Empowering Learners, Spring 2005
Extra-Classroom Teaching Handbook
Taking the Time
A CHILD ON ONE SIDE...
The thing that struck me most about Peter was his curiosity. Each of the twenty or so first graders I worked with engaged me and challenged me in a different way, but Peter was unique in his unfailing ability to amaze me.
My visits to Peter’s classroom, on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, generally coincided with the class’s math time. I spent most of these hours working through math and time-telling games one-on-one with students at the classroom computer. Although each student had his or her own way of approaching the games, they all shared a common goal: to get as many correct answers as possible as quickly as possible. Well, all except for Peter.
Peter always seemed to know the right answers. Taking them as they came, he always found the games to be too simple. In one, the screen opened to a clock face with the hands set to twelve o’clock. To the left a question read something like “Johnny eats breakfast at nine-thirty. Where are the hands on the clock at nine-thirty?” Below the question, a small clock face displayed the correct placement of the hands. The students were supposed to reposition the hands on the large clock to match those on the small. Peter thought this was too silly! As he scrolled through the problems, he covered the small clock with his hand or asked me to cover it with mine. Even without the aid, he answered problem after problem correctly. After going through problems like this for some time, Peter began to wonder aloud what would happen if he answered questions wrong… And so he began repositioning the hands on the clock so that incorrect times were displayed. He enjoyed seeing how the computer responded to his “mistakes.” This sort of testing became a regular feature of our computer time—whenever a program failed to challenge Peter, he looked for ways to challenge it, exploring until he was visibly engaged.
One afternoon, I arrived in the classroom to find all of the students diligently coloring little paper pizzas. The classroom teacher explained to me that they were working on a lesson in fractions, and that the next step would be to cut the pies into halves, quarters, and eighths. I walked around the room, visiting with each child. When I came to Peter, he turned to me, absolutely beaming, and held up his creation: a mass of greens and blues and purples splattered all over the sauce and cheese and pepperonis and mushrooms. He explained how he had discovered that by layering colors on top of each other—blue over green, for example—he could create new colors. He was just about to test his theory on the effects of layering purple and green when the classroom teacher walked by and whisked the paper from the table. Pointing to the background of the shape, she asked Peter, “What color is cheese really?”
Peter looked confused as he answered, “Yellow.”
The teacher walked to her desk with Peter’s pizza in hand, picked up a new, clean pizza, and walked back to Peter with it. “Color them what they really are.”
...A TEACHER ON THE OTHER
I was a sophomore in high school when I visited Peter’s classroom. Almost six years later, I am still, dramatic as it may sound, sincerely inspired when I think back to his drive to explore and his wonder at discovery. I am also still saddened and troubled when I recall how the classroom teacher responded to his unorthodox pizza coloring. At the time I was shocked, and a bit confused. After all, it was a lesson about fractions, wasn’t it? It wasn’t a lesson in the colors of pizza toppings, and besides, Peter clearly demonstrated that he knew what color each topping was. It certainly wasn’t a lesson on realism in art. Purplish-greenish-bluish pizzas divide into halves and quarters as well as “normal” pizzas do, don’t they? So why did the teacher insist that he “color inside the lines”? Clearly Peter was getting a more fulfilling, educational experience out of is own project.
Hold it, hold it. Clearly Peter was getting a more fulfilling, educational experience out of his own project? Who am I to talk? One of the problems with this story, I guess, is that it comes from a single perspective. It was clear to me that Peter was engaged in a rich learning experience as he colored his pizza, but was it really clear to the teacher? Probably not. I had just spent five minutes listening to him explain the theory behind his coloring practice. The classroom teacher, on the other hand, had just walked over and seen scribbles. Maybe she simply felt he wasn’t taking the assignment seriously enough, or maybe she had even announced before the project began that the students were to color their pizzas realistically and was reacting to Peter’s disregard for her instructions. I spent hours one-on-one with Peter. I recognized him as an outside-the-box learner, and I was excited to facilitate his wonder. The classroom teacher, on the other hand, had to divide each moment among 20-30 six- and seven-year-olds. It was possible that she had never really had the time or opportunity to recognize or engage Peter’s unique learning style. Or perhaps she had recognized it, but had found that it could become disruptive and, for the sake of her own sanity and maintaining the classroom order, had decided not to tolerate it. Often when I was working with other students, I would hear the teacher yelling Peter’s name or scolding him for one reason or another. In any case, it seems unfair for me to point an accusing finger at the teacher and say, “You did not see this child. You stifled this child. You damaged this child.” Yet I feel it’s true that the child was not seen, was stifled, and may even have been damaged.
