Monday, April 16, 2012


(This is the eleventh in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken: each day’s post centers on a topic connected to the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)

Kids! You can talk and talk till your face is blue!
Kids! But they still just do what they want to do!
Why can't they be like we were,
Perfect in every way?
What's the matter with kids today?

(Bye Bye Birdie)

Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone!
(Dark Side of the Moon)

Bobby and Missy sitting in a tree,
Along comes love, along comes marriage,
Along comes Missy with a baby carriage.

Okay, a couple of words of explanation. Number one, where have I been for three days? Well, Friday and Saturday I was at a retreat that we run each year for teachers at our school. By Sunday I had come down with (yet another) horrendous cold; I don't know whether it's a new one or just a continuation of the one I've had pretty much ever since Thanksgiving. So I kind of fell off the wagon, not that anybody is keeping track.

Number two, let's face it, K is a weird letter, kind of an alphabetic Katzenjammer Kid. It's hard to take K words seriously. What exactly is one supposed to do with kangaroo, or klutz, or kettle, or kaftan, or kebob, or kazoo, or kamikaze? Just take those words right there; that's a weird little energy zone: intercontinental, all different registers of diction: it's like a Mummer's parade. Even the more serious K words don’t play nicely with other K words: karma and Kafka, keg and kerchief, king and kindle, knee and know, kidnap and keyhole (Although I sense the beginnings of a story there).

I might not even have thought of "kids" if my son hadn't mentioned it during our iChat on Sunday. But it works. First of all, it's maybe the most common word in English for any number of words more formally denoting human beings of a certain age, with varying degrees of emotional and sociological freight: children, progeny, offspring, spawn, and the like. It's a slang word that has been around so long it doesn't really feel like slang any more. (I can remember my elementary school teachers crossing out the word in stories I had written with the admonishment that "A kid is a baby goat." I wonder if anyone does that any more.)

More importantly, for the purposes of this series of blogs—obscure and inconsistently realized as they may be—it's hardly possible to use the word "kids" without calling to mind a whole series of notions about kid-ness that are perhaps worth assaying. So, without putting too much time preliminarily into deciding on a sequence, or, God help us, a thesis, here are some spur-of-the-evening reflections:

• "Kids" as a general category seems to denote not just an age group of say, four- to- eighteen-year-olds, but a certain set of behaviors that can be variously seen by others (parents, teachers, oldsters of various stripes) as either amusingly immature (as in the lyric from Bye Bye Birdie above) or disturbingly vulnerable to the predations of humorless, if not actively meanspirited adults (a la Pink Floyd). But either way it's a word with positive connotations. What's not to like about kids?

• "Having kids" is probably the single most significant and irrevocable rite of passage in the range of human experiences. Certainly, in the long run, it's a more significant rite of passage than the more notorious rite of passage which makes the having of kids physiologically possible. As I mentioned to one of my colleagues at the retreat—and as I have sometimes told my high school students, when the question comes up—I used to wonder, when I was in my late teens and early twenties, when exactly one became an adult, and how one knew, after the fact, that one had done so. It clearly had nothing to do with chronological age. Just because you're 18 or 21 doesn't make you an adult in anything other than a legal sense. But I got the answer to my question the first time I held my infant son in my arms. I remember very strongly the overwhelming realization I had at that moment: this changes everything. Knowing that this child, this wrinkled bundle of muscle and energy and spirit that I had been complicit in brining into the world, was basically totally dependent upon us, his parents, for pretty much everything from that time through the foreseeable future went a long way toward reordering my internal priorities and my sense of myself as a person. (The colleague I spoke to added that that same moment was when she first began to truly understand why her own parents had behaved in the sometimes apparently inexplicable manner they had toward her.

• It has become increasingly clear to me over the years I have been involved in what we optimistically refer to as education that our schools as currently organized make very little sense at all, at least in terms of what is good for kids. What reason is there to suppose that just because we have, say, 25 seven-year-olds (or ten-year-olds, or 17-year-olds) in the same room, that they are all ready to learn the same thing in the same way? I've spent enough time with seven-year-olds, both of my own and of others, to know that there are, well, no two remotely alike. Some are tall, some are short, some are skinny, some are round, some are funny, some are shy, some are athletic, some are musical, some are interested in math, some are interested in manga, some mostly like to sit and listen to the sound of the wind in the willows, or perhaps to read The Wind in the Willows, although that seems less likely now, alas, than it once did. Whatever rationale might have been offered, back in the day, for the wholesale warehousing of kids in school classrooms organized by grades and subjects, that day is long past, and what brain research has revealed about the startlingly differentiated pathways to neural maturity in students of all ages only confirms that our methodologies are outdated and "developmentally inappropriate." So why are those methodologies so difficult to change? Many a book has of course been written about that very question. (Of the ones with which I am familiar, I'd recommend Robert Evans' The Human Side of School Change.) More than I can hope to get into here. Just gesturing at the territory while the train rides by.

• As a teacher, I've put a lot of thought of what I would like to be able to do for my kids, what I would hope that they would learn from their time with me and carry with them into the rest of their lives. I know that it doesn't have a whole lot to do with factual knowledge. It has to do rather with a set of attitudes and habits of mind that would include, as I have pointed out elsewhere, the capacity for having enthusiasms, trust in their own ability to enter a new situation and figure things out, the ability to ask good questions and the resiliency to stick with the questions long enough to begin to find their way toward answers.

At the retreat we were asked to take part in a dialogue exercise that asked us to reflect upon various turning points in our journey as educators, as well as the overall arc or trajectory of that journey. I found myself thinking of (and later sharing with the group) one of my favorite education-related poems, "First Lesson" by Philip Booth, which ends with him wishing for his daughter the same optimistic resiliency and centeredness that I wish for for my children, and for my students:

First Lesson

Lie back daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man's float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

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