Growth Power

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? 



Seeing Possibility

When I was starting my journey as an elementary classroom teacher, my eyes and ears were trained to search out problems.  Who was having trouble decoding words?  who couldn’t continue to build onto a pattern of shares or numbers?  Which ones had trouble settling down?  How could I help this one distinguish right from left?  How could I help that one learn to tie her shoe?  Of course,  I was a teacher and this was my job – to help – assist –  encourage – nurture.  I focused all my attention on the problems.  What wasn’t yet achieved?

As I gained experience, I relaxed into the role of a careful observer.  I still nurtured students’ nascent talents, but my gaze increasingly became one of possibility.  I was focused not so much on students’ weaknesses – the things they could not yet do.  But rather set my mind and intention to what they could do, what made them motivated, what ignited their passions for learning.  I had several mentors along the way who shared the same belief system.  Carl Anderson approaches writing workshop conferences as opportunities for students to see themselves as writers.  He recommends that during each conferring session, the teacher give the student a glow and grow This consists of giving the student feedback on something in their writing that works wonderfully, and also give a suggestion about their writing that will help them grow.  Katherine Bomer also takes on this stance in her book,  Hidden Gems, she encourages teachers to look for the surprising and fresh writing moves children make instead of focusing on the writers mechanical mistakes.  This growth mindset rings true to me because in my experience more growth and opportunities arise from seeing possibility than from focusing on deficits.

I have been fortunate enough to be teaching for forty years.  And with that amount of experience, I’ve seen young children who couldn’t stand still, had trouble learning to read, had undecipherable handwriting – grow into young adults who were accepted into colleges, including many Ivy League institutions. And later, those young adults became heads of real estate or financial companies, major athletes and artists, and promising entrepreneurs.  They learned to seek paths that played to their strengths and challenged themselves to see beyond their weakness and stay intent on building their strengths.

The very first mentor I encountered in my life was my mother, Vivian.  She was a talented artist, fashion designer, seamstress, and eventually an elementary teacher.  Her creativity and determination became my source of strength in so many areas of my life.  This month marks the fifth anniversary of her death.  I miss her every day.  I recently began reading Barbara Kingslover’s novel, Unsheltered One sentence stood out to me as the main character,  Will Knox, talks about the loss of her mother:  “Really it was her mother she’d wanted to call right after the bad news, or in the middle of it… it had been her mother who put Willa back together.  When someone mattered like that, you didn’t lose her at death.  You lost her as you kept living.”  When I read those words, I felt an instant connection to the author.  “Yes,” I thought – “Yes,” that is what it’s like to lose a loving mother.  Time has given me an opportunity to reflect not only on what I have lost, but also on what my mother gave me – all her gifts.  And for that I am so very grateful.

First Teacher

I remember your ruby-red lipstick and dark eyes,                                                                    You were the one who taught me laughter.

I remember the sound of your heartbeat as we cuddled                                                          Cozy together in the wooden rocker,                                                                                               It was you who taught me the power of stories.

I remember your hands pushing and kneading dough                                                              Into a perfect pie crust,                                                                                                                    You were the one who taught me patience.

I remember your cool cheek on my hot forehead                                                                          It was you who taught me love.

I remember your fingers flashing over fabric:                                                                Folding… pinning… cutting…                                                                                                             It was you who taught me perseverance.

I remember you standing tall,                                                                                                  Bending down close, guiding and reassuring,                                                                              You were the one who taught me kindness.

I remember you dipping into paint,                                                                                      Creating a world of color,                                                                                                                    You were the one who taught me possibility.

I remember your quiet calm in the face of pain,                                                                          You taught me courage.

I remember your lasting embrace                                                                                                    It was you who taught me acceptance.