Today is Slice of Life Tuesday and since many participants in this weekly forum hosted by TwoWritingTeachers.org are educators, my blog today focuses on an educational topic. It is also a post that applies to parents and offers encouragement to allow your student to find their strengths, whether or not those strengths fall within the educational system box.
All three of my boys are outliers. However, the system does not recognize this distinction. We allowed my oldest son to finish high school virtually because the system did not challenge him to the extent that he asked. I say asked because, at the time, when he was a sophomore in 2010, he wanted to take 3 AP classes. This was called out as an overload, and I believe, prompted him to start looking elsewhere for an educational system that would allow him to challenge himself. Although he excelled by following the “rules of engagement” set for educational systems, obtaining the level of challenge he desired (and deserved), posed a dilemma. By allowing him to leave a conventional system, we supported his needs, but also removed ourselves from some of the parental perks of having a highly successful academic student. I remember a teacher friend telling me that allowing our student to make this choice – to finish high school virtually, said a lot about my husband and I as parents. Yes, it did. It said that our children and their needs come first. Looking back, although difficult at the time, it was the right decision. He’s continued to excel and is a self directed learner working on advanced degrees.
My middle son, I believe, knew he did not fit in the “box” of systematic education long before high school. Yet, he persisted. Always a “pleaser” he did what he could according to system guidelines. And, somewhere in middle school put himself (with our encouragement and support) on a path to study engineering. He attended three engineering summer camps at two universities between 8th and 10th grade. He went to Badger Boys State Camp, a prestigious camp for future leaders in our state. As a student, he is curious and inventive, learning much on his own, outside of his coursework. These traits are definitely not supported in our current system. Learning best through hands on activities that allow the application of concepts, he also falls into a minority of students who are both conceptual and experiential learners. To a large extent, systems do not support this type of learner. We should. We need to. After a year of college, two states away, he is determining his trajectory and a change of course. Recognizing that he was in a repetitive cycle that started long ago, it is time to break free of the box and make the decisions that are right for him. This is what systems should support, not the boxing and packaging of only one type of student. Success is defined in many ways. Educators need to recognize and support ALL of those paths, not just some. To verify this, all one has to do is look at those inventors and businessmen, both past and present, who became wildly successful despite (and, more likely, because of) their unconventional paths.
My youngest son is a junior in high school. At the end of 8th grade, he told me he did not want to be known as “the smart kid” in high school. He could have been known that way, but he chose not to be. He does well, for sure, but has defined himself in other ways, ways that are more important to him. He’s become an accomplished artist, winning several competitions, one sponsored by an olympic athlete, and one sponsored by the Congress of the United States. He’ll have a piece of art hanging in the U.S. Capitol in the Cannon Tunnel for the next year, as the regional winner of the Congressional Art Competition. The piece is a hyper-realistic oil painting of a friend. He is also working on a mural of Albert Einstein on an inside wall in one of the hallways of our high school. Athletics has also become important to him. He excels at soccer and track and field, ranked at the #1 sprinter for the 200 meter in Wisconsin, currently. His focus, determination, dedication, and perseverance set him apart. These are not skills that are taught but have been acquired, nonetheless. Hence, he is not known as “the smart kid” but well known for his accomplishments on the “fringe” and unlikely meeting of art and athletics.
What does all this mean? It means that we, as educators (and parents), need to find some way to support our students in taking time to find their own strengths. We need to stop boxing them in according to test scores, aptitude tests, and anticipated academic or athletic performances. We need to stop forcing them to choose a path when they enter the double doors of the high school as incoming freshman. The pressure to do that is overwhelming for some.
Educators need to ensure their systems are providing experiential learning, and not only accept student curiosity but encourage the asking of questions and exploration of fields that might not be considered “mainstream.” Essentially, I am asking for the unboxing of students. As adults in the lives of young people trying to figure out who they are, we must allow, without penalty, the acceptance of mistakes, change in plans, or future interests. When our teaching becomes set in stone, it makes it hard for the students to move, change, and make choices that might be best for them. We need to set aside our expectations and any attempts to make all students fit in one academic box. This approach has never worked, and it will continue to be ineffectual.
Teachers and parents, I highly encourage you to unbox your students! You’ll see that they are still perfectly capable of accomplishing some amazing things!