Archive | May, 2014

Helping Parents Help Kids Learn

27 May

How I wish I could  reach every child and teenager who fails a grade, or fails a state test, or fails anything he or she regards as important–not just reach them, but meet them, learn everything they want to tell me about themselves, be with them for a year, at least, preferably more than that–as many years as it takes to help that student build skills and confidence, find meaning in academic work, and enjoy learning.  And how I wish I could meet their parents–and help them, and encourage them.

I don’t know how to reach so far just yet, but I surely do love trying!  

When I first started my website, I corresponded with parents and kids in both the United States and Europe–people I had never heard of before, people who had never heard of me. It was wonderful–and it made a difference, not just in attitudes, but in learning, and in school grades–even though I never saw or spoke to them in person, even though I never set foot in their home or in their school, even though I never so much as glanced at their textbooks.

I put a message on Twitter today, asking parents of children and teenagers who failed the state NCLB (No Child Left Behind) tests to write to me. A little crazy, I know, but, so often,  parents feel so bad when their kids fail something they regard as important that they do the exact opposite of what would help: they feel bad in solitude and silence.  I would like to encourage those parents to speak! Speak to SOMEONE you might trust, someone who might care, someone who might know how to open up a sense of possibility for you, and for your child.  Take a step in the direction of hope,  a step beyond lamenting.

Sometimes I feel exasperated and cynical when I hear how schools and districts and state education departments respond to the news that their children are failing. I read an article recently in which one parent asked  if schools HAVE to do what the Federal Government says with regard to firing the principal and getting rid of half the faculty. “No,” came the answer, “but we get Federal dollars that way.”

How terrible.

I read another account about how teachers feel when they’re continually being asked to toss out their old program and try a new one–often even before they have become really comfortable with the old one.

I read another comment about how confusing it is for kids to have the approach to a school subject changed over and over. How are they supposed to master anything, when the texts and methods are forever changing?

Which brings me to my first concern: We need to be there for the KIDS’ sake. And these words need to MEAN something–to the kids, especially. In my experience, kids know who’s “there” for them, and who isn’t, so  I’d like to ask them: “What adult is there for you? And how can you tell?”   And then I’d like to listen, even write down their answers. And then I’d like to reflect for a while.

Do they say:  “My mom always listens when I talk”?  And “My dad puts his arm around my shoulder, and kind of rubs my shoulder, and then he says “I’m sorry, Son. I  know you did your best”?   Do they praise teachers?   Do they relate that their teacher says, “I know you feel bad about failing that test. Let’s see what we can do to get a better score next time–or understand that kind of problem next time”? Or does some other caring adult say:  “Boy! It’s so FRUSTRATING to fail that darn math test, especially after you worked so hard on math this year”?

Kids recognize kind tones of voice, kind gestures, empathy, understanding words.

Compare such tones, gestures, and words with these: “How many times have I told you that you have to buckle down and WORK? School isn’t play time, you know!  If you would just sit still and pay attention when I am talking, you would learn something! If you would just do your homework every night, you would be passing. All right, no intramural sports for YOU! No going  on the camping trip for  YOU!  No  computer games for YOU!  Or, “Why can’t you be like your brother–always doing well, and making us proud?”  Or, “Don’t come to me with your troubles. I work hard for a living. School is your business, not mine. Deal with it.” Or, just “Suck it up. Get over it. There are worse things in life.”    

Or with these: “I was never any good at math in school  either.” Or “It probably runs in the family. Your father  never did very well on tests.”  Or “We don’t know English well enough to help you.” Or “We weren’t taught math that way when we were your age.”  Or “I always hated English. Still do. Only read when I have to.”  

So–the first concern, for me, is that all the adults involved BE there for the kids in ways that the kids recognize and trust. If they cannot do that,  for whatever reason, I would like them to be honest about it, and just say that: “I would like to be there for you, son, but I don’t really know how. I never did well on tests either. But let’s sit down and talk about what might be helpful for you, and then let’s try to do that.”

The second thing: Understanding how a particular child feels about school–both the academic side and the social side–even about the physical place, about homework, about receiving help, about competing with siblings and friends, with the opposite sex–about any of the countless things that affect his or her attitudes about school and behavior in school.

