A friend of mine, a small bookish man with round glasses, once told me you don't get much raised consciousness among football players. I got it even then. We were working in a program with kids, under-privileged kids, kids who had been kicked their whole lives. The only self esteem these kids ever had was the occasional word of encouragement from their pimps or from their drug customers or suppliers. Maybe the occasional dinner at McDonalds with an abusive boyfriend. But here we were telling them that each of them was important, each of them was special, each of them had a gift to give the world that would make them feel worthy. We said that because we believed it.
But these kids, like most kids, live in the real world. The world that is still run by the baser natural instincts that remind us that, although we are one or two chromosomes apart from animals, those animal instincts still govern. The survival of the fittest is hard wired in our DNA. The winners of this primal social scale are the ones who are able, theoretically, to claim the biggest part of the kill, to claim the strongest mates, and to stand the best chance of shooting their genes into the next generation. The big kids, the strong kids, the attractive kids, still rule the play yard. They still rule the high school corridors in those times when the teachers or hall monitors are not watching. It hurts. Bullying hurts. But as sure as hens peck their way through the pecking order, children, teens, and adults will assault one another verbally and physically, openly when they can and slyly when they are being watched.
We as teachers, parents, and caring adults will always try to help. We teach the kids that they're all special and important. But I have come to realize that what they are really looking for, what we all are looking for, is whatever skills or attitudes it will take to pull themselves up to the next rung on the social scale. It's not enough merely to be accepted by whatever group we associate ourselves with. We want to be better than, the leader of in some way, the one admired by that group.
To take competition away from kids is to take away yet another opportunity for them to measure themselves and their personal growth. In rowing, in many sports, we all fit in in our place within the team or crew. We all look out for one another, we all pull our oar or guard our goal or do our part however it is defined. We all hope we're good enough. And we must all be given that golden opportunity to improve ourselves in comparison to others. We as humans are social creatures. I don't want to be chosen only because the big kid is being nice to me. I want to be chosen because I'm the best.
I suggest that it's time we take our ever so liberal heads out of the sand and face the reality of what both we and our kids have to deal with. Then I suggest that we put our kids, and ourselves, in any of the hundreds of positions where they or we can actually grow and be that person of importance. That means work. Not everyone can win in a race, but everyone can be known on their own team or crew as the one who gave it everything in the tank. We are handicapping our kids by giving prizes to everyone because they put in their best effort. They learn, very quickly, that they will get a prize even if they don't put in their best effort, and that's just not how life in the real world is going to treat them.
We need to put our kids, and ourselves, on the path to something attainable, but still out of reach. We need to give them all the tools necessary to succeed, or at least give them directions towards those tools. We need to direct them, encourage them, to work very, very hard towards the goal of their choice. Because, at the end of the day, nothing will get you to your goal, consequently to a level of competence wherein you are actually accepted and admired, like a solid direction and hard work.
And so, every day, we rowed. We played with the curious harbor seals who swam over to visit. We saw osprey nests. We broke up ice with our oars. We raced the wind and followed the compass. Every student had the opportunity to command and every student had the opportunity to follow. Everyone had to try it once. Some chose to stay behind in the warmth of the classroom after they had given rowing a fair shot. Most came again and again. Some got really good at it. All, every last one of those kids, found new strength and confidence on that boat.
I have often thought of middle school as an unnatural act. It goes against all the laws of nature to lock that many hormones into a classroom and expect them to stay quiet and perform for long hours day after day. It all but passes the laws of common sense to then complain about youth obesity. These young people, Bruce and Melanie reasoned, couldn’t learn if they were fighting their natural need to move. They needed to get outside often, to walk, to burn through their youthful energy. Once that need was met through quests, hikes, rowing, or just a walk around the block, they were more able, and more willing to sit in their assigned desks and work through their academic requirements.
In a corner of Bruce’s classroom lives a loaf of bread and jars of peanut butter and jelly. Melanie purchases granola bars and popcorn snacks. Adolescents, most of us know, are a nocturnal species. Many of them, often without parental supervision, wake up at the very last minute, and stumble towards the door. Like many of us, they can’t face a hearty breakfast first thing in the morning. Two hours later, well, a hungry child can’t learn. Any student can at any time walk to the corner of the classroom for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Cheap. Nourishing. Protein, carbs, get you through the day. It’s a little thing. But to a hungry kid not quite old enough to realize the consequences of skipping breakfast, it means a lot.
The plan didn’t stop at the boat. The kids followed Quests. At a parents’ meeting at the beginning of the year every parent signed a “blanket” permission slip permitting their child to leave the building with the class for the entire school year. Parents, many of whom remembered their own middle school experience, were 100% supportive. Walking tours took them not only to Lindsey Brook but to historic buildings, to the industrial park, and, most recently, to our local sewage treatment plant. Local businesses have shown themselves wonderfully receptive to this place based education and eager to help kids learn outside the confines of school.
Meanwhile, back in the classroom, there was math and social studies, English and science to study, standardized tests, and the grave realities of the 21st century education system. While Melanie coaxed and cajoled these challenging students through their reading and writing, Bruce’s lessons were concrete, building on Melanie’s base. The calculating of percentage, area, and dollars is standard for the eighth grade curriculum. Giving these lessons something the students could grasp as real gave the theory of math a genuine purpose. One math class involved constructing paper houses, each designed individually by the students, then computing the floor space to find how much wood would be necessary to cover those floors. Another found each child computing their home property taxes and comparing them with surrounding communities tax rates. The most recent project involves calculating for the city of Rockland how much porous surface, such that will filter water, against how much paved surface, off which the water will run with its oil and pollutants directly into the harbor or sewage system. Computer skills, Google Maps, math and science all surrounding a project that reinforces, once again, our sense of place in Rockland.
Connecting history to the place where they lived, to buildings they could see and touch brought history alive. Quests gave a purpose to learning history. Rowing on Rockland Harbor in crews of six or seven gave students a sense of ownership of that harbor and great pride in working together to both know and protect it.
The final tally of grades isn’t in yet. The thing we’re quite certain of is that grades haven’t dropped in spite of the many hours of time spent outside the classroom. Absenteeism has dropped dramatically. Attitudes have improved and softened in ways that no government official can measure and no teacher can miss. Kids are approachable. They work together. Fights and office referrals are significantly down. These kids are learning in an atmosphere that recognizes them as whole persons. They are beginning to see themselves as persons of worth.
It takes hard work to break the established mold of education and try something fresh. It takes a team teacher with whom you can work well, cooperative staff, a principal who will fight for you, and a community who will go the extra mile. It takes parents who are willing to trust something different. Not all of us have these advantages. But more and more across Maine we are finding teachers like Bruce and Melanie who want more for their students and are willing to put in the time and effort. The love of watching the students truly learn is encouraging more and more of the teachers and administrators of Maine to step outside of “the box” and truly, actually teach our students in ways that they, each of them, can learn.