Sunday, April 25, 2010

Challenging Students

School was a challenge for my brother.

Reports cards often included statements like:
“behavior remains a problem for Andrew”
“it is a challenge for him to sit still”
“he is working on keeping his hands to himself and not talking so much”
“he struggles to stay focused on the task at hand”

Perhaps it is more accurate to say my brother was a challenge for his schools.

This is because my little brother is brilliant. Throughout school he was almost always bored. Every call home to my parents contained an untold story of Andrew’s quest for something interesting to do.

I know this is true because his best year in school, by far, was when he had a teacher who loved science as much as he did. She spent huge portions of the day doing hands-on experiments. That year Andrew’s report card looked very different. It said things about his creativity, curiosity, and eagerness to learn.

At home, keeping my brother out of trouble was not hard. Supply him with interesting books about how things work and some broken appliances and he was hooked for hours. Let him play with tools and wood scraps and he’d invent something beyond your wildest dreams. Give him the chance to create games with the neighbors and he was in his glory.

But traditional schools are not set up to handle people like my brother. He’s not the classic sit-in-a-chair-studiously-for-hours “gifted” kid that we’re taught to expect when we think of genius. But neither are most kids, and I don’t think that means intelligence is just exceptionally rare.

Andrew grew up before ADD had a label and a medication. Perhaps today Ritalin would enable him to fit the mold better.

But even beyond the possibility of a clinical diagnosis, as an educator I wish that Andrew’s teachers had understood him as well as his family did. Even if they didn’t have old telephones for him to take apart and put back together, his teachers would have been amazed by the knowledge he could glean at the age of ten from a scientific article. If they’d simply let him work with a partner on one of their uninspired assignments, he would have gotten the job done just because he would have been able to exercise his interpersonal intelligence.

Challenge comes in all forms for children. What Andrew learned from the kind of challenge he experienced in grade school was that he could learn more outside the classroom than he could within it.

I know he’s not alone in that discovery. He graduated, but countless other bored students simply get tired of wasting their time and don’t. How do we curb that tide? How can we create more of the educational challenge that engages, and less that makes students want to walk away? How do we make school meaningful for all children, not just the ones who can find meaning in a conventional instructional format?

1 comment:

Susan Coti said...

Great essay. Your brother reminds me of my son, Niall. He, too, did not fit the conventional student mold, and he suffered in school. That is why he was homeschooled the last two years. He couldn't wait to graduate and get out into the world. He's doing wonderfully now and is truly engaged in the Marine Corps! He tells me he will go to college in a couple of years when he's ready. Right now, he excels in his training, has been promoted twice and is going to Japan next month for an 8-month deployment. He is successful for the first time in years and is very happy. It wasn't what I had expected, each his own. I fully support and celebrate his decision.