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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Keep Going, Don't Despair

It doesn't matter how slowly you go as long as you don't stop (Confucius)

One of the problems I have observed as a teacher in high school is kids giving up and dropping out. No matter how many times I tell them that every student learns at a different pace and was born with different skills, they feel that they are not smart enough. "Why do I have to read Shakespeare or Mary Shelley or Lord Byron or Edgar Allan Poe; I won't need that in adult life, I can make money anyway", they answer. It is, of course, very difficult to visualize your life 10 years from now when you are 16, 17, or 18. My standard response is to plant the seed of doubt (about their life plan) by giving examples of older adults working in menial jobs that pay very little. There is no point in simply trying to persuade them that we know better as parents or as teachers.

We can also point out that reading classical British poetry and plays by famous authors is not "necessary" to be successful in life, if you define success as material possessions. Savvy English teachers will mention that human nature hasn't changed since the first man walked on two legs; reading the master psychologist William Shakespeare will teach us lessons that no psychotherapist can equal. Studying complex mathematical problems may develop the brain to a new stage of performance that will allow its owner to aspire to well-paid professions. Learning about physical and social sciences will bring an unequaled insight into the mystery of life and the endless complexities of human relations.

He who learns but does not think is lost. He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger (Confucius)

 One of the many strategies available to parents and teachers is to pair the dedicated student with the at-risk one; if the combination is girl-boy so much the better. Women are more mature at the same age as teens, and boys usually react more positively to the other sex than to their male counterparts. Must be some "macho" gene kicking in! Another way to bring the reluctant student into the learning mode is to dedicate a few minutes a day to simply talking to him or her. Showing genuine and respectful interest in their life often brings a positive change in their responses. We frequently cite the need for teachers to make a difference in young people's lives; unfortunately that is not always possible. The way the school day is set up, students run to the next class or once to lunch every 50 minutes. Ideally, there should be no bell and no time pressure. They would go to the next teacher whenever all students have proven that they have assimilated the needed knowledge and skill for the day in that particular topic.

School administrators will react strongly to that suggestion, not always favorably; and yet, that is what we must eventually reach: a school day during which all types of learning styles and speeds are attended to. Students would shoulder more responsibility for their acquisition of skills under an honor code. If we started the new type of school with the first year of elementary, the learners would reach high school already trained in actively seeking knowledge instead of sitting passively on a hard plastic seat during 8 hours. Modern technology (I call it "teachnology") such as iPads and tablets would be available to every kid of every social class. A lot of self-learning can be accomplished with such wonderful tools. Let's imagine futuristic intelligent school desks that respond to the youngster's needs. A teacher would be become more of a guide than a lecturer, a supervisor of learning processes, a resource rather than an authority figure.

We must absolutely change our way of teaching to the lowest common denominator. Let's make every teacher a full-time partner in education, listening to his or her suggestions. They know as nobody else what's going on inside the classroom and they want every student to be successful. But they need the right tools to achieve that goal. Our country's future leaders are in elementary schools right now. We need them well-prepared.

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