The third is Understanding how the child or teenager prefers to learn academic subjects or any subject or skill. For some, it might be obvious. Some concentrate in silence, some in noise. Some like to be quizzed. Some don’t. Some get lost on page one. Some would rather just sit down and read the book themselves.   Some like  to discover their own method; some want to be told every step. Some like to review. Some find review a waste of time. Some can tell you “where they get lost.” Some go blank and can’t give you any clues at all. Some learn best by teaching a skill to someone else. Some learn better from peers than from adult teachers. Some need to visualize things. Some need to hear things. Some need to try out things–practice, experiment, explore, follow someone’s lead, break things down, start at the beginning, start at the end and work backwards. Some would find it exciting to use their skills in “the real world.” Some would prefer a hypothetical approach.

Perhaps all of these possibilities are regarded as common sense by most people, but, in my experience, they are not common knowledge. I have never heard teachers explore such things at the beginning of a class or a semester. Nor have I ever heard  family members explore and share their similarities and differences in these areas–before there is a crisis, or even after there is one.

I would like to see these things tried.

But here’s one I value above all these others: It is wonderful to know parents and other adults who are still LEARNERS. It is wonderful to think about how they learn, to watch them learn, to celebrate how they learn, to enjoy how they learn. This, however, is even more rare!  I call these parents PROCESS PARENTS. It thrills me to see parents and other adults who are still willing to be beginners,  who are open to learning this year, today, at this age,in this subject area, in areas I never  even imagined, in large, difficult ways, in small, even playful ways. Advanced skills are lovely to observe, to hear about second-hand, to marvel at, to enjoy. But  it thrills me when adults say, “I always wanted to learn how to play the cello, a Celtic harp, a hammered dulcimer, African drums. I always wanted to learn to cook, to bake bread, to make bagels, to make peanut butter fudge, to grow pumpkins,  string beans, kiwis, to make a bird house, to fly a kite, to jog, to sing, to write a song, to quilt, to work with clay, to build something with wood or stone, to pour concrete, to play tennis, to swim, to climb Mt. St. Helen’s, hike across the Grand Canyon, drive around the United States,  run for charity, run for an office, do watercolor,  sew, go back to school, get a degree, backpack, see where my ancestors came from, actually walk where they walked.

It is wonderful to see them get beyond wishful thinking! It is wonderful to meet learners of any age–thrilling. They live acts of faith today, they “go out not knowing.” They explore. They discover. Their spirits are awake and alive, and full of persistence and courage. How wonderful–not just for the one who is learning, but for the rest of us who witness it, and feel, again,  that sense of possibility.     



Thinking About How Kids Get Left Behind, and About How They “Catch Up”

24 May

There was an article from the Tacoma News Tribune on the internet not long ago about the announcement that Washington State was the first state to lose its No Child Left Behind waiver –which meant that the state has to fund tutoring and teacher training without the help of the Federal Government. It also seems to mean that the whole state is now considered a “failing state” because this year was to be the year that ALL students pass the state tests in Math and Reading. That didn’t happen. The article didn’t discuss how close students came, or which schools had the most failing students–or why. It was mostly about the financial penalties. (A portion of the article did mention low-income students in Pierce County, however, but did not say anything about their test scores.)

I have no fondness for standardized tests. I think there is far too much “One size fits all” thinking in this country as it is. So–I would like to spend some time reflecting on the way we measure and label kids–and the harm I think it does–to the kids, and to those  of us who used to be kids.

  I have spent my adult life working with students at every level who struggle with reading and writing and who, therefore, dread those subjects. I don’t know if most people “like” primarily what they are “good at,” and “dislike” everything else, but that’s strange, to me. I enjoy some kinds of struggle–not because they “strengthen me,” necessarily, although they probably do, not because they challenge me, although they do, but just because I like to put forth effort. It’s a pleasure. I think maybe I would sometimes go so far as to say struggle is a form of play, for me. This doesn’t mean it’s trivial to me.  I enjoy trying to lift something that is a little too heavy for me. I like the feeling of being so tired from physical work that I can’t  finish even one sentence, and fall asleep with my pen leaking ink into the pillow–my half-finished sentence still there  in the morning, waiting for me.  I kind of like knowing some of my limits. I like exploring a new language, trying to say sounds that my native language doesn’t have. I like  baking a new kind of cake, or bread, or using some ingredient I have never used before, or leaving out a familiar ingredient.  I’m just curious what will happen. 

