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Monday, March 11, 2013

For My Daughter, Son, and Students: A Mother and Educator's Plea in a Wounded Education System

Being a parent and an educator require much of the same attributes; understanding, reliability, a sense of humor, love. What makes me a good parent in turn makes me a good educator. Don't get me wrong, I have made many mistakes that left me with feelings of failure. Recently, as I listened to my daughter cry and share that she felt stupid because she did not perform well on a test, I felt like a failure. However, I share this failure with an education system that is wounded.

We are wounded, but we are not broken. Our education system is failing some children and yet succeeding with others. There are schools that are seeing graduation rates soar while others are declining. Many classrooms are sparking a love of learning in their children that will stay with them for a lifetime, while others are crushing this love of learning and leaving children without a sense of self-worth. Yes, we are wounded, yet we are not broken. The problems we have can be solved, and I know there are many educators out there already getting started. I read about these fabulous people everyday on Twitter and watch them rejuvenate educators via TED Talks.

Children have access to a world's worth of information right at their fingertips. We no longer live in a time where the most efficient way to learn about history is to drive to the nearest library and dive into a stack of books. We do not live in a world where math problems are presented in story problem format and we must remember specific steps for solving the equation. These scripted moments of isolated practice do not prepare us for the problems we encounter in life. Living life and solving the problems we encounter will prepare our children for the future.

I hear many educators comment that many children do not know how to think. I agree, but that is not the fault of the child. We as educators strip this ability from our children by pushing them though a system that scripts how they should think. Regardless of learning style, past experiences, interests, or abilities, we push them forward. We give them every step in how to solve a math problem, give them the answers in the back of a text book, and correct their work based on a rubric. We tell them their solutions are wrong rather than having them find the errors themselves and learn from their mistake. We script a child's education, straining it of enthusiasm and opportunities for creativity.

Imagine working in an environment where there was only one judge of your job performance. One person who dictated whether you are a success or a failure. One person who labeled you with behavior charts, test scores, and leveled groups. Our children meet this challenge head-on each day, yet many adults tremble at the thought of one or two job evaluations a year. Some children succeed in this environment, while others do not. Some thrive in this environment while others are crushed. Educators often ask why a child does not want to learn or 'behave' as they should. Why would a child want to push forward when they feel deflated? Why would they have a love of learning when it is not in their control? A child cannot take control if the control they are given is only an illusion.

I feel that the values and skills we should be instilling in our children have nothing to do with a textbook, test, curriculum, tool, or worksheet. If we truly want children to know how to think and take control of their learning, let's provide them with the opportunity. As educators, let's stop being the road block that keeps appearing at the beginning and end of each learning unit. Instead, let us be that fountain of enthusiasm that cheers on each and every child from the sidelines. Let's help our learners find their value. Let's follow the children's interests and inquiries and provide them with real-life opportunities to grow. They do not need to memorize facts for the sake of passing a test. These facts will still be seconds away when they need or want to find them.

If I had to choose three things that my children would have at the conclusion of a school year, they would have nothing to do with scores or standards. They would leave with curiosity, confidence, and passion.

They would have a curiosity that drives them to pick up their iPad and search a topic just because they want to learn more. The learning that occurs in this situation will stay with them unlike the learning in a study guide and test. Curiosity that drives them to ask questions and solve problems. Curiosity that urges them to dig in the dirt, swing as high as they can, or slide backwards down a slide. This is what truly gives children a love of learning. This requires teachers to realize that learning is not always on schedule. If it is, the control is still in the hands of the teacher.

Let's give children confidence in themselves so they feel like they can succeed at any task as long as they are given the time. Confidence that can stand up to a wounded education system, bully, or complex problem like a warrior. We all have moments of self-doubt. Helping a child realize their own inner strength is how we help them overcome obstacles. As parents and educators we cannot, nor should not, remove all conflict from a child's life. What we can do is help them discover the value in themselves that will strengthen their character and help them survive a world that does not always show compassion and understanding.

We need to help children find a passion. Something that makes them want to jump out of bed each day and take on the world. Something that gives them a sense of purpose and pride. The sort of thing that their parents brag about to other parents repeatedly, whether it be music, sports, computers, books, nature, animals, engineering, or volunteering. Anything that helps us realize we are so much more than the person on the outside. We are a construct of our emotions, actions, passions, and understandings. Passion in life is the difference between surviving and living. We cannot deny our children the chance to truly live.

Unfortunately, we see that textbooks and tests do not instill curiosity. They do not leave all children feeling confident in their abilities. They do not strike a passion in a child that leaves them feeling like they just have to learn more. They leave many children feeling like they are, as my daughter put it, stupid. They affirm feelings of self-doubt that nag at a child's soul until they dismiss learning as a value. They shut down opportunities to discover passions and purposes in life that could mean the difference between a child growing up to go to college and a child being satisfied with a job that just pays the bills.

So, to my daughter and son, you are so much more than a test or set of standards on a piece of paper. It is okay to love playing with toys that are rated for three year old children because they are fun. Be curious and ask questions, even if others may laugh at your way of thinking. Use that same confidence to show who you really are, even if it means you will wear cowboy boots with sweatpants or a t-shirt full of glitter. And, find a passion that makes you want to succeed in life and not just survive. Find that thing that makes you tick. Scratch that, find the thing that makes you explode with enthusiasm to a point you share and rattle on until others are bored. You are not stupid. The system is wounded. So, count on yourself and others around you that share your curiosity, build your confidence, and support your passions.