Learners and Avoiders

I spent my second week of third grade settling into my new routine and getting to know my students better. Overall, it’s been a much smoother week, but as we learn more and more about our students, I see more and more of their specific challenges. Most challenging for me so far has been what I will call our “avoiders”. These students have a very hard time focusing on most school activities and invent a whole host of methods to get out of doing their work.

As a child, if I was anything like these avoiders, I have no recollection of it. For the years of school that I can remember, I can say with certainty that I was not. I loved school, and on the days that I didn’t, I still loved learning. As such, I’ve been struggling to understand the perspective of these students as I work with them in class. I’ve been sharing these reflections and struggles with others on staff at my school, and it is clear that none of them were avoiders either. And so I find myself perplexed about how truly difficult it must be for these students to feel understood.

Chances are good that if you’re an educator, you enjoyed school. Chances are even better that if you enjoyed school, you were probably pretty good at it, whether by being inherently intelligent or just excellent at following directions in a manner that pleased adults. It is much less likely that, as children, teachers struggled to concentrate, adhere to classroom guidelines, and take interest in the work set in front of them. Given this reality, there probably aren’t very many people in any given school who understand what is happening to the child who deals with all of those things daily. If we have no experience or only limited knowledge of this experience, how can we support these students? How can we help them navigate a school environment which seems to do nothing but pester them?

When I ask myself these questions, my first response is always: Montessori. But these particular students have me leading a heated internal debate. I wonder if, as I like to imagine, these students would have never become avoiders if given the chance to start in a Montessori environment; that they would have flourished in a space that allowed them to choose their own work, seating arrangements, and motivations. But then I question this assumption, and ask myself if perhaps, as much as I don’t want to admit it, many children wouldn’t thrive in a Montessori environment. Maybe the responsibility would be too much for them, the weight of consistent productivity could be anxiety inducing, or the lack of structure might paralyze them from doing much at all.

I recognize my own lens as a learner in this debate, and that this lens is clouding my ability to consider a reality that involves individuals who are born or acculturated to have no spark ignited by learning (not to mention that I just find that idea very sad). My limited knowledge of child development tells me that this can’t be true, based on babies’ natural inclinations to acquire language and understanding of the environment around them. Despite this lens, and perhaps naive view of the world, I would love to see some sort of empirical study that identifies whether there are students with non-existent predilections for learning – if you know of any, please send them my way!

Rules, Rules, Rules

Three school days into my third grade experience and I’ve learned one major thing:

A lot of third grade is about following rules.

We have rules about when and how students can talk, walk, play, think, read, eat, go to the bathroom, and just about any other activity they might do during the school day.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about these rules, partially because of my role as a rule enforcer, and partially because, as I mentioned in Learning While Overwhelmed, I have a bit of a questionable relationship with rules. I have nearly always felt that traditional schools are overbearing with their rules, and have worried about the impact the constant guidelines would have on the development of students. But, over these three days, I have also begun to concede that most of the rules are extremely important, though not for the behavior they foster in and of itself.

By dictating the when and how of our students daily experience, we are providing them with practical experience that will help them follow societal rules that will be imposed on them in the future. Somewhere along the way (or perhaps every step of the way), we have to learn that rules make society function and we, individually, play an integral role in that process.

I have been trying to think back to my own elementary school experience to remember if we had as many rules as the students I’m working with manage. Truth is, I can hardly recall any such rules, but I know that we had our fair share. I am certain that these rules were explained more than once, and that I was corrected for not following them, but I cannot remember a specific time this happened. Realizing this gives me hope that perhaps we are not doing the damage I sometimes imagine; maybe, complying with a structure just becomes so ingrained in us that we forget about the numerous corrections, and focus on managing ourselves within our various systems.

Regardless of the long term effects, I think the biggest difference between my school then and now is how rules are framed. At my Montessori, we focused on how our actions affected the people and environment around us; we followed rules for the betterment of a community and our learning environment. I don’t know that I would have picked up on it as a third-grader, but the rules we have in our class right now seem more for the pleasure of the adults in the room. There are cases where I can see that the rule is to create an optimal student learning environment, but most of our guidelines serve primarily to get 17 eight-year-old students to be less frustrating for an adult to interact with.

Don’t get me wrong, I would prefer not to spend my days frustrated by the volume level in our classroom or fielding complaints over who picked who first on the playground, but I do have my concerns about the impact of our constant demand for rule following. If we are providing a student with rules for everything, right down to how they play tag with their friends on the playground, what will they do when confronted with a situation with less defined boundaries? How are we affecting their critical thinking abilities? Are we? Or are we actually modeling how to create their own rules which will allow them to begin to manage these structures on their own further along in their development? Given my experience with college students, I can say this is certainly not a universal skill, but I am eager to see any active pedagogy that might move a student in that direction.

Learning While Overwhelmed

I am a rule-follower. Sometimes a rule-questioner, but almost always a rule-follower. I actively question the validity of rules, and have a healthy disregard for arbitrary ones, but I believe in structures that make sense, like the order of operations outlined for completing a major, or earning the credentials or certification necessary for employment, prior to being employed. Overall, I find this to be a productive and somewhat efficient way to navigate life, but it means that I hardly ever find myself in a situation for which I’m not mostly prepared.