Perhaps I can call it play or adventure because there are no serious consequences for such play. I don’t think of myself as “dumb” if my cake doesn’t rise, or if native speakers of a new language don’t understand what I am trying to tell them. We laugh together.  They know that the same thing might happen to them if they tried to speak a new language. 

So–I’m left with a couple possible explanations for this. Maybe external evaluation kills the joy of struggle. Maybe grades and standardized tests  kill the love of learning.  It seems very possible, to me.

As a child and teenager, there was a lot of pressure on me, mostly from my father, to get not just good grades, but the top grade. He never cared how I did in school, compared with other girls! He wanted me to score higher on tests than the son of his old football buddy. It was no joking matter. It wasn’t MY ego that was involved; it was HIS. He was still fighting some old battle with his friend, still feeling, perhaps, one down. It was no laughing matter for me either–because he was never teasing and light-hearted about it. At the supper table, the quizzing would begin: So what did so and so’s kid get on the history test today?” I knew from the tone of his voice that he would be angry. I knew that ninety-nine out of a hundred was, to him, a failing grade–if his friend’s son got a perfect score. “Don’t let it happen again!” he would snap, and go into a lecture about how lazy and irresponsible I was for missing a point. It was the same with sports. It was never enough just to enjoy the game. I had to WIN. I had to be the best.  It ruined those activities, for me. It wasn’t until I moved away from home and told him that I would not accept his criticisms any longer that I began to enjoy learning and think of it as an adventure.

Students who fail all the time almost always  think of  THEMSELVES as failures. We shouldn’t do that to kids.  We should, at least, give them plenty to feel good about. One can know one’s limits and still feel great–if his or her person is not directly or indirectly the object of criticism.

When students struggle with reading and math–and other school subjects, there are plenty of reasons, but that doesn’t mean they must dread those subjects for the rest of their lives. Often, as most people now know, different people learn in different ways, and for different reasons. It’s helpful to know what some of those ways and reasons are, and aren’t. 

Hardly any of my college students loved Freshman Composition. In fact, most dreaded it, and put it off as long as possible. Consequently, most of my Freshman Comp students were Juniors and Seniors. I was amazed at this, at first. Also, in my first semester at my second college, seventy-five of my eighty students cheated–had their mothers or girl friends write their papers for them, copied them from old paper files in their dorms, or even turned in papers that had just been written by classmates. They were surprised, first, that I could tell. “It’s your VOICE I’m looking for,” I would say. “HUH? What? VOICE?” It was a foreign concept. They were afraid that if they “were themselves” they would sound “dumb.”

So–we played with “voice.” “Try sounding like the President of the University in this paper,” I’d suggest. Try sounding like the policeman who stopped you for speeding. Try sounding like a film star you like, or hate, or a singer, or. . . .Writing started to feel a little like wearing someone else’s clothes–on purpose.  It became fun. We proved that even twins didn’t have the same sound on paper.  That’s when things really started getting exciting.

Then we played with “dialogue.” “Make your paper a dialogue with me,” I’d say. What’s a dialogue? A real , felt conversation where you’re really listening and open to understanding where the other person is coming from.” “Well, in real life, I would never HAVE a conversation with a teacher. Teachers aren’t real people. They,’re. . . .” “Hey, I’m just as real as YOU are.” “Oh, I didn’t mean it personally.”  Dialogue, too, became fun. My students began to find themselves entertaining.

Soon, we were miles away from where they had been at the beginning. They felt real, they felt open, transparent. They could no longer predict what they would say. They no longer counted their sentences, or their words. They no longer used words to try to impress me. Writing was becoming something more like swimming–or tennis–or dancing. It was becoming a sort of working together to see what we could understand. It involved some sense of risk, and newness. It became more open-ended. They began to say things like “Read mine first!” Or “When do you think you will have those back?” Amazing!  

NO one is left behind when learning works this way. It’s mutually supportive. It’s playful, fun, moving, serious, surprising–one of a kind. And memorable. Something worth  savoring, and saving. It’s not so much about school anymore. It’s about being a fellow human, about being alive now, and not sometime after graduation.  

Talking With Turkeys

14 May

I was thinking, as I sat down to type, just now, of a woman I knew of, but never met, who was a telemarketer and who worked the night shift –that is, eleven to seven or some such hours. A neighbor of mine who knew her said she chose that job because she so much enjoyed talking to people.

