A couple of years ago, I was at a west side Wichita establishment that was well known for it's country music and large dance floor. My husband and I arrived there in time for line dancing lessons which was an experience that opened my eyes. I joined the 12 or so people out on the dance floor and the instructor started slowly with no music. He just gave us the words to match the steps he was demonstrating. I repeated the words and the steps along with him. Then he added some music but still spoke the words telling us what to do. I was still doing fine. Then he stopped saying the words. He played the music and my classmates fell right into place as if they had been line dancing all their lives. I, however, was flummoxed. I couldn't do it. I was so embarrassed and I desperately wanted to yell, "Slow down cowboy. We weren't all born in a barn." I needed what we call in teacher talk, "extra guided practice." I tried to do the steps but couldn't and everyone else obviously could so I awkwardly step-scooted off the dance floor, flopped down on a chair and handled it like a mature adult. "Line dancing is stupid," I said, "and I didn't want to do it anyway." A few days later with some distance from my humiliation, my mind went to the student in my math class who always just wrote down random answers or the kid who got back his English test with an F on it and acted like it was funny, and I understood them in a new way.
There are a lot of reasons why kids seem to not care. If we watch and listen, we can usually figure out why. For some, it's because some bigger life issue is casting shadows in their lives and school seems irrelevant. For some, it is just being overwhelmed with lots of new information. Sometimes, like me in line dancing hell, they need more time to practice the new skill.
There are some great words in Isaiah 42 that I try to keep in mind with kids who are discouraged and defensive. These are the kids whose faces I see before I go to sleep at night.
"He will be gentle-he will not shout or raise his voice in public. The bruised reed he will not break..."
I have always felt my students for whom school is difficult are like bruised reeds and that I need to help them stand tall without breaking them.
Some ideas for these learners...
- Start with what they know. A lot of kids with working memory issues check out of class mentally because they can't bring back what you taught them yesterday and apply it to today. Prime the brain and bring back previous content. Show them how it connects or builds on with visual cues.
- Guided practice and lots of it. A teacher asked me once how long to give his math students guided practive before turning them loose on independent work. I told him, "Until they are rolling your eyes at you."
- Believe in them enough to make them take you seriously. You will not break the bruised reed by having high expectations and letting him/her know you will do what it takes because you believe they can learn what you are teaching. Tell them you love them enough to sit them in the front row, to monitor their study habits, and to put some restrictions on their distractions.
- These kids have to know you like them and that you are a safe person. Show your humanity and your sense of humor. Ask them to tell you what helps them the most. Sometimes they will tell you more if they can write it down. One teacher I know had ongoing communication with each of her students with notecards. She'd have them write something down that they had thought about during her class and she'd write back to them. When they filled the note card, she gave them another. She knew more about her students and how to motivate them than anyone in the building.
We are all bruised reeds, in some way or another.... Let's be thankful to those who hold us up and don't trample us down.