Teaching Without Forcing
My last post, a lengthy reply to a letter from a teacher-to-be who was reading one of my books, met with an excellent response from another young woman who started a small, inner-city school in Austin, Texas four years ago. In it she asked about the nuances of how a teacher can facilitate learning by following the student’s lead instead of the dictates of an imposed curriculum. More specifically: “How do you take observations [of the child's interests and strengths] and turn them into a plan for each child?” The question warrants an in-depth answer, and so again I have decided to post my reply in order that everyone can see it:
The first thing to say is I don’t remember forcing Ethan to do any conventional schoolwork. What little he did was voluntary, though I’m sure I nudged and encouraged him from time to time. The reason I’m beginning my response here is that in my experience removing coercion from the teacher/learner dynamic is a key first step in helping kids like Ethan recover from damage to their desire and ability to learn caused in part by previously being compelled to learn things they either weren’t ready to learn or had no interest in.
I didn’t make Ethan engage in learning activities because it very likely would’ve continued turning his education into a power game, with the goal on my end being how do I get him to do the things I think he ought to do because they’re good for him?; and on his end, how do I resist doing what Chris wants me to do? You see, all the pushing and pulling tends to suppress the emergence of a child’s innate gifts and interests, and also the teacher’s ability to recognize them.
But this isn’t what you asked. What you’re after are tips on how to teach in an open-ended way that allows each child to follow his or her own natural learning path.
As with any question about children, there aren’t any simple, general answers because kids are all so damned different. But as you yourself said, it begins with observation. First we have to get to know each child really well and establish a relationship based on love and trust, which in turn enables us to see the real child and not, say, the rebellious persona that power struggling brings out. And then IF the environment supports children being active and doing lots of different things—especially creative pursuits—and also playing a lot and expressing themselves freely, then a child’s interests and assets are usually pretty obvious. I can’t think of any special tricks I have up my sleeve to ferret them out.
As for fashioning a learning plan that builds on the student’s interests and assets, in Ethan’s case I have to say that his “plan” tended more to emerge organically out of his love of nature and animals than it did from anything the other teachers and I cooked up for him. For example, one day on his way to school he found a featherless baby pigeon that had fallen out of the nest. I suggested to him that he call a wildlife rehabilitator that I knew at the Department of Environmental Conservation for advice on how to raise the newborn bird. Ethan then woke himself up several times a night to feed it in the beginning, and later it was the sweetest thing in the world watching him teach it to fly just like its mother would have done.
Ethan’s contact with the rehabilitator at DEC led to my asking Ethan if he’d like to do an internship there, and the next thing you know he was (at the age of 12) spending one full day a week helping to care for the wounded wild animals that people had rescued and brought in. It’s no accident that Ethan now works at DEC, where these days he tries to save wildlife from environmental pollution by investigating corporate cheaters. So in this instance my role was largely to help Ethan create the opportunities to build on his interests.
Where I see the teacher’s role being even more important is with children whose interests and assets are not readily apparent, because it usually means there is trouble within the child that must first be addressed.
This was certainly true with Ethan, who had had an extremely traumatic early childhood. A lot of our initial work with him was on an emotional level helping him to deal with his fear, anger, and low self-esteem. Distressed children often don’t know what their true interests are. They’re too busy trying to feel safe, or powerful; and they tend to be led by their impulses instead of their passions.
I’m reminded of another preadolescent student of ours. Mike came from an extremely dysfunctional family and had a history of academic and social failure. His only recognizable talent seemed to be annoying other people. At that he was an Einstein. The whole school community worked with Mike on learning ways to get attention in positive ways, and then one day sweet serendipity decided to lend a hand. On his way back to school from the park, Mike found an old boom box and a bunch of music cassettes that someone had put out in the trash. Everything turned out to be in working order, and so he went straight to work annoying everyone by playing his music too loud.
A set of headphones easily resolved that issue, and then out of nowhere it seemed, Mike announced one afternoon he was going to DJ a dance in the Big Room. He was still so unpopular at this point that I was afraid no one would show up. But the word quickly spread that he had some really good tunes, and before long the dance floor was packed.
Mike’s dances became a regular event, and his obvious love for sharing his music with others prompted me to ask him if he’d like to intern at a local college radio station. His eyes lit up at the thought, and I was able to find a student DJ willing to take Mike under his wing. The next thing we knew Mike was busy studying for the FCC license exam—which he passed on the first try—and then when he returned for high school to the same school district where he had failed so miserably and been so mercilessly bullied, he talked the principal into letting him set up the school’s first radio station. Today Mike is busy earning a handsome living operating his own DJ business.
So I really don’t have a neat and tidy method to present to you, Caitlin. Teaching without forcing is like an improv dance. It depends on the ability of teachers to attune themselves to their students; and also to keep the atmosphere positive and engaging so that the children feel good about showing their true selves and risking trying new things.
The important thing to remember is that every child is born with a plenitude of interests and talents. And they don’t disappear; it’s just that insults like trauma, abuse, neglect, and authoritarian parenting and teaching can cause them to go into hiding until a teacher or mentor who is light on her feet helps show them the way out.