12.10.17

When I talk about people finding occupations that are engaging and fulfilling for them (as I did yesterday), I often hear this question: “That’s nice, but if everyone just did what they want, how would all the unpleasant stuff ever get done?”

There’s an assumption inherent to the question which I think bears acknowledgment. The assumption is that we all want to be doing the same things, and that the things we don’t want to do (the unpleasant ones) are also the same. If this were the case – if we all liked and didn’t like the same jobs and activities – then indeed we’d be in trouble if we committed ourselves to getting everyone busy with what they preferred.

But we don’t like the same things. We don’t find the same things engaging and we don’t find the same things tiresome or loathsome. One of the happiest-looking people I ever saw at work was collecting trash on a municipal truck, a job many others would find very unpleasant. I know people who hop out of bed in the morning eager to get to their marketing jobs, and people who work in the arts who are miserable.

Our preferences are not the same, and so we don’t need to worry about a pile-up in just a few professions. I think we have enough diversity of preference that we can get everything done that needs doing and also enough willingness to share anything that really needs to get done even if none of us are especially eager to do it.

And if we get things done by choosing work that fits and suits us individually whenever possible, I bet we get it all done in a healthier more sustainable manner.

12.6.17

The day was dull with scientific notation.  Sarah didn’t want to be there with me at all.  As I often do when I meet a young person for the first time, I asked her about her interests. She said right away “I hate school. Actually, I love school.  I just hate math.” She didn’t bother to answer my question.  She went right to what she hates, and who could blame her when there it was, math, moving her around like a puppeteer, straight from school to tutoring?

But she was ready to tackle her homework, because at least that could get done while her afternoon ticked away.  She didn’t have a pencil, so I reached to get one from my desk drawer.  I was about to pick up the closest one and then stopped and looked up at her first.  “Which would you prefer,” I asked, “plain old wooden or mechanical?”

She paused before responding. “Mechanical,” she said.  As I handed her the pencil, she took a deeper, slower breath.

The rest of the hour pivoted around this question about the pencil.  It was nothing – a tiny moment – only it wasn’t.  When I thought about it afterward, I realized it was because the general condition of student-hood is mostly free of person-hood, in that students are expected to set aside preference. In fact, preference doesn’t even usually figure in enough to be set aside.

Preference and choice are not the same.  Some schools have lots of choice.  Choice of research topics, choice of Spanish or French, choice of lunch beverage.  Granting preference acknowledges a person’s person-ness in a way that choice doesn’t.  Choice says “The options have already been decided, and it has also been decided that you get to choose from among them.”

To grant preference is not necessarily active.  It’s an acknowledgement that a person has preferences and that those preferences are part of what constitutes their being and person-hood.  It doesn’t matter what kind of pencil a 12 year-old prefers, and she’s generally at liberty to select her own pencil, keep it with her, and no one has to know.  But if there are two kinds of pencil available, and I’m sitting across from a 12 year-old person, I know I’m less likely to ask her preference than I would be if I were sitting across from a 35 year-old person or a 62 year-old person. The relationship between adult and child is usually “I’ll handle this; you just follow my lead/instructions. Here’s a pencil for you to use.”  It’s not usually “Which kind of pencil would you prefer?” And it’s not because there isn’t time to ask.

I didn’t happen upon this because I was keen enough to notice and take an opportunity to treat someone better. I didn’t think to myself “Oh, I should ask what Sarah prefers, and that’ll be a better way to treat her.”  I just noticed that I would behave differently with an adult from how I was about to behave with her. Which I suppose is where we can begin.

12.1.17

The other day, one of the teenagers I know was talking about one of her teachers and how on certain days he plays music from one of his favorite albums during part of class. She said “He plays it in every class he hosts that day.”

When she’d finished telling the story I asked her about her choice of verb, because of course “host” isn’t what you’d expect in this context, but it hadn’t seemed like an accident. She said “Yeah, I’m not sure why I said it that way, but it seemed like what I meant.”

We had other things to talk about so I didn’t dwell on it. I just wanted to know if she’d chosen the word more or less on purpose. From the sound of it, in that particular teacher’s class, this student feels more like a guest than a… subject, the way many do in many classes.

A small thing, except not at all.

 

This, from poet Sara Holbrook, who found some questions on a Texas achievement test, about poems she herself wrote, difficult to answer:

fullsizerender

I have a tendency to get a little ranty about this subject, as I have always considered it risky business to teach a young person that it’s possible to know what someone else meant when they wrote something.  It’s not that I don’t think it can be interesting or edifying to speculate about what someone might have meant, but to imagine that we can know without asking, or let anyone have the authority of knowing, yikes.  Anyway, because I have the aforementioned ranty-ness tendency, I liked this characterization from Sara Holbrook.  Big baloney sandwich.  I found a triangular (lover of words and math that I am) drawing of one here to really drive the point home for myself.

https://openclipart.org/detail/194414/sandwich

I’m rereading George Dennison’s The Lives of Children and was floored by this passage regarding the role of an adult in the life of a young person:

dennison

“…elders of the community rather than heads of organizations…”

More on that here in an old post.

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

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…