All I Needed to Know, I Learned from Kids

The most influential architects of my educational philosophy have been young men and women whose names do not grace the pages of famous pedagogical works.  As I learned from these young scholars, my attitudes and insights about schools and education evolved.  Certainly however there are principles which do not waver:
  • There are no 'throw away' kids.
  • Applied learning is more effective than rote.
  • Students are often capable of more than we ask of them.
  • Schools must be physically, emotionally and intellectually safe for all.
Yet some students' experiences have been particularly enlightening for me and from them I have learned much about schools and schooling.  Some of the important lessons they have taught me follow.

Will was a new student short on credits.  He was skipping classes regularly and earning few grades above F.  One morning I sat with Will and gained an insight into his hopelessness.  Will hadn't made many new friends and did not feel welcome at his new school.  When a teacher made a discouraging comment to him, he stopped attending.  Occasionally Will motivated himself to return.  When he did, he encountered comments such as "Nice you could join us" and "What did you come back for?"  He became further convinced he was unwelcome.  If providing education to all comers is our mission, then school climate is its foundation.  We must have schools that are friendly, safe and purposeful.  We must ensure that all students have an equal playing field with full knowledge of our rules and the resources available to them.  We must believe in kids even when they stop believing in themselves.

Josh was not considered a scholar.  His academic course grades were nearly all C's and D's.  He invested little in those classes and seemed to absorb little of what they had to offer.  But all I had to do was see the aluminum fishing boat Josh built to realize that his was an extraordinary talent.  Josh's skill and attention to detail marked him as a true craftsman.  We educators need to look for students' talents and for 'hooks' to tie curriculum to their experiences and interests.  We must also communicate that one category of talent is not superior to another.  Our devoted musicians, our mechanics, our artists and our caring, sensitive souls are not inferior to our best writers and mathematicians.

Lisa was a brilliant young mathematician.  The surprising fact about Lisa was that she could not name large numbers.  Yet unless you asked her "How do you say 22,485?" this problem would go unnoticed.  She could still perform incredible mathematics with numbers of any size.  Some might bemoan the fact that her teachers had not drilled her sufficiently on number naming.  I instead commend the teachers who continued to challenge Lisa, allowing her the excitement of new math concepts while reinforcing number naming periodically.  We must be careful, for the sake of students like Lisa, that our education is not overly deficiency-based.

Crystal wrote often of her plans to abolish world hunger and ensure world peace.  Then in her junior year, Crystal worked on a service learning project with Women's Crisis Support Team researching dating violence and developing presentations for middle school students.  The presentations went well and Crystal was later contacted privately by several younger girls.  "I wanted to help the world," Crystal commented afterwards, "I didn't realize I could do it right here."  When we connect students to their community, we disconnect them from the alienation of adolescence.  Both service learning and the effective use of community resource people enrich our curriculum, give students a chance to apply their skills in meaningful ways and invite them into the adult world.  Every course can be a lab course if the community is our laboratory.

Bryan was an amazingly talented young man who barely qualified to graduate.  Bryan was one of the best speakers and debaters in the league, a great actor and led the Mock Trial Team to second place at state.  He had an encyclopedic mind, a marvelous wit, and asked questions that probed way beyond our curriculum.  Bryan had a hard time though completing mundane, unchallenging work.  The easier the course, the lower his grade.  By raising the bar and expecting more from students, paradoxically we increase our success rate.  I learned from Bryan that some students need intellectual challenge and many are at their best in competitive situations.  When we provide opportunities for academic competition, students discover their capabilities.  Bryan was also gifted in his ability to pull the best from his teammates and he taught me to look beyond the obvious candidates when we recruit for academic teams.

Megan was appalled when a friend was beaten badly at school by a notorious group of bullies.  She questioned why five students were allowed to terrorize the rest of the student body.  Megan was the first president of SAVVE (Students Against Violence and Vandalism Everywhere) and proved that if students choose to protect victims instead of bullies, they can turn a school around.  In SAVVE's first year at IVHS, intimidation, harassment and vandalism disappeared completely.  Goals which adults seem helpless to accomplish on our own are achievable when we partner with kids.  We can have a school where everyone is safe to be themselves and to learn.

Jennifer was in many ways an ideal student.  She was endlessly inquisitive, craved connections between what she learned in various disciplines and thought and wrote analytically.  A straight "A" student, Jennifer hoped to study history at Stanford.  Her SAT scores didn't reflect her abilities and she was rejected.  Over the phone, the admissions officer asked if she might be an overachiever.  When our assessment tools do not accurately reflect performance, why do we question the performance?  There is a danger in ignoring the limitations of standardized tests.  Measurable outcomes are valuable indicators but sometimes the least measurable are the most significant.

At the age of 14, James came to us with a history that included the loss of his father in a gun battle, abandonment by his mother, sexual abuse, early drug exposure, severe physical abuse from his older cousins and domestic violence.  James' anger was usually just below the surface and he trusted no one, least of all adults in authority.  Through many difficult conversations, James taught me that the gulf between most of us in education and many of our students is indeed wide.  In the past, it was enough that we tried to help them to cross the chasm and be like us.  That is no longer sufficient.  We must listen more carefully and try harder to understand our students' realities if we want to reach them.  Sometimes we have to push students like James out to protect our other students.  It would be far better to teach him the resiliency skills that will protect him from further violence and self-destruction.

With apologies to the likes of John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Howard Gardner and Robert Hutchins, I have found that many firmaments in my educational philosophy bear the names of much younger scholars.  I look forward to my continuing education at the hands of such able instructors.

(Note:  These are actual students from my experience at three local high schools.  The names have been changed to protect their identities.)