Monday, July 14, 2008

IRD Term II Week I: Mid-School Loss of Confidence and Curiousity

Yesterday I segued in less than 12 hours from my second term, week one classes to substituting for another teacher for week two. (I finished up my week one by arriving home at 8 PM last night, and was out of the house by 7:15 this morning to drop Bruce off at work before continuing to UNM for subbing). I am sure glad that this is a one-time deal. The extra money will be nice, but boy, am I tired! And I actually start my own week two classes with a full day tomorrow and a drive to Santa Fe on Wednesday, before I have a break.

Before you tell me I'm crazy, let me assure you that I know it. Most of the people teaching for IRD are young whippers, just out of college. Ah, to have their energy! I remember working two shifts at my summer job (16 hours), sleeping and reporting the next day to the third shift and then partying that night. That was when I was a young whipper. Now I am the old lady of the bunch.

The first week of my classes has been pretty good, though. Now that I have the curriculum in my gut, time has shown various Einstein effects in that I do everything I am supposed to get done in 10 minutes, but I feel like I have had twice that time to work with. I think I will truly enjoy the next few weeks.

As I started this last week, I vowed to pay close attention to the Level 5 - mid-school classes that I have. So far, in every class, I have had several boys who appear to have lost both their confidence and curiousity about learning. In one of my classes this week, I met a young man who was so lacking confidence that he refused to do a timing for reading and told me to "just put in a zero." He sat with his head down during our discussions of Banner in the Sky. I spent more than a few brain cells trying to figure out how to include him so that he would begin to respond.

I got exactly nowhere.

In order to get some interaction with him, I admit to the subterfuge of assigning myself as his partner for partner discussions (there was an odd number of kids in the class) so that I could talk to him about what I like to do and find out what he likes to do. I did get a few short but informative answers, whispered into the table top, while I leaned over a bent head, struggling to hear.

I came home feeling profoundly sad about the encounter. Here is a young man who clearly has some passions and interests but he does not have the confidence to tell a teacher about them.

Here is a young man, who having been on the planet for twelve or thirteen years, has already decided that he is a failure. His mom later confirmed for me what I already suspected, that he is failing in school and has been since the beginning of his school experience. (I wonder: How can you fail Kindergarten, for heaven's sake!). She is tearing her hair out trying to figure out what to do to help him. She admitted to extreme anger at the schools, the teachers; all of those who have written off her precious boy.

Since I taught that Level 5 class immediately after teaching a Level R (ages 4-5) class, I could not help but notice a difference between the kids. Some of the little ones are shy, some are bold, some are quiet and some are active, but all of them are eager to learn. They have great curiousity about, well, just about everything, and they also display confidence that they can learn just about anything. I think their great curiosity comes from their sense of confidence that they can learn. And that confidence sustains them through the many trials necessary to become effective doers of what they have learned.

In thinking about the difference in demeanor between those little fours and fives and these middle school boys, some of whom have just about given up on life, and others of whom are heavily investing in pretending that nothing really matters, I cannot help but asking myself what has happened in the five or six years in between? These boys were once those cute little bundles of energy, with that glint of curiosity in their eyes, bolding going out into the big, big world with their big, big selves.

I think that sometimes we comfort ourselves by saying that these kids are just going through a stage; that the loss of curiosity and confidence is normal. That kids this age tend to see learning as either impossible or as some kind of terminal dullness to be survived until they can escape school. But I don't think any of this is true.

My first piece of evidence is the occaisonal middle-school kid who, while desperately trying to maintain coolness, will burst out with little bits of irrepressible enthusiasm for something. You see it sometimes from the front of the classroom, when you mention something that sparks someone's interest. I see it as a teacher's reward for managing to let the student know that you think he's good and funny and has something to say.

My second piece of evidence is the many mid-shool age homeschoolers I see around our mountain community. The ones at the library who walk out with piles of books, talking a mile-a-minute about the latest project. The ones at the "Merc," who will discuss their latest 4-H project in stunning and passionate detail with a total stranger (me) who asks an innocent question. The homeschoolers at Boy Scouts, at Home-school science classes, and even at the grocery store. Most of these kids seem to have never lost their curiousity and their confidence that it can lead them to good places. They know with every fiber of their being that they are capable, interesting and that adults are on their side, eager to help them accomplish their 'impossible' dreams.

You do see some kids who start middle-school just like that. But as school wears on, most of them become heavily defended, with terminal coolness masking their loss of confidence in their ability to accomplish, to do, to learn. Someone has taught them that they are not capable and cannot be effective.

And I am afraid that it is indeed, as John Taylor Gatto so eloquently puts it, 'the hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling' that is cunningly planned to dumb schoolchildren down. Gatto teaches that this hidden curriculum is designed to teach our children confusion, class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and the acceptance of constant surveillance (Dumbing Us Down, 2005). By middle-school, this hidden curriculum is well on the way to being internalized, and the kids understand that being "normal" is a narrow, gray area of not so quiet desperation.

When I think about this, I am so very thankful that I came to my senses when I saw my son being taught as a third grader (the year of the teacher from hell) that he was not capable, that he was not smart, and that his passionate special interests were part of his disabilty rather than part of his strength. I remember looking at him and wondering to myself, where did the little boy go? The one who used practically beam with pride at every new accomplishment. The one who would spend hours working and failing, picking himself up and trying again, in order to perfect a new learning or skill. And from somewhere I was given the grace of taking a different perspective that allowed me to frame the question as "what's wrong with his schooling?" rather than "what's wrong with him?" And once I framed the question that way, it was easy enough to see that the petty officialdom of school was quite capable of blaming the child, calling him names like lazy and stubborn because he had learned their hidden curriculum only too well. I am grateful that I took him out and that my son has never seen the inside of a middle-school as a student.

Because as I sat there, listening to a boy very like my son in age and size whispering to the table what he is passionate about, I realized that in another reality, one in which I had made another decision, that would likely be my boy.

And I know that no matter what choices N. may make about his education in the future, we have given him a great gift at very little cost. You see, my boy is fourteen and is still possessed by enthusiasm. He knows, somewhere deep down inside of himself that is capable of doing things in the world. He walks with the confidence of a tracker and the curiosity of a scientist.

And when I think about that, and then about some of these lost boys--the ones who have been told otherwise--I feel very sad, because I cannot imagine what magic I can pull out of my hat that will hold up through another 180 days of being judged wanting.

Wrong Question: What's wrong with him?

Right Question: What's wrong with schooling?


Anonymous said...

Excellent piece, Elisheva! Good wishes for the boy with his head down this summer. I'm sure his mom appreciates your interest so much.

JJ Ross said...

Hi, Dawn from Day by Day Discoveries sent me this way (on another topic, about brains being flooded with puberty hormones and losing their ability to learn complex things) but when I saw this, my always-unschooled daughter's essay about her schooled boyfriend came to mind. I thought you could incorporate into your thinking somehow:

"O Calvin My Calvin" -- she's an English geek, get the nod to Walt Whitman's O Captain my Captain?

You're welcome at Snook anytime. The thread Dawn wanted your thoughts on for whatever reason, is here.


Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

JJ-- I went to your daughter's post and was delighted. My own N. has such an obsession with Calvin and Hobbes that he signed his school papers "Calvin" all through the year of the teacher from hell and the year after that. During his first homeschooling year he switched to Spock, and actually got his religious school teacher to call him that for a little while.

JJ Ross said...

Daughter and her Calvin will get a kick out of that, thanks Elisheva!