I have been watching children grow for forty-two years. The funny thing, like plants, children don’t always grow in a straight line reaching directly up to sun, luscious and fragrant. Sometimes growth takes a hard, circuitous route and more time than expected. With plants, you might need to adjust the proper amount of sunlight, temperature, moisture, air, and nutrients. You also might want to provide beautiful music to encourage growth. With children, it helps to be patient, provide encouragement and a positive attitude. Follow their circuitous route and give them the creative space to discover their interests and passions.
Lately, I have been bombarded by teachers with fixed mindsets about student progress. The words: can’t, doesn’t, won’t, below grade level abound. They repeat the mantra, “She’ll never catch up.,” over and over again until it becomes their truth. This fixed mindset about student growth has been debilitating to me, and I can’t imagine what it does to the students. Children, even if they are having trouble learning, have no trouble understanding how their teachers regard them. They know what teachers think of them, and if the teacher’s truth is that the child can’t learn or there’s something wrong with the child, then undoubtedly the child begins to believe it too.
I believe that humans are miraculous creatures. They can surmount overwhelming odds. They can achieve their goals with hard work, encouragement, and burning desire. They can crush any limits with strong will and motivation. I know this to be true. I have seen it. The third grader who struggles to pay attention becomes a poet and a therapist. The second grader who struggles to read, grows up to get a doctorate in education. The first grader who applies an awkward pencil grip and avoids writing, grows up to be a world-class adventurer who sails across the Atlantic. Without some kind of struggle, it is difficult to truly learn. There should be no shame in struggle. We shouldn’t give children the message that if you are struggling to learn something, then you are not quite up to par and that this is the way you will always be.
This idea of children needing to be given space to question experiment and explore reminds me of the story of Gillian Lynne described by Ken Robinson in his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. Robinson explains that as a young girl growing up in the 1930’s, Gillian was thought to have a serious learning disorder, and school officials recommended that her mother take her to a psychologist. Gillian’s mother complied, answering the psychologist’s questions as Gillian sat on a chair listening. When Gillian’s mother and the psychologist left her alone in the room, the psychologist deliberately turned on his radio. As the music played, Gillian got up and began to dance. As Gillian’s mother and the psychologist watched from the doorway, the psychologist asserted that Gillian did not need to attend a school for the learning disabled. Instead, he proclaimed that Gillian was a dancer, and he recommended that she attend dance school. Gillian went on to become a famous British ballerina and choreographer. She is best known for her choreography of the Broadway hits, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. (Robinson, 2009). It is this shift in perspective that is necessary for connecting children with possibilities. By encouraging risk-taking and experimentation, teachers guide students to explore their personal strengths and passions, allowing children to become authors of creative narratives of their own design. Children begin to see themselves as actors in the true sense of the word. They are part of a creative growth process, responsible for their own learning.
Didn’t They Know? Melodramatic, My family dubbed me. "Stop being Sara Bernhardt," My mother declared. Didn’t they know? Didn’t they know That I cut my teeth On words and sounds, On the sharp crackle of circumference On the soft chew of statuesque. I was born a poet, Didn’t they know? Sensitive dreamer, My family called me. "Get your head out of the clouds," My father demanded. Didn’t they know? Didn’t they realize My mind was made For curious, impossible things? To wander and wonder To dance with the breeze Weave words into poems And poems into stories And stories into a rich, wild life. Didn’t they know?