School and the Interested Child

Another school year begins, and for some children this means a period of dissonance in the transition between the relative freedom of summer break and the regimentation of the school year. Even for home-schooled or un-schooled students, life in the months that comprise for others the academic year is probably more scheduled and more circumscribed than vacation time.

We are a family of schoolteachers, and so for us it is not an article of faith that school is a place of oppression and stultification where rote learning and dreary routine either squelch intellectual curiosity or kill the young soul. As independent school folks we aren’t bound by the kinds of state testing regimes that do truly impinge on the freedom of most public school teachers and students, but we do answer to our superiors and our marketplace. Nonetheless, we believe in school.

Some years back I was contacted by the parent of one of our kids’ classmates. She was concerned—upset, even—that her daughter was completing her assigned work with time to spare each evening. What did I think of this, and what did we do about it at our house, where the same situation, she was sure, obtained? (And it did.) Among independent school parents in Boston(ish), as in most ambitious urban(ish) communities, a nearly unendurable homework load is the sign of a righteous—that is, rigorous—and worthy education, the marker of a “good” school.

I’m afraid I gave the wrong answer, which was that we were delighted that our son had extra time in the evening to be a part of our family and to pursue his own interests. How great that he could be a kid, sitting in the living room and chatting as we watched television, and that he could consume the books he was taking out of the library by the bagful. The conversation soon ended.

We are not fans of extreme homework ordeals, although we were not entirely unhappy when they have occurred for our children from time to time (sometimes as the well deserved result of some inattention to assignment sheets), and we are especially not fans of homework that is repetitive or assigned simply to be homework. We sincerely hope that your child doesn’t have much of this, and we urge families to be assertive with teachers when homework loads are oppressive and destructive to family values and student confidence and happiness. Research is beginning to suggest that excessive homework, or even homework at all, is a poor learning tool, but this notion is so counter to prevailing cultural beliefs that it’s a tough position to defend. Few schools have the courage to embrace the principle of diminished homework.

We are fans of the idea that children should be allowed the space and resources to be interested even amidst the exigencies of a busy school year. It can be difficult, but we urge families and children alike to make a priority of carving out time, a few minutes a day even, to pursue personal interests, hobbies, and areas of curiosity even against a backdrop of homework and schedule of classes and extracurriculars. (And let me add, as a former college counselor, that the “extracurriculars” that matter are those about which a student can speak and write with honest passion. The “best” extracurricular is the one that most engages and inspires the student; for the child with real interest, there isn’t any hierarchy of activities, most-impressive-to-least. Don’t believe your neighbors or the cocktail party “experts” when they try to tell you there is.)

We also offer this tidbit, based on sixty-plus years of observation in our own classrooms: That the most successful students are actually those who are able to look at the material they are studying and find in it—in each topic, and even in each assignment—something that piques their interest, that allows them to bring their own personal curiosity to bear. This can be a stretch (“Do problems 1– 17, odd” may not exactly set a child’s mind on fire), but somewhere in every topic and every task many students are able to find some tiny (or larger) nugget of interest, something to spur engagement and even original thought, and this engagement and originality are the hallmarks of a successful student.

It may be axiomatic in some quarters that school is a drag, a damper on the spirit, but it doesn’t have to be this. Just as we urge the Interested Child to engage with new activities and new ideas, so do we urge him or her to engage with school—at the same time as he or she continues to engage with his or her own continuing exploration of the world and all that it offers.

Celebrating Transitions and Interested Children

My school just finished its middle school-to-high school promotion ceremony, a happy event complete with student speeches, an eighth-grade class video, and a colleague fighting to hold back tears as she spoke about what she has learned from her students. It was a moment for all to remember.

This is the season for such transitional events, from scouts crossing bridges and flying up to schoolchildren of all ages leaving behind classrooms, campuses, and most of all caring teachers, leaders, coaches, and other adults with whom they have developed relationships of all kinds over the past year or more. My Twitter and Facebook feeds teem with photographs of happy kids, happy teachers, and happy families, and I get to feel just a bit older as my former students celebrate the transitions of their own children–including high school graduations. And this year I got to post one of those college graduation photos myself.

I like to think that each of these transitions marks, if not an Aha! Moment in a child’s life, at least a recognition of a changed, enhanced relationship with the world. I want to believe that kids making an upward leap to new challenges and new adventures are excited by the need to be a little more interested in, a little more engaged with the world they occupy–that each new challenge opens new doors of curiosity and maybe even passion, new perspectives on an existence rich with possibilities and connections.

And of course each of these new possibilities and connections carries with it just a bit more responsibility, a greater obligation to pay attention to the needs of those around them and the consequences of their own actions. This can be a wonderful and empowering thing, hard as it can sometimes be to shoulder those obligations.

It happens in our world that often we recognize and celebrate transitions and then take a break–summer vacation, now–before actually moving on to the next experience. I hope that as we send our transitioning children off, or maybe accompany them, that we take advantage of the moments we have to encourage and nourish their interests and take seriously their potential as active, engaged citizens of the world, whether they’re Brownies, Webelos, middle schoolers, or even college graduates.

Here’s to The Interested Child, of all ages!

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