Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Bad student, great kid

The bad news with schools is that they aren't good places for kids who are different.

The really bad news is that everybody is different.

My student Nolan is one of 161 differences I encounter five days a week.

Nolan is in the eighth grade and he does a number of things that drive teachers and his parents crazy:

He can't seem to leave his neighbors alone with his incessant talking. He often blurts things out in the middle of my lessons. He turns in work that looks like hieroglyphics--that is, when he can find the work in his backpack or remembers to turn it in. He struggles to earn higher than an F.

In spite of this, I insist that Nolan is a GREAT, GREAT kid who is unfortunately stuck in an institution that wasn't made for him.

The words, "Individually tailored to your specifications, to meet your unique needs," is not the mantra of institutional schooling, public or private.

Don't get me wrong: I place great value on learning to follow directions, figuring out how to work within a system and adapting to situations that aren't exactly a natural fit. We need to know how to get along in various life situations.

What I am not so sure of is whether there is much value in learning how to fit into such a system as we currently offer. Let me tell you what distresses me most about the Nolan situation:

Like I said before, Nolan is a handful. This means that his parents continually hear what a pain he is from his teachers, and they always have to be cajoling him, threatening him, and begging him to be different.

By the sound of his voice over the phone and in the tone of his e-mails, Dad is none too pleased with this continual struggle. It is clear to me that this puts a strain on the father/son relationship.

What if Dad focused on something else? What if he thought more about how lucky he is to have an adolescent son who genuinely looks up to him, enjoys being with him, talks about his day to him, brags to his teachers about him?

What if he measured his son by something besides his school performance? Is that what we reduce our kids to, a GPA and a citizenship mark?

It really saddens me that Nolan's dad is missing out on some precious time spent with his son because he has to constantly ride him about being something he is not.

Nolan is a friendly, caring kid. He is one of just a handful of my students who doesn't act as though talking to the teacher is the most uncool thing a 13-year-old could do. Also, I would be willing to bet he is among the top students as far as IQ.

I think this kid will go far. I think he is way too smart for the state-mandated pablum we have to shove at him year after year. He needs something different.

He needs to be an apprentice and do some work of some kind; he needs to go out into the forest and run around, exploring nature; he needs to build something side-by-side with someone who can guide him and teach him; he needs to go to the library and find something he is interested in and become a 13-year-old expert at it; he needs to build a rocket, a race car, a computer...

He does not need to sit in a chair for six periods a day, straining to sit still and be quiet. Someday he must be able to master this, but now is not the time for him.

The time is different for everybody. That's why school sucks.


Laura said...

This was a particularly good post which makes an important point. It's such a shame when the only feedback certain kids get is negative, based on their school experience, instead of who they are as a total package.

Best wishes,

Ugly Naked Guy said...

Thanks Laura. Dealing with Nolan (not his real name) and his dad really touched me. I would love to have a son like Nolan (I like the ones I have too), but it was clear to me that his not fitting in to the system really came between them. BTW, he has improved greatly as far as behavior in my class; unfortunately, he is still too disorganized to pump out grades equal to his intellect.

Opal: Vegan Momma said...

Excellent post and so true!

Although I'm not around them as much I see this in my mentees and also my daughter. They don't learn the same way.

I did well in school but it was extremely boring. I did not find it challenging. I never studied thankfully I had a fabulous memory & I was always able to figure things out.

The one teacher that did inspire me was my third grade teacher Mrs. Kyte. She thought outside the box when it came to teaching.

She took us on nature hikes. We took samples of water from nearby streams and viewed microscopic creatures. She identified wild herbs and told us their benefits. Like my parents she fed my curiosity and she did it in a entertaining way. All the students loved her.

She did fun activities in our class that was related to our schoolwork.

I was crushed when the school board dismissed her. I discovered that lovely fact on my own. I remember going to my father in tears asking him, Why? Her husband didn't attend the church that was associated with the school (although she did) and "the church" thought that was "unacceptable".

Yeah the church was like that. They were pretty self righteous & did some pretty dumb things over the years. All I can remember is being devastated. I wasn't the only child who was upset.

In some ways I guess I'm still that child that needs to be stimulated differently. Although I did very well in Corporate America I never enjoyed it. I found it distracting and way too political for my tastes. I was constantly thinking outside the box and of course I was told I couldn't think that way. LOL

I now work for myself.

I often think about Mrs. Kyte. She was older, at least 50, when she taught our class so she might not be around.

