Teaching, Schooling, and Coping

The mess/massacre/act of evil at the school in Florida this past week, combined with totally unrelated things at Day Job, poked me to think about education, school, and teaching. I started out in an excellent, Odd, small district, then moved to a public school district that I managed to escape from more-or-less tolerably educated, and now I work at a very small religious school. One of the things that came to mind was the difficulty of students who do not get taught how to cope with their problems.

I have a wiring problem, so to speak. I have extremely limited short-term memory. For example, I can imagine an idea, organize the needed words, remember how to sequence them, and remember how to move my hands to write or type them, but I cannot spell. If I concentrate on spelling, I lose grammar or vocabulary. If I am writing something and am interrupted or asked a question, I have to stop, answer the question, then resume writing. There’s just not enough memory available for me to speak and write at the same time. And that’s if I am writing, not printing. I don’t write printing, I draw printing, which requires even more concentration.

But I cope very, very well, because my 5th and 6th grade teachers made everyone do penmanship exercises every day. I hated copying out essay after essay, then removing the tracing page and trying to match the letters on my own, three times a week, every week. But that constant drill forced cursive writing into muscle memory. That’s what it took. I require at least twice as long as most people to develop combined fine-motor and non-motor skills. And I now know this.

But what if you are a child in public schools today with the same problem? You are not stupid. You may be very smart. But you can’t hold all the information and techniques in your mind at the same time, and you don’t know why. You only know that something’s not right and you get very frustrated because people say, “Why can’t you get good grades? I know you’re smarter than that.” Or you are labeled as having a learning disability and get taken out of class, or put in a group of students who have real mental disabilities and learning problems. Or you are passed on to the next grade, and the next, and you know that everyone around you knows that you are different, and not in a good way.

Then you get to college, or encounter a real, hard, class and get sandbagged without knowing why.

Memory glitches are relatively common. And one thing about the old drill-n-kill methods of having to memorize lots and lots of information—that multiplication table, or list of spelling words, or list of presidents, is embedded in your memory below working memory. It is there, rock solid, waiting for you. Now, if your memory quirk is not being able to access data easily, then you have a different challenge, one that requires a different set of skills and tricks to work around. But there are ways to sort, store, and recall what you need.

The younger a child is, like me, when she learns how to cope, the better off she is. Alas, it is now possible, nay probable, to get through a not-too-bad public school system without learning, because it is easy to diagnose a frustrated child as “on the spectrum” and stop there. There is grant money in having children “on the spectrum” even if they are not. There’s no grant money for teaching a boy with memory-access difficulties how to prompt himself to remember. And drill-n-kill learning is about as fun for most students as eating liver is for me. Given the opportunity, I’ll politely decline.

By the time students reach me, in high school, most have learned at least a few coping skills, especially if they came through private school or home school ranks. A few who come straight from public school, or not-so-great private schools, have trouble. Their frustration frustrates me and other teachers, because we often take it personally that we have failed a student if he can’t learn for some reason. Memory problems are not something medication can help with in most cases. And in high school, we teachers do not have as much time to work on basic skills, like writing and penmanship, or rote drill of multiplication tables.

There are no easy solutions to learning how to work around wiring glitches. But I fear a lot of pedagogy theories and praxis used today just make it harder for students, and their parents, to find solutions. I have to wonder how many boys and girls would be happier if instead of ignoring, or drugging them to “fix” them, more parents and teachers focused on whatever it took to really identify the source of the frustration and then directed the kids how to cope? But there’s no money in that, and no glory for the administrators.

*I had originally included links to some books by the late Dr. Mel Levine. I removed those links because of the controversy surrounding his personal behavior. I found his ideas and books very useful. Other people cannot bear to touch the work because of the accusations against him.

16 thoughts on “Teaching, Schooling, and Coping

  1. My first grade teacher thought I was retarded. I was. I was slow at learning to read and subtract. I couldn’t do them at all – until one day when I could do them perfectly. My third grade teacher despaired of ever getting me to memorize the times tables. It took nearly all year of daily effort, and a lot of missed recesses. But I got there, because the teacher never gave up, and wouldn’t let me quit. (I still believe that boys shouldn’t go to school until they’re 8 years old. They need to run around, climb, trees, throw rocks and wrestle a lot more than they need to be taught to sit still and shut up at a young age.)

    It’s easier for the teachers to give up and let the kids quit now. And the big city schools have their own medical staff to prescribe and dose the children (mostly boys, you’ll notice). Fun fact – In Washington, DC, only one in six sixth graders will graduate from high school. And two thirds of those that do are functionally illiterate and innumerate. This is a failure of the first order by everyone – parents, students, and teachers. Because it’s easier to not deal with problems, and politically expedient to pretend that the problems don’t exist. And who ever thought it would be a good idea to pay schools to mainstream mentally, emotionally, and behaviorally challenged kids with the ‘normal’ ones? Teaching and learning are difficult enough without the added distraction of those who will not or can not exert self discipline.

    • I agree about the need for all kids, and especially for boys, to have more activity and unstructured time. Having boys in school later would also help for many, as would going back to a vo-tech option even for the kids on college track. I have no idea how much better guys did in school when they had an hour or two of hands-on, make something tangible class each day, but I suspect it helped many get through the rest of the day.

      • We’re lucky in that the principal at my kids’ school is rather “old school,” if you will, and strongly believes in the need for all elementary schoolers to have unstructured recesses (yes, plural) each day. They get more than the system technically allows, but no one has raised a stink since all the other requirements are covered and the students do well academically.

