Sunday, November 17, 2013

Once upon a time in a classroom far, far away.....

Have you ever reflected on what used to be and realize that so many things are still relevant, but you feel like you don’t have time or are under too much stress to take it on to dig it out and reflect? Nope, can’t relate – I’m always composed, never overwhelmed or buried in paper, and easily skip out of the building each day on the heels of the kids.   

We continually have conversations in my classroom about always doing your best no matter what, persevering through tough things, not comparing our learning to others, and learning from a mistake.  I think I have made a huge mistake in the past few years.  I used to read lots of research; it was intriguing, it was inspiring.  Since having had all the free time in the world, with raising three kids, the pressures of the new Common Core, and looming high stakes testing, well.....for several years I’ve fallen away from professional reading.  In the past few months I’m very happy to say that I’ve reconnected with some of my favorites. 

During a recent chat in my classroom an incredibly guarded child matter-of-factly said, “Well, you DO know there’s more than one way someone can be smart.  And, you CAN’T be grade smart”.  This innocent 8 year old made me realize that I have missed Howard Gardner.  The idea of multiple intelligences was one of those things that struck me the first time I read them years ago – it validated who I am and most importantly, who I was.  All of a sudden, it stripped away the labels, the odd glances, and negativity that was always focused on the way I learned best (I’m “art smart” and always “got it” so easily, so quickly when I could think in pictures....only acceptable all alone at home, on my own paper of course).  It was “fingernails on a chalkboard excruciating” for me to sit in a chair, in a row, book in hand, blank paper, graphite ready to scratch an answer in for what seemed to be eternity (can you guess....I’m “body smart” – please DO NOT confuse this with running, for me it has a WHOLE different meaning!). It was my struggle, no truthfully it was a battle, for every year of school after Kindergarten.  I’ve said before I was NOT the best student, as the story of my report card reminds me, throughout all of my years of school; believing that I was dumb, not doing “well” according to tests, being told I was doing things the “wrong” way.  I used to think my Aunt Joy was NUTS when she used to tell my mother that I was “the smartest of all the five of them”.  Unfortunately, Lewy Body dementia has stolen her voice, but I’d give anything to know what she saw in me that the teachers couldn’t.

I am VERY honest with my kids and share stories of when I was in school and the things I had to do to learn and how much trouble I used to get in because I wasn’t doing it “the right way”.  We have talked about how hard I tried but the teachers just weren’t happy with me and the way I thought.  I try and reflect on my classroom as much as I can to make it different for my kids.  Maybe I make myself crazy (may be easier for me since I’m halfway there!) by doing this and changing things for the continually changing needs of my kids, but it’s what I do. 

So, inspired by the introverted kiddo I dug out my Multiple Intelligence research, blew off the dust, and created a brand new kid friendly survey.  My kids were ecstatic, the excitement was palpable....I felt like we were getting ready for the Travers Race in Saratoga!  We talked about how the survey wasn’t “more is better” when choosing answers and how they may find that they are smart in many areas and some may surprise them.  And then, it was the moment!  The kids grabbed their survey, threw their heads down, pencils moved at break neck speed to complete the survey, they were chomping at the bit to tally their results and find out how smart they really were.  You would have thought it was Christmas morning when they finished – papers flapping in the air, calling out what kinds of smart they were searching for a common “smarty” they could relate to.  I heard things like:  “That’s awesome!”  “Hey, me too!”  “Does that surprise you?” I’m really not sure that many of these kids believed they were smart since a number on a paper is what society reveres as smart.

I think of kids in many traditional experiences now, classrooms that continue to focus on ritual and test prep, modules and worksheets, those where skill and drill outweigh voice and choice. Classrooms where teachers are fearful, administrators are domineering and controlling and learning is done by demand.  My stomach turns and my heart breaks when I think about the kids like me in rooms like that that still exist.  I can’t fathom how as much as things have changed in education many times they really stay the same.  Knowing what we know through research, VALID research, how can we ignore the learning styles of our kids?  Isn’t our job to prep them for LIFE, not focus on a test or rigid, developmentally inappropriate lessons? I truly believe that part of the “real” prep we need to do is to validate each child for the way their brain works.  Can you imagine NOT doing what you love?  Or being forced to do things in a way that you didn’t understand, couldn’t relate to, or were simply painful to get through?

Not surprisingly, the guy who always seems to be “antsy”, continually playing with things, bouncing his leg, doing anything he can to NOT work at his homebase – he was body smart.  The kiddo who just won’t walk away from a challenge, and bites on her pencil feverishly until she figures out a Brain Buster – yup, math smart.  The one who never seems to stop drumming on his legs, humming his favorite tunes – I called that one in week 2, he’s music smart.  The child who always dives to the window seat to snuggle up and soak up the sun – you got it, as nature smart as they come!  It was so awesome to spend the time doing this – I can’t tell you the joy and validation the kids showed.  Most didn’t surprise me; after watching the kids learn over the past 9 weeks it was easy for me to predict, but it was a reassuring surprise and validation for the kids.  It was like high tide - negativity, odd glances, and labels all fell away and insight, self-affirmation, and pride filled in.

As we finished going over the data, one kiddo who is very hesitant and appears almost fearful of making a mistake approached me.  Looking glum, head bowed, almost on the verge of tears, he quietly said, “Mrs. W., this says I’m Math smart and I just don’t understand”.  I explained what “Math smart” really means and what your brain “sees” and interprets as math.  Within nano seconds after I finished with the explanation his head snapped up, face beaming, arms flailing, he cheered, “Well, now this COMPLETELY makes sense!”

Yes buddy, no words could be truer.

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