Beyond “You can do it!”

As the beginning of a school year approaches, I hear from many families whose children are not as eager as those shown in back-to-school advertisements. So many young people are downright dreading it.  When asked for a reason, they’ll say it’s stressful, or boring, or both.

A common response from adults is: “You can do it!”

We say this with the best of encouraging intentions. What we mean is “You’re great, and strong, and we believe in you.”

While that is likely true, it’s an answer to a question they may or may not be asking. (Not to mention that it neglects the question of at what cost.) If a young person says “I don’t know if I’m smart enough,” then some version of “you can do it” is appropriate and plenty.

But as a response to “I don’t want to go to school because it’s boring/stressful/ boring and stressful,” it misses the mark. Mostly, I think we use “You can do it” because we don’t really have time to address what these young people are actually expressing, and even if we did have time, it would be hard to know where to begin. (I say this not to suggest laziness on the part of adults but rather as a reflection of experience, after more than two decades at work on the problem!) But it’s also possible that we’re just mis-hearing what young people are actually saying; that we think this expression of satisfaction or unhappiness is actually a lack of confidence.

Either way, it’s a good idea to try to move beyond cheering kids on, to look more closely at what they’re saying and why they’re saying it. I think that in our role as caretakers and guides for young people we don’t like to get into this kind of territory unless we have solutions at the ready. And sure, they wouldn’t mind a solution, but to have their communications actually received can go a long way, even in the absence of solution. A longer way than we probably realize.

Especially if we want young people to keep talking to us, to keep telling us what’s not working for them, to keep honing the ability to express what they’re experiencing and use it to navigate what’s ahead.

“Educability, humanity’s species characteristic, is not simply a matter of learning the answers to old questions, but, more importantly, the increasing ability to ask new questions that may lead to new answers.  There is always the danger that old answers will discourage the raising of new and appropriate questions, with the result that the error becomes institutionalized, often as a way of life.”

Ashley Montagu, Growing Young

writing and drawing

I’m working my way through all of Dan Roam’s books about how simple drawings, alongside a few words, can bring ideas to life. I’ve finished  The Back of the Napkin and Blah Blah Blah, and now I’m reading Unfolding the Napkin.

Dan points out that in school we are trained to communicate almost exclusively in words – drawing is relegated to art or free time.  Yet pictures are much closer relatives to experience than words, and as young children are attempting to make sense of and assimilate what’s happening and what they’re being told, their first impulse is often to draw.  We’ll grant them that, but not for long before we want them to focus their attention on reading and writing, shoving the drawing to the periphery (at best).  I’ve been wondering what would happen if we let them draw as much as and for as long as they are compelled to.  How would it influence their development?  What effect would it have on how they communicate?  Would some processes speed up and some slow down?

It’s been interesting, in the course of my exploration of Dan’s visual thinking work, for me to try to train myself to expand the way I think about communicating, to try to incorporate images into the way I share something I’m trying to say.  It feels very difficult, but also as though if I figure it out, it’ll be a relief not to be quite so dependent on one mode.

Peter Gray, on the tendency to study children only in the context of school:

If we want to understand human potential, and not just how people adapt to schools and school-like environments, then we must widen our scope of research to include research on children in a wide variety of settings and research using a wide variety of methods.

And Carol Black, same:

Collecting data on human learning based on children’s behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World.

It’s tricky because the culture of schooling lives outside of school, too.  This is one of the puzzles I struggle with the most – how to imagine and render embraceable something that we can’t study, though of course anything that requires imagination can’t be studied because it hasn’t happened yet…

ambidextr-ish

This week I have developed a new appreciation for those who are learning to write or draw for the first time, thanks to a foray into ambidextrosity.  As I have mentioned here recently, my right shoulder has been giving me trouble, and so I was distressed to think that I couldn’t participate in a 100-day art-making challenge I heard about.  I realized that while my right hand works considerably better than my left, I do have two hands, and if I really wanted to participate without over-straining my right shoulder, I could use my left hand. It might even make an interesting creative challenge/constraint/improvisational score.

It is hard.  I often want to switch back to my right hand for things I know it can do that the left cannot.  Straight lines, for example.  So many things my right hand does without any intentional thinking require planning and troubleshooting, if they can be done at all (and many can’t).  Then there’s the challenge of writing against the flow of traffic, as it were.  My father and brother are both left-handed and so I have watched plenty of left-handed writing-utensil-wielding but not ever given thought to the degree of difficulty involved.

I’ve also been thinking about what it’s like for kids to sort these things out, and how much practice they need, and how much easier it would be without someone breathing down your neck about how neat it is, or how to do it “right.”

While we’re on the subject, here’s a little thing I posted on the subject a few years back:

I know several kids who write very, very slowly. I know others who like to decorate their letters as they write, many who form their letters starting at the bottom rather than the top, and lots who despise the task of holding a writing utensil at all, complaining of tired and weak muscles.

I watched one of these slow writers doing some math the other day.  The speed of her math performance has been a point of concern and discussion in school lately. It occurred to me as I was watching that part of the reason she takes a long time getting through math problems is that she wants the numbers to look nice.  For her, writing numbers (and anything else) is an opportunity to make art.

