Friday, September 18, 2009

Two Conversations with Supersim, plus a highly opinionated commentary


Me: Sweetie, don't you have a spelling test tomorrow?

Super: (Heavy sigh.) Yes.

Me: Don't you need to study the words?

Super: No.

Me: Why not? Are you already prepared?

Super: I guess.

Me: You must have studied really well for the last one--you made an A on it.

Super: I didn't study for it. The words were just easy.

Me: Oh. Are they easy this week, too?

Super: I don't know.

Me: You don't know?

Super: I never looked at them. They're probably easy.

Me: Well, what if they're not easy? Don't you want to look them over and see if you need to--

Super: No, it doesn't matter. I'll probably make an A or a B on it.

Me: So...if you don't make any effort, you're pretty sure you'll make at least a B.

Super: Yeah.

Me: But with a little effort, you could make an A?

Super: If I get a B, that's fine, Mom. I really don't care! It's just a stupid spelling test!

Today, on the way to a morning dentist appointment:

Me: What are you missing this morning, Sweetie?

Super: I don't know.

Me: Well, what do you normally do first thing in the morning?

Super: Just stupid stuff.

Me: Sweetie, can you give me a real answer, please? You must know what you normally do when you get to school.

Super: We watch the news.

Me: You do? You watch a news show? Which one?

Super: No, not real news, school news. Two kids come on TV and they tell us the weather for the day and the lunch choices. It's boring.

Me: Boring? It sounds kind of cool. I didn't know the kids made their own news show. Do the younger kids get to do it, or just the older ones?

Super: It's the same two kids.

Me: What do you mean?

Super: It's always Levi and some other kid I don't know.

Me: You don't take turns?

Super: No.

Me: Well, why do those two get to do it every day?

Super: I don't know. I don't really care, Mom. I don't want a turn--it's dumb. Mom, after this is over, do I have to go back to school?

And Now...A Highly Opinionated Commentary:

When Supersim was in Montessori preschool, her teacher told me she was a gifted child and one of the most enthusiastic learners she had ever taught. She called Supersim a "collector of knowledge." In first grade, Supersim's teacher called her a "delight" and she even said that it was a real treat to listen to Super read out loud because she read with such wonderful expression and enthusiasm. She loved reading, but math was her favorite subject. She would eagerly show me the math "trick" she had learned in class that day.

In second grade, Supersim's teacher stood at the white board and lectured for most of the day. There were very few hands-on activities because they were drilling for the standardized test. Supersim began to struggle in math, but when she asked questions, the teacher responded: "Weren't you listening?" By the end of the school year, the teacher was advising me to get Supersim some medication to help her concentrate because, "she just doesn't get it."

At the beginning of the third grade year, I talked with the teacher and told her my concerns about Super: that she had enjoyed school until the previous year, that until recently she had been such an enthusiastic learner, and that she was intimidated by math. We resolved to work together to boost her confidence and get Supersim excited about learning again. The work that came home was all marked "Great!" and "Nice work!" It was great work at first, but as the year passed, Supersim got sloppy and started putting forth the bare minimum effort. Still, her grades were good, and I just couldn't put my finger on what was bothering me...

Until now. I've been reading a fascinating book by Robert L. Fried called The Game of School. Here's some food for thought from this excellent book:

Let's consider a frightening possibility: far too much of the time our children spend in school is wasted. It's not that nothing happens there or that kids spend their time just fooling around or that teachers don't try their best to present lessons they think are in our children's best interests. It's just that unless our children--of all ages--are truly engaged in their learning, most of what they experience during school hours passes over them like the shadow of a cloud, or through them like an undigested seed. They may be present in the classroom, but they are not really there. Their pencils may be chugging away on the worksheets or the writing prompts or math problems laid out for them, but their intelligence is running on two cylinders at best. They pay some attention to what their teacher happens to be telling them, but their imagination has moved elsewhere.

Yes, I thought. What did you do in school today, kids? Nothing. I know they did something but whatever it was, it was obviously not interesting enough to talk about later. Every day I ask my kids what they did in school, and every day they tell me about something that happened in the cafeteria or on the playground. If I want to know what they learned, I have to play twenty questions, and eventually they get annoyed with me. Mom, we're done with today, and we don't want to think about it any more..

Then, I read this part:

Why shouldn't our kids be eager to head off to school each day, anticipating their next investigation, project, or performance? It can be agonizing for parents to see their imaginative, articulate, eagerly seeking young learner become, over the years, someone bored, passive, complaining, or compliant--focused on not making mistakes rather than taking on new challenges. Most kids in school listen and do what they're told, most of the time. They pick up stray facts and acquire some skills they wouldn't necessarily learn elsewhere. They learn about following rules in the lunchroom and about leaving one-inch margins on their papers. They even learn the Pythagorean theorem and how to write a five-paragraph essay with three supporting arguments and a conclusion.

But unless they view such activities as important, as having meaning to them or their lives right now, they aren't truly learning, in the sense of developing their minds and hearts as young people eager to embrace the world.

A light came on in my head and I thought, "THAT"S IT! That's exactly what I was feeling, but couldn't quite articulate. My gifted girl, my "Collector of Knowledge," has become bored, passive, complaining and compliant! She can't find meaning in the work she's doing in school. Why? For starters, she's not investigating anything. She's listening to a lecture, filling out a worksheet, answering the questions at the end of the chapter. She's just going through the motions because that's what is expected of her. Textbooks don't ask students to make discoveries--they ask students to regurgitate the facts that were just spoon-fed to them. As for taking on new challenges, could you get excited about a list of spelling words? When she says, "It's just a stupid spelling test, Mom," what she's really telling me is, "I don't see any point to this. I'll take 30 0r more of them this year, and they don't have any relevance in my life, so why not coast?"

I'm not suggesting that textbooks should be trashed or that kids shouldn't learn how to spell. Students need to learn to glean knowledge from many sources, and they also need all sorts of communication skills, including learning how to spell words correctly. But if my daughter can go from "gifted collector of knowledge" to "I don't really care, Mom," in four years, then something has gone terribly wrong. And if her teachers can't reignite that spark, and I feel that I can, isn't it my responsibility as a parent to take over her education?

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