I believe that in every classroom, regardless of size and composition, there is a way for teachers to really see their students, to recognize their individual needs, abilities, and curiosities. But I also recognize that finding a way to implement such individualized consideration in many large classrooms can be difficult and takes time, especially when a teacher is working alone. The help of an in-class aid or extraclassoom facilitator has a lot of potential to help free the teacher to take time to recognize students as individuals or at least to provide an alternative outlet for a child to receive such recognition and support. But, whether we’re talking classroom teacher, in-class helper, or extraclassroom facilitator the key really is taking the time recognize that we are dealing with individuals—large groups of them, often, it’s true, but still individuals—and that by addressing the group as a group, we necessarily make generalizations that do not hold true for and institute practices that are not the best for every or even necessarily any individual. We must recognize that when we try to translate these generalizations into interactions with individuals, we are making assumptions. We must seize every opportunity we can to combat those assumptions, to take the time to see and understand each unique learner.
BUILDING A BRIDGE STARTS WITH MAKING POSITIVE ASSUMPTIONS...
Most students at Haverford College live on the basic assumption that everyone adheres to the principles of our Honor Code—essentially, that we uphold the values of trust, concern, and respect in every aspect of our lives. Does everyone stick to the Code, every minute? Of course not. The very fact that we have Honor Council, perhaps even a code in the first place, points to a recognition that we are not perfect. And yet when we approach other students here, we approach them assuming that they will treat us with trust, concern, and respect, and assuming that they expect the same treatment from us. While this assumption may at times prove problematic, it is the very fact that we continue to act on this assumption that our community continues to function as it does. By giving students “the benefit of the doubt” and “assuming the best,” we encourage students to live up to that standard.
The sort of assumption that Peter’s teacher made is a very different sort from the sort that Haverford students make every day under the Code. The teacher’s assumption—that Peter was doing something bad, whatever made her believe this—was degrading; the assumptions Haverford students make—that their peers offer and deserve trust, concern, and respect—are empowering. This is probably largely because the teacher’s assumption was based on factors external to Peter—on the teacher’s own perception of what Peter was doing and why and/or on her own struggle to oversee a large group of children, perhaps, though this is an assumption on MY part—and not on careful consideration of what she knew of Peter or of the motivations Peter could have explained to her if she had only asked him to. When students assume that other students are adhering to the Code, their assumptions are based in a collective understanding: we all signed the Code and agreed to stick to it when we came here. The assumption, in this case, is based in some knowledge of where students are coming from. And it, too, like the teacher’s assumption of Peter’s motivations, breaks down when the reality of a student’s sentiments do not correspond to the Code.
But how can we make the sorts of assumptions that amount to trust and understanding and avoid making the sorts of assumptions that are unfounded and can hurt or alienate others and inhibit learning?
...AND THEN ACTIVELY SEEKING TO UNDERSTAND THE REALITY
I think it is extremely important for all of us to be aware of our own ignorance of others’ lives, personalities, learning styles, and motivations. We do not always know where those around us are coming from and rarely is it the same place from which we ourselves are coming. I think this is where our Code’s theory of “confrontation” (dialogue, really), in its idealized form, really comes in handy. This theory asks us to approach others directly with our concerns and to expect and accept others’ approaching us. Taking it a step further, it also asks us to take the time to confront our own assumptions, to enter a dialogue assuming that we don’t know the whole story, that our side isn’t the only side, and interested in and concerned with the other’s point of view. This can even translate to asking a first-grader why he is coloring a pizza purple and blue and green before demanding that he stop.