My last blog post veered off in its own direction and, eventually, I was too darn tired to coax it back toward the original idea. So here, now, is “Hissy Fits – The Sequel”.
The first few parent-teacher conferences were happy affairs. Glowing compliments on her social nature and enthusiasm assured us that our daughter was mastering the First Grade with ease. So it was all the more surprising when, shortly after mid-year, her teacher hinted at the idea of letting her repeat the Grade. I suppose every parent is shocked to hear this and we were no different. “She’s flunking?! Not MY child! There must be some mistake!”
The Austrian school system has a policy that every child is allowed three years to finish the First and Second Grades. I know now how sensible this is. In Kindergarten, we lived by natural rhythms. We got there when we got there. We ate when we were hungry. We sat when we felt like it and moved around when we needed to. Then came the first day of school and suddenly we lived by the clock. There were all these places to be at specific times.
“Get up, Mitzi. You have to go to school.”
“Hurry up, Mitzi. The bus is coming any second now.”
“Let’s go, Mitzi! We are late for your music lesson.”
“Eat up, Mitzi. Time is running out and you still have to finish your homework.”
“Time to go to sleep, Mitzi. Tomorrow is a school day.”
After a half year of this, my daughter started . . . shutting down. Passive resistance became her way of dealing with the time pressures – she simply didn’t hear us anymore. It wasn’t that she couldn’t handle the academic part of school; she just couldn’t fit herself into the rigid schedule.
Part of the decision-making process (to repeat or not to repeat?) was taking her to a school psychologist. She had to draw a picture and take a 10 minute test and then the diagnosis was proclaimed. ADHD. We should consider putting her on Ritalin.
I stared at this “doctor” wondering how old she was – maybe 25? Surely not 30 yet. I must have had a fairly scary expression on my face because she immediately got nervous and started walking back the diagnosis. Maybe it wasn’t full blown Attention Deficit, maybe it was just “Cognitive Impulsiveness”. I asked her what other options there were besides medication and she began to search in the internet for alternate treatments. “Well, I could do that on my own!” I thought. I looked at the picture my daughter had drawn and folded it in half. That’s when I noticed the sentence she had written on the back.
“Are you mad at me?” it said.
That poor girl! My heartstrings had been tugged so taut they nearly snapped. I thanked the psychologist for her expert advice and we left. The drive home was spent reassuring Mitzi that she had done nothing wrong and we just wanted her to be happy.
A week later we had a conference with her teacher and the Grade School principal, which we went into still undecided. They pointed out to us that Mitzi was the youngest kid in her current class and that if she started over with a new First Grade group the following year, she would still not be the oldest. They shared their experiences of other kids and families who had decided one way or the other. And then the sentence came that made the decision suddenly easy. The principal said, “You know, you can see it as a gift. You are giving her a whole extra year of childhood.”
When I heard that, I just knew it was what I wanted to do. I wanted to take the pressure off of my daughter and let her be a carefree kid again.
In the years since, everything has reconfirmed our feeling that we made the right decision. Mitzi restarted the First Grade and never complained that she had already learned this or that. She was emotionally in sync with her new classmates and quickly found her groove. I can hardly imagine how the past 9 school years would have been for her had she been continually reeling and trying to play catch up. No slots on the honor roll, just constant feelings that she was “bad in school”.
When I look at the kids in my little alternative school, it seems to me that many of them would have the same experience as my daughter in the normal school system. There would be many rough parent / teacher conferences and school psychologists. There would be testing and prescriptions for medications. There would be bad grades and disciplinary measures.
In our school, the kids almost never have to sit at their desks unless they choose to. (A lot of them prefer to work on the floor.) They can get up and move whenever they feel the need to. They can learn the basics at their own tempos. They can get individual help whenever they need it. No one is counting up their mistakes, passing judgment on the basis of the sum total, and putting the kids into a comparative hierarchy from best to worst.
People often ask me how the classroom can possibly work if there are no tests and grades. I’ve discovered over the past five years that these things are completely unnecessary to get kids to learn. Kids like learning. Their motivation comes from inside them. They naturally observe closely, mimic, repeat, experiment, and they ask a thousand questions. We just have to let them do those things and then steer them deftly in the direction of the next logical materials.
A lot of our kids are also like Mitzi in that they are auditory learners and autodidacts. Two years into lessons to learn the recorder, I noticed one day while she was practicing that she wasn’t looking at the notes at all. I asked her if she could even read them. She couldn’t. She had learned every song so far with her ears and her memory. Years later, my 90 year old, fairly deaf stepfather tried to teach her to play guitar and that didn’t work out too well. But a few years later, after she heard the news that he had died, she took a guitar up into her room and stayed there for several hours. Then she came down and played a song for me. Apparently she had used a few YouTube videos to teach herself how to play. She also learned to accompany herself on the piano when singing the same way.
At our school, we accommodate the auditory and autodidacts as much as possible, giving them the freedom to choose from a variety of offerings. There are assignments to do, but they can decide when and where they do them in any given week. Sometimes one of the kids hands me his assignment with a pronouncement: “I skipped Point #3 ‘cuz I didn’t like it. It was no fun.” To which I answer “OK.” There should always be some space for the kids to make their own decisions.