  2. My wife, before she retired from teaching, spent a great deal of her prep classes and some after school and morning time in working these techniques and skill with troubled students and as many parents as she could meet with. She’d taught in a special needs middle/high school for several years – special because these were almost all top-end of bell curve kids, with dyslexia, dis-numeracy, dysgraphia, etc. Did a lot of learning about reasons why and methods how to cope. It’s two sets of problems: one is how their brains are wired, the other is where to find input and output points. Many times, kids had both problems but no one else recognized it. No one is paid or recognized for diagnosing the problem and finding the pattern. Her recognition came later, from former students and parents, as the kids went on to do well or succeed.

    Yesterday’s post about soup and slow cooker? We had a lot of evenings, for a lot of years, where she was home late from conferences. Soups, chili, stews, roasts were ready in the evening. It was a help.

    McChuck has an excellent point, and I’ll add on. There’s a definite need for recess – and enough time for it – in all grades, up through high school. Boys and young men do a lot of learning kinetically – get them in motion and learn by doing. That’s a lot of low and medium math, applied physics, mechanics, and other experimenting. If you get them moving for about a half hour at a time, you use up a lot of nervous energy and tension, so they can concentrate on details for a while more. Recess segments disappear at MS and HS, and gym class/PE are NOT a substitute. We need unstructured time to move and play, with adult supervision in view or earshot, and associate the way males do.

    If I get stuck on a technical problem at work, it means time for a fast walk or bike ride to bring the whole thing out, think about causes, and define solutions. It means always having a pocket notebook to write and draw out the ideas. Many times, a smart phone doesn’t give enough screen space or flexibility to draw, note, and connect.

    • I freely admit, there are days when I’m working with middle schoolers and the urge to open the door, shoo them all outside, and chase them around the parking lot or track or pasture for a few laps before returning to work has been nigh unto overwhelming. I have stopped and had everyone do jumping-jacks, toe touches, and bounce in place to get the wiggles out more than once.

      • I am often asked “How can you possibly handle home schooling all these kids! I would go crazy!” (Six kids.)
        “There’s this magical place called Outside.”
        Most people then look at me like I’m crazy.

  3. “I require at least twice as long as most people to develop combined fine-motor and non-motor skills.” – This. This, so much. You don’t want to know how much trouble I had in school because I needed help tying my shoes for the longest time. The teachers would actually berate me for not being able to do that because I was “supposed to be smart”.

    And the drilled in times tables and handwriting are definitely lifesavers. My handwriting sucks, but I can read it – and I found out that by recopying all my stuff to a neat format, that’s half the work of studying right there; it gets into my brain and sticks.

    The fact that schools think this is OPTIONAL now makes me want to give them the death of a thousand and one paper cuts.

  4. There was a while when the local elementary school got funding for having volunteer tutors help them in school, under the eye of a supervisor. (I thought this was kinda crappy, because my mother was a home tutor paid by the school district or by parents, and it’s a skilled occupation. But I got roped in somehow.)

    So I started tutoring a kid on reading, and I found out she was also having math problems. (Mostly because she had missed a lot of school thanks to parent divorce and moves.) So I told her (quickly) how to multiply by ten, which she appreciated. And I got in trouble with the tutoring supervisor for mixing subjects!

    I said that we could always have her read me the math book, but apparently this didn’t count. 🙂

    • After he retired, my father-in-law hooked up with a program for teaching adults how to read. He was quite successful, but the people who ran the program were more interested in following-the-book than in succcess.

      • You MUST teach by the BOOK. Regardless of outcome. Failure is OK, but you MUST obey our RULES. (Definition of “stupid”.)

  5. Re: motor skills, I guess it used to be a well-known fact that mastering certain motor skills was related to certain kinds of brain development and thinking, and vice versa. Apparently this has fallen out of favor with the education establishment.

    Re: memory, has anybody here ever tried the thing where you store bits of ideas in an image (or, I suspect, any other sensory impression) of a well-known place? They call it a “memory cathedral.”

    The reason I say this is that Our Blog Host seems to have a very vivid memory for places and geographical features, so the whole notion of making a “memory landscape” would seem to be useful for her. I mean, if you can remember a red rock on a hill, maybe you can remember a mental picture on a mental hill too.

    • My long-term memory, especially for things like language, is made of webs. Each bit of information links to several other semi-related bits, and then to other things. So “red” links to rojo, rot, rosa, river, redbeds, redhead, temperature of metals, cardinal, crimson, vermillion, cliffs, colorado, communism, Slavic culture, Chinese culture, and so on. What can sound like free-association, or “clanging” is actually me verbalizing the web without describing all the intermediate steps.

    • When I was chronologically young (I refuse to grow up) my head was empty, and I could fill it as fast as I could read.

      As I got older my reading speed dropped a lot, at least for new stuff. A history book I could have once read in an hour or two will take me a week or more, because I can’t just uncritically vacuum up information any more. I can’t just store information now; I have to evaluate it in relation to what I already know, or thought I knew. So I’ll sometimes realize it has been a *long* time since I turned a page…

      The amount of work or “brain activity” is probably way higher than it was when I was 15, but the speed has dropped to a single-digit percentage in a lot of things.

  6. Excellent points, and yes, things are now slipping through the cracks on a regular basis! We had a young officer who found out he was DYSLEXIC when he got to flight training!!!

  7. Malcolm Gladwell has said a lot of remarkable things, but few have resonated with me the way that his writing on academic (and athletic) readiness, and how the way our school year is set up really goofs things up for some kids. He also writes about how the number of hours spent working on a skill is the single best predictor for success; it appears to be a true linear relationship.

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