Artistry is often at work with the letter-decorators I mentioned too, though I’ve also seen letter-decorating used primarily to combat boredom.  Here are two other interesting coincidings: those writers who work from the bottom of the letter also tend to be the ones who would rather be designing and building things than sitting bent over a piece of paper, and the messiest and most apparently tormented or resistant are often the ones to whom the words are the most important.  The writers.

I’ve been observing young writers for a long time, and I was also one myself once.  The year I was eight was significant for me. I spoke in front of a large group of people for the first time, among other things. But the thing that got the most attention that year was my handwriting.  It wasn’t very good. I was in too much of a hurry, the adults told me.  I could do better.

Fortunately, that flurry of concern over my sub-par penmanship didn’t leave much of a mark on me, as far as I can tell.  I know that the parents and teachers who harped on my letter formation back then had my interests at heart and in mind.  I’m pretty sure that if they had realized I was just trying to keep up with my thoughts, they’d have handled it differently. The teachers I know now aren’t as hard on kids about handwriting as the ones I had when I was young, but we still tend to miss the opportunity to learn from what goes on with kids when they sit down to write – not just how the letters look but how kids are about it and what communication there may be for us to receive in the course of watching.

We miss this opportunity for noble reasons; we believe we know how to tell when writing’s going well and when it’s not.  The sight of neat legible letters soothes us, makes us feel as though things will be OK for the child forming those letters.  But too much haste, too little haste, unusual pathways, and general resistance worry us.  The task of writing feels important, so we get rigid and frightened about it and push for the results we know to push for.

But being rigid and frightened makes it hard to see what more there is to see, and it tends to undermine access to the very proficiency we’re after.

Here’s the thing.  The word is penmanship.  As with craftsmanship or sportsmanship, there’s grace and individuality suggested by and allowed for in the word.  Penmanship has come to refer only to how tidily we write, but it didn’t start there and we don’t have to settle for that.  We can ask ourselves more interesting questions about the emerging penmanship(s) of those newest to the tool – the way each one wields his or her pen.  What is there to see in a child’s resistance to writing?  What might it lead to?  Why would a person spend as much time drawing spiraling tails on every letter as choosing the words the letters make up?  Why is the messy writer in such a hurry?

If we ask questions like these, we’ll get insights into the behaviors themselves and also, most likely, surprising causes for further curiosity and even celebration.  And we’ll make lots more room for young people to come to own the work of writing, and to call on it to serve and support them in whatever paths and pursuits they choose.

words, numbers, and the culture of offering

This is sort of another plug for Ed Zaccaro, but also an observation about language and dignity in the context of math.

I posted a while back about Ed Zaccaro’s Challenge Math series, which I think was written for kids who needed more than the classroom could provide, but also seems to work well with kids with all sorts of different relationships with math.

This week I was surprised when one of the eight year-olds I work with asked specifically if we could work in the Zaccaro book.  I’d done a quick bit of one page with her once before, and she was OK with it, but tends to balk at anything she has to stop and think about, anything that requires reading as the Zaccaro problems do.  This is not because she doesn’t like to read or isn’t a good reader. She is.  But as a math student, she tends to balk at reading. We’d mostly been working on quick little problems I’d chosen for the purpose of letting her see that she is more capable when it comes to math than she has learned to believe.

She leaned right in as soon as I opened the book in front of her.  She remarked on the illustration of the large sweating ants and then started reading the first problem on the page.  She sped through three in a row, understanding exactly what the problems were asking for and doing much of the computation in her head.  This is exactly what she doesn’t do when she’s interacting with her Pearson pages from school (which, as far as I can tell, were written and issued very quickly after the Common Core standards went into effect).  She’s constantly choosing operations that don’t fit the situations in the word problems.

I’ve been frustrated with the language of many of these problems ever since the materials were issued, but in watching this child with the Zaccaro problems, I realized something new about how they are tripping kids up.  The Pearson word problem language is often ambiguous, which is terribly troublesome in the context of math, but it’s also just plain dull.  For kids who are readers, accustomed to sentences written with care and intention, poorly written problems are not just potentially confusing.  They’re an insult to the sensibilities of the literate child.  The literate person.

I realized that what this student has been doing with her classroom math work is to scan each word problem and attempt to match it with a procedure.  If it looks like the kind of problem for which one should divide, she’ll divide.  If it looks like you have to trace your finger across the table shown and fill in a number according to a pattern, she’ll do that.  No matter that often the problem is asking for something slightly different.  In order to notice that, she’d have to subject herself to the agony of reading the dull text slowly. As a result, her actual ability and number sense is obscured. In a situation in which the reading is in and of itself engaging, she is freed up to think fluidly and flexibly about what there is to do with the numbers.

What the Zaccaro book does for her (that the Pearson book does not) is offer something.  That sounds too simple to matter, but I don’t think it is. An offering concerns itself with presentation and connection, free of attachment to result. It is the fundamental unit of authentic human exchange. It says “Here.  This is for you to have and use if you choose.” It grants dignity, agency, autonomy. In the course of our deep but desperate commitment to educate, we’ve moved away from offering toward mandate and decree, often undermining our ability to pass on what there is of useful knowledge and skill to our young.
The good news is we can resume a culture of offering any time we want.