Thursday, September 09, 2010

Teaching Kindness?

Book smart = street dumb

This thinking is ubiquitous in too many of our upper schools. Smart is stupid, dumb is good. To mark the depth of this river, all you need to do is walk in the door. Ivory towers. Sissies. Nerds. Society just doesn’t give that much respect to the pocket protector sub-group, treating them more like a sub-species until they get out of school and star in a movie elevating the underdog to greatness or invent something that even bone heads can use, like an I Touch.

In an environment where weakness can get you teased and bullied, why risk showing off your book smarts? Bullies are often the most insecure of cowards and they can smell easy meat. Somewhere around 6th grade kids start to learn this and too many begin to stop learning in school. What’s the utility of engaging in a practice that’s going to get you socially ostracized? Nothing drains the enthusiasm out of a classroom faster than the skinny-eyed stare of the kid a silent majority has voted most likely to slam you into the lockers. My experience with adolescents is that it isn’t so hard to get them to buy into the lesson, it’s getting past the fact that they don’t want to show that they are interested. It’s hard on a teacher, but for some kids, it’s a life or death choice.

Nowhere is this worse than in my home district, Mentor High School. It’s been in the news lately since that rough patch couple years back, a two-year period in which five (5) students committed suicide due, at least in part, to bullying. Now a second set of bereaved parents has filed suit. They had complained, talked to the administration, withdrawn their daughter (a recent Croatian immigrant), and even hospitalized her for depression due to the abuse she was receiving daily at school. Like the gay boy before her and the three other children (children) in Mentor schools, she was the victim of what one commentator has labeled an atmosphere of “aggressive conformity.”

Are we teaching the wrong stuff? Is the increased pressure on schools to teach by the book toward measurable outcomes not only making teachers nuts, but driving kids crazy too? By increasing the pressure through testing, are we doubling down on the wrong things? I picked this list up from a cheery piece of reading you might want to add to the stack on your bedside table (you nerd you) entitled On the Death of Childhood and the Destruction of Public Schools by Gerald W. Bracey, Heinemann 2003.

Critical thinking
Sense of beauty
Sense of wonder

This is a list of what proficiency tests do NOT measure. Isn’t it also a list of characteristics you would want in a neighbor, parent, or co-worker? Characteristics of a successful person?

I’m not sure all of these qualities (motivation? kindness?) can be taught, but I think we can do a better job of not discouraging those traits by handing over control of our school communities to muscle-headed and spike-heeled bullies, ignoring the human needs of children.

So, I would suggest the following if asked (I decidedly was not asked being a poet, which makes me bottom-line suspect from jump). First, make it a legislative imperative that teachers report when a student is being abused by another student in the same way they must report if a child is being abused at home. Teachers can lose their licenses for not reporting abuse at home, why not the abuse on the stairs?

Second, make school more interactive with small learning groups where kids have to rely on one another instead of the prevailing competitive, every kid for him/herself paradigm. I don’t care what the test scores say, if kids are killing themselves or overdosing (oh, yeah, there were 5 of those this year, too) the school is failing.

If a school fails one of its own, the group who enabled the abuser with their collective silence needs to pay a price. If it is the jocks with the thick necks and the girls competing fiercely to hang from them who are perpetuating this terrorism, how about cancelling a few football games? Suspend the cheerleading squad? Oh, not fair to the athletes vying for scholarships? How about the nerds vying for scholarships who are afraid to participate in class because they might get teased to death? Let’s work to level that playing field.

One good thing kids glean from sports is that you don’t let the rest of the team down. They can also learn it from band, plays, poetry readings or their chem. lab group. But in order to succeed in the workplace, kids need to learn it, whether or not they can throw a ball.

Finally, suspending the abusers individually is not a remedy. Doesn’t work. Just causes more kids to feel isolated and angry. We need to listen to kids. Give them a forum to talk (I recommend poetry performance, naturally) and listen. Give them an audience. One of the most powerful moments in my teaching experience was when a mentally challenged student read a poem to a warm around the collars group gathered in a Michigan middle school library about what it was like for her to be chased to and from her locker every day. It made a difference. The talking and the listening. We all learned something that day.

Street smarts. The hand-on-a-hot-stove kind of learning that doesn’t come out of a book, but is both meaningful and memorable. The kind we get from talking to one another. We need more of that.

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