Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Waiting until they're ready

I follow a website that recently posted a meme with this quotation:

You can struggle for weeks to teach a child something before they are ready, or you can do it in a few moments when they are ready to learn.

This statement was so impactful to me as I reflected upon my own experiences as a teacher and a mother.  I immediately drew a connection with my own daughter - now eleven years old.  As a musician and piano instructor myself, I was convinced that my parents had the right idea starting me on piano when I was seven. Seven is about the earliest age I recommend for parents to start piano with their kiddos, so why would I NOT start my own daughter in piano at seven?

So we did.  And it failed.  So we tried again when she was eight.  And it failed again.  I felt kind of like a failure and took her inability to play very personally.  Of COURSE she will play.  All Lambert children will play.  But my husband just looked at me and said, "Maybe she's not ready."  I knew he was right.  So we stopped trying.

When she turned eleven we had an evaluation for vision therapy and made the decision to pay for the twenty sessions to see if it would help her academically. We had no idea, however, that the vision therapy would impact her in more ways than just academically.  What surprised us so much was the confidence that the therapy sessions instilled in her.  Her stamina in reading fluency and writing climbed, and she went from below the tenth percentile in many areas to over the eightieth percentiles in everything.  Her ability to absorb information visually increased so dramatically, we were all baffled.

As we neared the end of her sessions, she brought up piano lessons on her own, so we started immediately.  Would you believe that when she sat down at that keyboard it was like her fingers had finally come home!  She was ready, and she is moving steadily through her lessons with very little prodding or help from me!

I see this over and over at school.  A kiddo struggles and struggles with reading, no matter what type of interventions we serve her, and then one year - WHAMMO! She is healed.  It's like something just clicks - hormones click in and she settles down long enough to learn how, or she matures enough to be remotely interested, or she is just ready.

A girlfriend of mine was so determined to potty train her daughter at the age of two, and therefore it took her two years to fully potty train her.  The stories I can now recall of this same type of "pushing" are endless.

The moral of this story is to have patience.  Am I saying don't worry? No.  It is our nature as parents to worry when our children seem to "lag" or "fall behind".  We want to compete, and we feel judged when they can't keep up with their peers.  We know that other parents take full responsibility when their children are gifted - "Oh, well.  We have been reading to him since before he was born." or "We work math every summer."  Well, guess what?  So do we.

I'm a mother with two advanced degrees in education, and my daughter struggles with reading.  I can't take responsibility for that.  But I can take responsibility for knowing my daughter - who she is, how she learns, and what her strengths are.  I need to remember that who my daughter is is not the same thing as who I want her to be. Recently I had a father tell me, "I know what he is capable of, and he is not producing."  But we should remind ourselves regularly that what we want them to be able to handle may not be what they are capable at this time to handle.  Regardless as to why.  And pushing them will only beat them down.

I go back to my favorite psychology professor from Harvard who tells us that kids will produce if they have the skills to produce.  Figure out your children.  If you can't, then find somebody who can.  Approach your child with curiosity rather than as a detective looking for something wrong.  Barricades may show up in all forms, but without your parental eye those barriers may never be discovered.

Be mindful.  Be aware.

Monday, March 9, 2015

“We don’t need more data to tell us we need action.”  The concluding quotation in a March, 2014 article written by Joy Resmovits of the Huffington Post.  The article, entitled “American Schools are STILL Racist, Government Report Finds,” is almost a year old, and yet it stabbed at me as if it had just come hot off the press.  In this report Resmovits rattles off statistics indicating that our education system is racist – the conclusion from a series of data surveys given by the US Department of Education and Civil Rights Data Collection.

The post made for a good morning Facebook conversation with a psychology professor I’d never met. It’s currently eleven o’clock, and I’m still fired up about it. 

In the first few paragraphs Resmovits stuns readers with statistics about the percentage of black students versus the percentage of black students who have been suspended or referred to law enforcement.  She also continues by revealing that a higher percentage of students of color are exposed to teachers who “fail to meet license and certification requirements” AND that teachers in areas where there are higher numbers of black students get paid less than those in less diverse districts.

