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.     



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