When I am down in the dumps, I think of this–and feel instantly better about my own circumstances. And, since then, I have seen telemarketers in a completely different light.  I picture them in the dark somewhere, rows and rows of them, talking to strangers, asking their questions, selling something, and then going home like Hemingway’s older waiter in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” home to a place that doesn’t feel like a home, that has no feeling of connection, that has no real dialogue in it. “Doubtless it is only insomnia,” the older waiter says. “Many must have it.”

I  often enjoy talking to people, but, mostly, I enjoy ENGAGING with them. There is such a difference between talk and engagement. With the latter, it matters tremendously whether we care about the other person’s spirit, and feelings, whether we e are trying to empathize, whether we are all IN it–as opposed to just going through motions, and only half-listening. One can’t be on auto-pilot and feel engaged, and neither can the other person in the conversation. When we are both interested and when we both care about hearing the other, when we both feel up to being engaged intellectually and emotionally,  how wonderful it is–to be talking or listening.  

This kind of conversation, which I refer to as DIALOGUE, strikes me as exceedingly rare, and sometimes even non-existent.

It was not rare, in my college-teaching days. It has only been rare SINCE them. I don’t know why.

It is not rare when I am around children, and it is not rare when I am around animals, so I would like to spend some time exploring how dialogue works, and why it seems so effortless and so delightful sometimes–and why it doesn’t seem that way at all at other times.

Take, for example, the  encounter I had with a domestic turkey on the Theler Wetlands path. Now, granted, that is the only encounter I ever had with a domestic turkey or any other kind of turkey, but it left me feeling eager to go out and look for more turkeys to talk with.

Here’s how our meeting went. I was about to cross one of the foot bridges on the trail when I looked toward the far side and saw what looked to my shingles-infected eye, like a pack of large dogs. Wondering how they managed to get on the trail, when signs at the start proclaimed, “NO DOGS ALLOWED,” I thought perhaps they simply couldn’t read. Nevertheless, I decided to wait on my side of the bridge for the dogs to come over. I talk to dogs just about every day, so I was looking forward to conversing with them about this.  However, as they neared the center of the bridge, I saw that they were not dogs at all, but a pack of very well-fed turkeys. It’s not a wide bridge, so only two could walk abreast, and even that was a tight squeeze.  

“Hello, turkeys,” I said cheerfully. “And what are you doing here?”

Well, of course, they told me immediately that the sign at the entrance did not mention that turkeys were not allowed.  I apologized for sounding so confrontational, but, alas, it was too late, and five of them flew with a loud rush of wings straight up in the air and over the fence into the farm next door–which, I assumed, was where they belonged.

“Huh!” they all snorted. “See if we walk on your crummy old trail again!”

I apologized repeatedly, but, alas, it was of no use. They refused to give me the time of day. So I turned my attention to the remaining turkey, who waited patiently at the edge of the trail for me to be done with the others.

“Hello, Turkey,” I said, just as cheerfully as before, to the  remaining  turkey. “How about walking with me for a while?”

I motioned with my left arm, “Come on,” as I turned and started up the path in the direction I had just come .

The turkey tilted its head slightly to one side, the way robins do when they’re listening for worms.

“Sure!” I said. “Why not? Come on!”

I motioned to it again, and saying nothing more, I turned and walked ten paces, slowly and deliberately, glancing back at the turkey, who had decided to follow me–and, furthermore, had decided to  inch a little closer to me with every step. More steps were  required of the turkey than of me, I might point out. 

When I had completed my tenth step, I stopped and waited.  After all, the turkey was a heavy one, for its size, and its weight was, shall we say, distributed in a rather awkward and tiring  way.

“You did GREAT!” I said. “I’m really proud of you! Okay, now! How about ten MORE steps?”

I started out, and the turkey followed–at the same pace as before, again inching a little closer to me with every step.

We continued on down the path like this for about one hundred human steps, and then I looked at my watch, surprised to see that so much time had passed, and I was due at a meeting in just ten minutes.

“Oh, my goodness!” I said. “This is so disappointing! I was enjoying your company so much, but now I must go to a meeting! I don’t know if you turkeys have meetings. They are dreadfully dull things, really, and I do abhor them, but I must go. Please know that I would much rather be conversing with YOU!” And then, reluctantly, I headed down the path at a much faster pace, without looking back over  my shoulder.

