Let your kids struggle…

A couple of posts ago I finished with the following words:

“…so I promise, another post will not appear until I write one that reflects on a positive teaching practice of mine.  If you blog…how about you doing the same?  It can simply be what do you do really well and reflect on how you make it happen!”

Sunday I was at a family picnic.  I scooped up my 1year old niece and took a walk into the backyard.  We walked up to each tree and she reached out to feel the leaves.  After going from a Maple to a fir tree she wanted to go back and forth between each.  She does not have words yet, but was obviously comparing the two textures.  As she was going for a pile of woodchips she walked right over the edge of a railroad tie and fell but I caught her before she could bang her head and get an injury that would have ended our walk about.  We then sat down in a pile of wood chips.  She picked up each one and gave them to me.  Then she started to try to break each one finally figuring out that the thin ones broke, and then proceeded to examine all the new mini chips she had made.  When she got down to the dirt her fingers could no longer dig.  She picked up a little twig and it broke, so I handed her a larger stick so she could continue exploring the dirt.  She eventually dug up a small rock that she picked up and then left with her treasure in hand.

At some point I had an urge to “teach” her about the outdoors.  I wanted to have her feel all the trees, pick the various leaves and have them all in front of her. I wanted to pick her up over the railroad tie and carry her to the other side.  I wanted to stop her digging because I knew she was getting dirty.  I wanted to show her how to break the woodchips and flake them into bits.  I wanted to just move the woodchips aside so she could get right to the dirt.  And I wanted to just pick the rock out of the dirt instead of her scraping away the dirt with her stick.  But I just helped her go where she wanted to go, helped her up when she fell, and presented her with a tool that might be useful.

Dr. Sylvia Rim said “Each time we steal a student’s struggle, we steal the opportunity for them to build self-confidence.  They must do hard things to feel good about themselves.”

One thing I think I do well is that I don’t steal the student’s struggles.  I give them space and freedom to explore on their own.  I resist the urge to do things for them.  At the beginning of the year the class gets very messy.  I have to systematically wean them from all that they have learned which is that I am there to tell them what to do and they are there to do what I tell them.  In the beginning they do not have the confidence to do things on their own or believe that they can do things on their own.  They stay locked inside of their little safe boxes.  Slowly I let the struggles get bigger, and last longer.  Soon they are banging down the sides of their boxes and slowly step out into the unknown.  Ready to take risks.  Ready to make mistakes.   Ready to step in front of a class and struggle on their own knowing they have the support of the class.

Just a quick note…I hesitate to define “struggle” and place it in perspective.  I assume a reasonable reader will be able to determine that I am referring to letting the kids struggle with an engaging project that has the proper emotional and academic supports in place. I am also not referring to the struggle that comes with having to finish useless work or completing an assignment that is just simply lots and lots of busy work.

Today one student who usually asked a million questions during projects did a presentation.  They were given two weeks to complete it.  She never asked for help, never asked for any ideas, and she finished three days early.  Her presentation was so far out of her box that I teared up.  After school she came up to me and said “How’d I do?”  I said, “I don’t know, what do you think.”  She said,”I am so proud of myself.” I gave her a double high five and she bounced away.  I also had another student who wrote to me on the first day of school saying that she hoped I could help her gain some confidence and break out of her box.  A couple of weeks ago she stood in front of the room and gave the class a live performance of the song that is in the video below.  I cannot imagine the guts required to step in front of an 8th grade class and sing a song.  In many respects I really don’t want to take any credit for my kid’s performances.  I feel like I just kind of let them be and grow and they do the rest.  But that would be like saying a gardener is not responsible for the harvest, that it was the vegetables that grew on their own.

Dr Kevin Washburn just recently wrote in a post:

…I often observe teachers presenting a sequence of steps that students need to follow to achieve some result. As students practice, the teacher roams the room and checks student work. A student with an incorrect result is often reminded that the steps “are listed on the white board,” and directed to look there to find his mistake. But whose brain processed what and where as the teacher wrote the steps in order on the board? The teacher’s. The student’s brain focused on the what and where of the teacher’s movement and voice, not the material. As a result, the student still lacks the processing of the material necessary to enable higher functioning, such as using the sequence of steps to achieve a result.

However, if the teacher has the students write the steps of the sequence onto index cards and then arrange them in the correct order, the students process the what and where of the new material. Additionally, the teacher can assess the students’ knowledge before they begin making application. Instructive feedback at this point prevents incorrect practice.

While I might not be successful with every student, by the end of the year it’s the students who can identify the problem, come up with the steps, put them into sequence, process the what and where, take that information to a deeper level, and create a presentation that engages their audience.  It is allowing the students to struggle in a safe environment that allows that to happen.

If you are a blogger, please consider sharing something that you are proud of doing with your kids in your next post.  If you don’t have a blog, well then then please share your “something you do well” in the classroom as a comment on this post.  While you are thinking, enjoy the video below from my kids.  It is a song they wrote after studying urban problems in 19th Century America.

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