Walking into my new job on Tuesday was perhaps the most unprepared for anything I’ve ever been in my life. I didn’t realize it at the door, but by the end of the day, I was fully aware of just how little I knew about the operations and functions of an elementary school. My life experiences prepared me to learn from and adapt to the new situation, but almost everything is completely new information. To say it has been overwhelming would be an understatement – I have left work each of the last few days feeling equipped to do nothing but fall asleep immediately.

Today was a bit less of an information overload (that, or my body is adapting marvelously well), and I’ve had the energy to reflect on this process. Two things stand out to me: the importance of preparation and the reality of a threshold of learning ability in a small amount of time.

Regarding preparation – I have been in new situations before, complete with hoards of new information thrown at me in a short period of time. What makes this situation different is the amount of additional processing that has to happen in order for me to formulate any clue of what’s actually happening. When most of the faculty and staff in the room are merely absorbing information that makes sense in the context of their work, my brain is on overdrive trying to piece together every scrap of knowledge it has about what happens in a school. Sometimes it’s conscious, sometimes it’s not, but it is far more challenging than any standardized test or research paper. And then I consider this in the context of student learning, and realize that there may be students who feel this way on a daily basis. I can hope that this is not the case, knowing that educators understand this problem and use a host of tools to avoid it, but I’m sure the reality is that there are students who experience it regularly, and I will probably see some of it emerge as they begin their school year.

Secondly, I’ve concluded that there is a limit to how much information my brain can process in one day, and that processing said information, while not expending physical energy, is an extraordinary amount of work. I believe this threshold to be true for everyone, though individually defined – fully dependent on the person, their context, amount of sleep, extroversion, what they had for breakfast, and some conglomeration of other variables.

While it’s little help to me, and I’m looking forward to seeing how a more traditional school combats these issues in students, I’m glad to know that these are realities that the Montessori method deals with in stride. The crux of the Montessori philosophy, especially in regards to the youngest children, is to prepare them for whatever is next in their development. Students trace sandpaper letters to develop their arm muscles for writing; they count manipulatives to prepare them for math operations; they even button, zip, and tie on wooden frames to prepare to dress themselves. With a development sequence broken down in such detail, complete with teachers focused on presenting new challenges only when the student is ready, I imagine it’s rare that a student feels completely overwhelmed by what they are learning.

Further, and on the off chance that they do feel overwhelmed, the environment of choice they exist in within the Montessori classroom allows them to navigate that feeling appropriately. If map making is feeling overwhelming, a student can choose to focus on language, practical life skills, or any other material that has been presented to them. Moreover, this choice is a completely standardized part of the school day, fully normed and expected, not something that has any chance of making a student feel less than.

I am excited to meet the 17 children in the class I’ll be working with, and while I hope none of them find themselves feeling quite so drained from learning as I have the last few days, I’m very interested in the process, and to see if I can begin to identify when they might be feeling a bit overwhelmed.

Lessons from Stay-cation

This week, I’ve been on a stay-cation, hoping to give myself a mental break before beginning a brand new routine with my new job. It’s been a successful week of relaxing and getting some things done to help me feel more prepared for this life adjustment; and just like the last time I had a real stay-cation (right before I started my last job), I found myself a bit overwhelmed with all of the options.

This sense of numerous options is something that hits me hardest whenever I’m short on responsibilities. We live in a world where there is constantly more to fill our time: cleaning, cooking, reading, watching television, spending time with friends, practicing hobbies, completing projects, etc; it’s never-ending. The first summer I spent in my last job, I found myself cleaning my house every weekend (usually a rarity prompted only by impending company), cooking myself more food than I could eat, and reading like a fiend. Until my responsibilities at work increased, these things topped my list of things to do. And then, as my inclination toward the busy wars kicked in, those pieces fell quickly down the priority list. I often lamented the state of cleanliness in my house, chose going out over cooking, and set my book aside in favor of work or mindless television. I forgot what it was like to actually have to prioritize how I spend my time, because in my head, my priorities were clear and there wasn’t a lot of extra time to fill.

This week, I found myself back in the mindset of “what in the world do I do next?” I realize that these choices represent my values, but so many of them feel so very similar I find it hard to distinguish which is best. What I’ve learned, is that perhaps more than anything, I value some sort of productivity. I’ve spent my week mapping out a detailed GRE study plan, cleaning, cooking, reading, and overall making progress towards spoken and unspoken goals. This flies directly in the face of what many have advised me to do with my week (aka spend it in pajamas in front of the TV). And while I’ve done a bit of that too, I find that more than anything I feel relaxed and happy when I feel accomplished and have a clear course of action to get (almost) everything done.

Reflecting on this, I’m realizing that I may need to devote a bit more of my time to organizing my day-to-day life plan when work is in session. While I pride myself on having the skills to prioritize the important things and make them happen, perhaps the stress I often believed stemmed from extensive work responsibilities actually came from allowing those responsibilities to impinge on planning (and, in turn, doing) life, instead of the responsibilities themselves.