Oh, it hurt me, not to turn around, but I did not look back until I was far down the straight stretch from where the turkey had been, and I saw no sight of it. So–I turned again and jogged the rest of the distance to my car.

I don’t remember a single thing about the meeting I went to afterward. I don’t remember where it was, or who it was with, or what was discussed. I just remember that lovely, willing turkey–who, probably, has long ago  been eaten for someone’s Thanksgiving. Maybe I was the only human being who walked the trail with it, so maybe it had nothing to compare our journey with, but I like to think that it enjoyed our time together as much as I did.

So, of course, I have thought of this encounter many times–certainly just about every time I walk the Theler Trail.

I rarely go to meetings of any kind anymore.

Not long ago, I gave a children’s magazine to a children’s library. It had been on their wish list, the librarian said, and I was happy to make that one little wish come true. Recently, I received a thank you note, proclaiming that photographs were enclosed, to show that students were already using the magazine. The note was signed simply “Staff.” The photographs clearly showed a few students standing near the magazine, posing for the camera, but showing no interest whatsoever in the magazine–not so much as glancing at it.

How I longed to run out to my car, jump in, and head for the library to see what was the matter with the children. Oh, but I resisted the impulse. I know there was nothing wrong with them. It was just a set-up. That was all.

I have worked with hundreds, even thousands of children–more than that, if you count teenagers and college students and what we used to refer to as “returning adult students.” I don’t ever remember any of them participating in a set-up photo  shoot.  I took photos of my students at every opportunity–because, no matter what age they were, I knew they would be full of what I would refer to as “mischief.” That is to say, they would be  good at playing.  I really shouldn’t call it mischief. I should call it just plain MAGIC.  They were all hilariously funny, without even trying to be. It was , I think, just their love of being alive and open and free and adventurous together. It just poured, danced, and cavorted out of them.

 The “kids” in my ten-year project with a group of third graders used to send me notes. They would say things like this: “Dear Nancy. If you think you have a sense of humor, you are mistaken.”  Or they would call out something like this: “Hey, Miss Gill!” “What?!” I would answer, in a whisper. “I saw you walking your dog on Market Street!” “DID you?” I would answer excitedly. “Why didn’t you come over?”  “I was with my mom!” they would answer. Another, in the same tone, would call out, “Hey Miss Gill!” “What?” “Are you passionate?” “I don’t know,” I would say. “It depends. Why do you ask?” “Well,” they’d say, “Isn’t that a mood ring you are wearing?” “No,” I would answer. “It’s an agate. It stays one color.” “Hey Miss  Gill!” “What”” “Do you really keep our papers under your bed?” “Sure!–in boxes. That’s so no one reads them but me until you’re so old you’ve forgotten what you said in them.” “Wow!” They would say, “You sure must have a lot of room under your bed!”  “Hey Miss Gill! I’m going to attack you.” I’d pick up my notebook with the photo of a snow-covered mountain on the cover. “I will defend myself with this mountain!” “No, it won’t work!  Want to see the airplane I made?” “Sure!”     

On and on our conversations would go, year after year. I still hear the sound of their voices, and I still hear from them too.  They’re forty-seven this year, and I’m seventy-one.  .

Adult conversations, though–real ones–are very rare. So often, they’re formalities, small talk, business talk, generic talk. We don’t know each other any better, or trust each other any more afterward. 

It is wonderful, to talk “real talk” with people–of all ages, talk we both remember for a long time, talk that has managed to become part of who we are, talk that has shaped us, clarified us for each other and for ourselves, brought us closer, made us more real, more understood, more understandable, more visible, talk that has nurtured our spirits. How I treasure that kind of talk. But, even after all these years, the process by which it is achieved remains, to a large degree, something like a miracle,  a mystery, and a great gift. I don’t  understand it as fully as I would like to.  But I think the capacity to play–and remember how we felt playing– is at or near the center of it. There is an element of affection and acceptance there, an eagerness to be open enough to let others in, an eagerness, or a willingness, to be vulnerable,  to  become  more than we were, to take some risks on behalf of our own growth–and the other’s.  To be able to grow, and willing to grow, at any age–what a blessing that is.Image