First off, putting unqualified teachers into classrooms of our most at-risk groups of students is the result of decisions made by people who are obviously not qualified to make those decisions.  It would be like sending in a surgeon who hadn’t finished med school to perform an intricate and delicate procedure that, if done poorly, would likely result in death.   Because, often, the result is death – is it not?  Maybe not physical death, but death of opportunity.  Death of self-esteem.  Death of future. 

Why are we not spending money on recruiting the thousands of highly qualified and caring educators who are currently jobless to move into these schools?  Why are we spending so much time and energy on assessing, when we already know what the assessments are going to tell us?  In the state of Illinois, property taxes, by county, indicate a significant portion of the income schools receive to run the schools.  I, myself, work in a district where, next door to us is a large district that doesn’t even have busses to bring kids to school!  On the other side of that same district is a district that has enough busses to take everybody to school at the same time.  This is a true picture of inequity.

Racism, according to several dictionaries I consulted this morning, means anywhere from a belief that a race is inferior to another to simply liking or disliking a race based on some judgment.  In all of the definitions I read, there was one commonality – a person (or collective group) who is racist must make some judgment about a race.  So basically what Resmovits is saying in the title of her article is that America’s schools are judging races and have made a decision that blacks are indeed inferior OR that America’s schools just don’t like blacks in general.  Call it picky.  Call is syntax.  That is what she’s saying.

But is that what she meant?

Resmovits continues in her report by bringing up Brown v. Board of Education and the 1964 Civil Rights act that use ambiguous words such as “quality education for all children” and “equal access to education”.  Apparently these historical decisions were supposed to put away hundreds of years of judgment and hatred and learned behaviors.  But one person’s definition of quality education and equal access is not everybody’s.  Enter today’s education system.  A broken system with more holes than a honeycomb. 

The remainder of the article references a survey by the Education Department’s Office of Civil rights and continuously points to the fact that our system hangs minority students and students with disabilities (how being disabled got into the article about race, I have no idea) out to dry.  The entire article is so full of generalizations that it’s tough to grasp the point except that it keeps screaming racism.

One truth that Resmovits discusses is that change is needed.  She even talks about easing discipline and how that won’t help with the increase in school violence.  How the problem has such long roots, that we see these trends even in preschools!  Even the discipline/skill correlation surfaces toward the end of the article.

What would happen if we started treating our students more like people and less like numbers?  What if – and this is a big IF – we honored the gifts of each of our students and allowed them to be themselves rather than the people we think they should be?  What if we knew what our students’ strengths (and I’m not talking about academics) were as they walked into the door, and what if we could use that information to guide them to advocate for themselves?

Our problem is the fact that we have lost focus on what is really important.  Those children and adolescents who walk into our classrooms each day are singularly different – so much so that you could never carbon copy one of them.  To know each one’s strengths and preferences in learning is to empower ourselves as educators to teach the entire child.  More than half of them will not be academically talented, but academics is what we emphasize in school.  Some will have a gift for art, music, or sports – so why do we limit those times to once or twice a week while we pummel them with phonics and math facts?  Believe it or not – the gift of gab that some of them have will end up being their forte in life and may take them places we have never dreamed!  Is their curiosity or creativity not important?  The message we are giving them at school is that it is not.

Before we start pointing fingers at systems for being racist, what we ought to do is take a look at ourselves as a society and reflect on what is really important.  Perhaps it is us who have created a society that embraces a way of life – one in which certain populations of our children are still being treated as unequal.  I am in no way saying that any race behaves a specific way or has a particular strength, but if we step away from skin color and focus on our students as students – we might find that we can see a piece of them that we have never been allowed to see. 

What we perceive as negative behaviors may only surface because the whole child is not embraced.  Excessive talking in a kid who is interpersonal becomes a way to cope when math is hard.  Doodling helps visual students get through a tough literature class.  Physical aggression allows kinesthetics a release when a student has been cooped up in school for ninety minute blocks of testing. Once we view our students through these new lenses, we can then begin the task of building them up so that they feel like they want to succeed.

If they have the skills and want to succeed, they will.  Dr. Ross Greene of Harvard University says very pointedly – Kids do well if they can.  It is our responsibility as a society to find out why they are not producing.   Generally speaking – it’s not because they’re black.