I always wish I could have seen her again after I was all grown up. I've always wanted to thank her.

She was also an artist an made beautiful watercolors.

She along with my parents played a huge role in the person I am today.

All that to say I totally agree with you.

Thanks for the memories.

Ugly Naked Guy said...

You're welcome Opal!

It is great to have a teacher you remember like that. I hope that I can have some memorable impact on a few kids in my career.

Dana said...

A wonderful post - and another glaring reason for homeschooling. How I wish Nolan's parents were of that mindset because no doubt, if the freedom and creativity of good homeschooling were in place, Nolan would no doubt thrive beyond anything imagined. This only happens if the expectations become reasonable and not cookie cutter.

Mostly, I appreciate he has you in his life as at least you are one person seeing him through the lens of geniune lovingkindness. You are blessed with the opportunity to make 5 minutes or 30 minutes of his day something memorable, and not something that reminds him of failings or for another potential disappointment to his dad.

Irene said...

I read this post a few days ago and really relate. I am a First Grade aide and see one or two students like this every year. They just don't fit in and proceed at the pace required in a school setting. This is a Christian school and I have seen parents take their children out to home school them. Some have done well and others are back because the parent could not handle it.

This year we have one boy in the class that is "different". He is smaller than the others, younger, but certainly bright. He never finishes his work as he is can not stay on task. But he is delightful. He talks and talks about the oddest yet most interesting things. I think one day he will be a scientist :)

My own daughter never seemed to fit into the crowd of her peers. She has always marched to the beat of her own drummer. She is bright but has never done well in school. That is OK. I love her just the way she is and I want her to do what will excite and fulfill her in life. She is artistic and loves to cook, so that is the route she is taking ... good for her!

Ugly Naked Guy said...

Irene and Dana:

I am glad that this post rang true for you. The more I think about institutionalized schooling, the less impressed with the concept I am and the more concerned I become for kids like the ones Irene has mentioned.

It is so hard NOT to compare your children to what others their age are like. My wife homeschools our children and I have to keep telling myself not to worry when one of them seems to be behind in something compared to the kids across the street. My six-year-old is very bright with an amazing vocabulary, but she does not yet read so well. It scared me when I saw all the other kids her age reading in her Sunday School class, but I have to keep reminding myself that she will read just fine when she is ready to. Right now she likes to do school with mom, but that will soon change if we push her too much into a mold of where the world thinks she needs to be.

On Nolan and his dad: This kid always wants to talk about what he and his dad do together; he clearly looks up to him. I once sent dad an e-mail basically telling him to put the school problems into perspective and be glad that he had a loving son. Based on his response, I don't think he got it.

Dana said...

UNG (I just can't bring myself to say your handle...ugh): I homeschooled for years - one will graduate UCLA this year. One will not make it through high school and will take his proficiency test in June. They are all different, the key is to not compare and to let them unfold at their own pace (whether fast or slow) that is the beauty of homeschooling.

I was panicky about the one not making it through high school (circumstances are now that I cannot homeschool him), therefore his private college prep Christian (uh huh) school wouldn't take him back in his junior year because he could not keep up (and there is that unfortunate thinking that Christian kids only come in academically brilliant packaging all the while missing a golden character). So from there he went to public - scary, and futile. He has learning disabilities and at 17 refuses to take meds because he Likes Himself Just the Way He Is, and that statement was so profound to me because how many 17 year olds are happy with themselves, love their families, are content to be a bit different? No teenage angst in him. After public was not working, we went to independent study which was too open ended and offered an endless repetoire of busy work, then from their continuation school (all the while mind you, I am worrying, worrying), and continuation informed him, why bother he was too credit deficient. So, he works at a convalescent village as a busboy and drives a golf court all over the facility to the shut-ins needing their dinners and he visits them and listens to them and smiles at them realizing that may be their only smile of the day. He'll be just fine in life - he has character, knows who His savior is, and mostly, is content with himself.

What he will be when all is said and done, I have no clue. He has obstacles to overcome, but who doesn't? He will have to deal with life as it comes, the good and the bad. But how nice to know that he knows he is loved and cared for an accepted just as he is.

Take heart.

Ugly Naked Guy said...

Dana: Sorry about the "handle". I really want to just be myself, but don't feel comfortable doing that. I am seriously thinking of just Changing it to UNG to maintain some continuity to my online identity, but get rid of the other, um, images that the blog title conjures up. Thanks for dropping by.