashy thing on my desk, the one where it bobbles around on the surfaces once it's found its way through the leaves and window glass and early autumn air. I'm oddly aware of how much effort it took for me to make sure I had the right its/it'ses in that last sentence, much the way I noticed, playing high-speed card games this summer, that my noggin doesn't process as quickly as it once did. Perhaps that's why things that used to feel like everyday tasks sometimes now seem to take monumental effort. I hope it's that, and not that it's time for menopause already.

But back to this morning's solar behavior. I still forget at this time of year that I don't have to go back to school, so deeply set is the habit of dread. As the emails begin to appear signaling that parents' thoughts have shifted to school, tutoring, etc., I imagine their various children in this first week of September. A few will be relieved to have the days once again filled with reliable schedule, other kids, and new assignments, but will also grow frustrated that they can't go faster, learn more, stop reviewing. Others still give themselves to the trick of excitement in new clothes, notebooks, backpacks, only to realize after a few weeks, days, or even hours, that it wasn't worth it. They remember how poorly the hours in chairs suit them and begin, that early, to look forward to June.

Most would rather be somewhere else, I've found, and as a society we're so flummoxed by how to make it otherwise for them while still making sure they're ready and safe and growing and learning that we find it difficult to acknowledge it as so. They know it, too, that we don't know how to hear what they're saying, so many of them pretend it's OK. They make every effort to contort themselves such that they fit, survive, look happy.

It is no secret that I am in many cases an advocate of taking kids out of school when such an alternative would suit them and family/community circumstances allow it, but this is not actually about that. Where I want to start this year, throughout my work - here on this new site, sitting across from parents whose children are struggling, sitting also with the children themselves, and even in the rest of my days, where I'm not a professional helper but just a part of the human workings, is with the simple act of acknowledging how things are for people, creating an atmosphere in which the truth as it exists from any perspective (particularly that of a child or teen) can be told and heard in such a way that it is recognized as worth telling.

I asked Eric how things were going in class. "Fine," he said. There was enough reluctance in his tone that I waited, suspecting there was more, and he continued. "I mean, I think the teacher doesn't like me, because I raise my hand and she looks right at me and doesn't call on me." I waited again, and he looked over at me, waiting for me to respond.

"Sounds frustrating," I said. He nodded, taking a breath and looking down at the table. "I have a couple of ideas that might help," I continued. "Do you want to hear them?"

"Yup." He answered so quickly I suspected he hadn't actually considered whether or not he wanted to hear them. I thought I better check.

"Really?" His eyes snapped up at this question. I continued: "Because I don't really want to tell you my ideas unless you're interested in hearing them." He looked at me for another moment.

"No, I actually do," he said, as though a little surprised to find this out. I said first that he may indeed be right, that his teacher didn't like him, but that it was equally possible that it was something else entirely. We talked for a while about a few different possible explanations for what seemed to be happening, came up with a couple of ideas about how he might handle it, and then got going on the math he was actually there to work on.

This is the kind of conversation that's missing from the school and learning experience of many young people. The simple act of acknowledgment - whether of frustration, perceived injustice or exclusion, boredom, confusion - allows a young person to begin the process of managing a situation and working through it. When the experience doesn't get acknowledged, that process never gets off the ground. Eric's "Fine" was the way he, without knowing it, checked with adults to find out whether or not they really wanted to know the answer to their question. We roll past "Fine" more times than we realize, and never get to "I think my teacher doesn't like me," never mind all the way to what to do about it. And spending a year in the world of "my teacher doesn't like me" with no way to manage it can have an enormous impact on what gets learned that year.

So that's where I'm starting from. I'll help kids with math and spelling and reading, I'll read and recommend books and materials that make a difference, I'll work with parents to get things back on track with kids who are struggling, but first I'll remind myself to make room for the truth, to be ready for questions I can't answer for them, problems I may not be able to solve, insights that change my mind about things. And we'll take it from there.


Lynn said...

I love this, Mer-Mer. I wish someone had taken that sort of time to ask me about the truth when I was a tot.

SidMor said...

When does that opportunity to have one's truth acknowledged even present itself in school when it's the course content that seems to take priority over the learner's "zone of proximal development"? You are right on the pulse, as always.

Jonathan B. said...

I like it, Mer. If I had kids, they'd be customers. In fact, you should probably just start a school. Your services are too valuable to be used one child per hour.