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Patterns and Pathways: The Importance of Being Literally Earnest

October 24, 2012
Granddaddy Jesse

Great-granddaddy Jesse wears an earnest mask.

I’m obsessed with This American Life, a radio program and podcast that examines regular people and their extraordinary lives. Episode 474: Back to School brought up some issues that are forefront in my mind right now. My little hamster wheel of a brain keeps coming back to this idea, and idea bigger than standardized testing, bigger than certification to teach in a classroom, bigger than education reform in New Orleans.

And for those of you who have been following my (non)certification pathway , nothing has transpired other than a beautifully written letter from my principal suggesting that their evaluation system is flawed, their rules should be broken, and this teacher should be certified. No response from TNTP. Even more entertaining is the twice-weekly email I kept getting from the guy I had the initial conversation of I’m-not-teaching-this-year, who keeps asking me to fill out my teaching schedule. I wrote to him saying I can’t fill it out since I’m not teaching, and he said, “Are you not teaching?” WOW. We had at least a 7 email response chain about how I wasn’t teaching not too long ago. No, sir, no, I STILL am NOT teaching, as I’ve told you one million times. He did not respond to that email.

Anyway, back to things that matter. So this radio show episode talks about non-cognitive skills (like curiosity and grit and perseverance and impulse control) and how important those skills are to having a “successful” life, whatever that means. We spend so much time focusing on value added metrics, like how many questions each kid got right on each section of a standardized test, we forget to teach the kid to have the perseverance to get through the damn test, let alone through a rough patch in school, in a relationship, in a college class, in life. I think back to the days I spent administering the dreaded standardized LEAP tests in New Orleans, and how many kids threw the test on the floor, slept, wrote illegibly and refused to fix it, filled in a pattern rather than read the questions, gave up– it’s almost comical to think about it now, a big joke. Hey, let’s give these kids a test to see if they can pass 8th grade. No, they can barely read at a 2nd grade level. Oh, no, they haven’t eaten a healthy meal, been given a hug, smiled at, slept in a bed. No, they can’t read the instructions, let alone the questions. Great. I’ll pass out the pencils.

Grandmother Wanda

Another of Great-granddaddy Jesse (far left). I think my grandmother must’ve brought the sunshine when she married my grandfather. She’s the second from the right end, the one smiling coyly.

Non-cognitive skills CAN be taught, too, and for your entire life, unlike an IQ which levels out somewhere in your youth. And of course as a teacher you job is to teach cognitive skills, but I suppose even as a first year teacher, I accidentally taught some of those things or at least modeled them. No, we never give up. We always finish our projects. We always proofread our final draft. We push through until the end. Yes, you CAN do it. What do you think happens? Anyone wonder what is next?

When I began a descriptive writing unit, the first exercise I workshopped was writing about a Hershey Kiss. The exercise was made for young grade school kids, and it was perfect for my 8th graders to prove a point. The writer describe the Kiss with all the senses, without using the word chocolate or candy. How does it look? (Alien volcano!– their answers to these questions were amazing.) How does it feel? How does it sound when you take the wrapper off next to your ear? How does it smell? How does it taste?

Before we started the exercise, I explained, and then had them explain back to me, that we weren’t going to eat it, at least not yet.

Only one kid ate the Hershey Kiss before we started. He loved to shout out in class (usually curse words). If he came to school, he had detention for throwing something, just being a general jackass. He could not help himself. And as he chewed the Hershey Kiss, I asked him what my instructions were. He giggled, repeated them back to me word for word. He was arrested in April for aggravated rape of his 5 and 6 year old cousins. I couldn’t help thinking how different his life would be if he had impulse control.

And then I remembered his enraged mom who punched him in the chest in front of me one afternoon.

She wasn’t the only one to punch (or karate chop in the throat) her child in front of a teacher or administrator. Where does the training start? When does a child start to learn non-cognitive behavior? What role models do my students have? What patterns do they develop as children that come out later in life?

Our patterns, our behaviors create ruts in our brains, paths of least resistance. Once established, these pathways are hard to change, especially if you are missing the component that helps you be strong enough to change them. Whether you are a runner, a quitter, a fighter, or a person who perseveres with grace through the hardest challenges, we do what we do and have always done. Change is hard. We know this as adults. Imagine what it’s like to be a poor kid in a classroom. You’ve always failed. You’ve always fought. You’ve always ________. Doesn’t matter.

If you don’t have perseverance, you can’t get through the class. If you don’t have curiosity, you’ll never crack open the book. If you aren’t dependable, how will you keep your job? How will your children survive?


If you’re interested in this issue (more research, less preaching), check out economist James Heckman’s articles (Google does a fine search) and Paul Tough, author of the new book How Children Succeed. And if you don’t listen to the podcast of This American Life, do it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 25, 2012 6:45 am

    not kidding, i was thinking of you and wondering when i’d see a post again and next time i checked, you appeared in my inbox!
    you’re absolutely right. i remember thinking, “who cares about the format of a friendly letter when these kids watch porn after school and don’t play outside because of the shootings?”
    i am so thankful these young adults had you for a year to love on them and encourage them through life. i’m devastated thinking about the kids who are missing out on you right now. in the meantime, i love your beautiful writing and the teaching you still do for your readers 🙂

  2. Deb Ritter permalink
    October 25, 2012 3:16 pm

    Your words are simple, yet they glow with the passion of a talented writer and natural teacher. And we wonder what’s wrong with our schools??? It’s simply a sad waste of talent and heart that you are hung up in a sticky ball of red tape! And it’s the children who end up paying the price. Never give up, Sunny, for your calling has and will continue to change lives. bravo!

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