Just kidding

Andrea* looks down at the algebra problem she’s working through and notices that she’s assigned a value of five, rather than six, to three twos. As she erases the five and replaces it with a six, she says “Just kidding.” We both smile. Then she continues with the rest of the problem.

This is a simple but brilliant little practice of hers.  Math can be so charged, and the prospect of making a mistake in math inspires fear and trepidation throughout the land.  If a young person can relate to miscalculation as an opportunity to pretend they’ve made a little joke, they’ve got at least one way to keep perspective.

So many of the kids I work with have learned to tense up and start defending themselves when they can’t remember something or when they mix things up.  Their eyes dart up to see how I’ll react, and before I even have a chance to, they start spinning their talking wheels – “Oh, I thought we were supposed to do plus, not times… My teacher said… When we did it in class… This is so confusing…” Or they just give up all together and tell me they can’t do it.  Usually over something as small as five, instead of six, for two times three.  These kids have received the message that if you don’t get every bit of it right every time, especially the single-digit stuff, then you might as well hang up your math cleats and plan on a route that doesn’t include any numbers.  They expect to be judged on their ability to achieve computational perfection.

Andrea figured out, in time, that it’s possible to miscalculate, even often, and still excel as a math student.  And that if she keeps her sense of humor about her, she can keep her head in the game.

I’ve started telling the younger kids I know, especially those who get skittish when they mix up six and five (or write a seven open to the right instead of left), about Andrea’s just kiddings.  I’ll say something like “One of the teenagers I know, when she makes a little mistake like that, always says ‘Just kidding.’ She’s not saying that to really pretend she meant to do it, she’s saying it because it’s funny to pretend she meant to do it.  I think she does it to remind herself that making a little mistake is no big deal and if she makes a little joke about it, the mistake doesn’t distract her from the real thinking she’s trying to do.”

A couple of them have tried it, and with noticeable results.  It interrupts the habit of panic and doubt, creates a space for relaxation and ease.  And there’s nothing like a little calm to free up the mind for math.

*Not her actual name.

Sparks

Earlier this year I posted a link to an excerpt from a 60 Minutes show featuring Jacob Barnett. When Jake was two, and was diagnosed with autism, he seemed to be retreating into an internal world where his parents felt they couldn’t reach him. He’s now a graduate student in theoretical physics.  In his mother’s new book, she tells the detailed version of the story that aired on 60 Minutes.  As the popular summary of Jake’s story goes, his parents refused to believe that he’d never learn to walk or read. They followed many of the prescribed therapy regimens, but they also let him explore the things that seemed to fascinate him, though they didn’t exactly understand what those things were or what they would come to.  His mom, Kristine, writes in the book:

One morning when I walked into the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, the scene before me took my breath away.  Jake had run different-colored yarn all around the kitchen – crisscrossing through the refrigerator handle and around the garbage pail, the table and chair legs, the cabinet pulls, and the knobs of the stove.  The result was a series of brilliantly colored, intricate, overlapping webs.  Using yards of yarn, he had created not a terrible, tangled mess, but a design of complexity, beauty, and sophistication. …It must have seemed a little crazy to let him take over the house in this way.  Some days it was even impossible to get into my kitchen.  But his intricate designs were spectacular to look at, and when the sun streamed through the windows, the shadows they threw moved and changed as the day progressed, involving the whole room in a complex play of light and dark.  These creations were evidence to me that my little boy was in there, busy working on something magnificent.  They gave me a way in, a glimpse into his private world and his extraordinary mind.

The Spark

Jake’s parents could have ignored his fascination with light and shadows as a passing attraction or whim – they could have shut down his access to yarn and insisted that he instead spend all of his time working on his therapies – but they didn’t.  Of the many parts to the Barnetts’ story that can offer inspiration and insight to families with children who are struggling, I think this one may be the most compelling.  Their child was enthralled with things (like this work he was doing with the yarn) that they didn’t at all understand, things that could easily be deemed superfluous, a waste of time, an obsession, little more than a mess.  (And in fact such things often are, by parents and other adults.) The Barnetts were tempted to believe what professionals were telling them about their child – that they couldn’t hope for much from him. But what they decided to believe instead was that whatever Jake was up to in his mind could be the key to reconnecting with him and to helping him find a way to be with them in the social world.

We tend to dismiss many child-chosen pursuits as frivolous, cute, or passing. What if instead we took these things seriously the way the Barnetts did, even when kids aren’t retreating the way Jake was?  We wouldn’t all end up with pint-sized physicists as this family did, but we’d make it possible for a much wider range of potential to emerge and for more kids to feel as though they’ve got something worthwhile to offer, from the very beginning.

Worry about yourself

This little one’s inadvertently making an interesting point about the relative usefulness of adults.  She knows she can buckle herself in and just needs some time to get it done, and she wants her dad to pay attention to the things she actually needs him for, namely taking care of himself and actually driving the car.

Her stance suggests the possibility of a more efficient use of adult experience: once kids have the information and example they need, we should get back to giving our attention to the rest of what they’ll need us to provide information and example about.

It’s not that kids don’t want or need help.  It’s just that what they often crave is not for us to fuss about the things we’ve already shown them how to do as they’re working on completing their mastery of those things. What they often wish, as this child is so persistently saying, is that we would just go about our business.   That we would go ahead and do things, to show them how to do them, and then move on and do some more other things.  So they can start trying pieces of what we’re doing as soon as they’re able and interested, and then take over for themselves when they’re ready.

And I think Gandhi, for one, would have concurred.  More on that here, regarding that musical instrument you always wished you’d learned how to play…

Most geologists believe…

At a roadside trailhead last weekend, I read this:

IMG_6020 - Version 2

Why bother with the “Most geologists believe…”? Why not just say “The mountains surrounding you were created by the collision of continents drifting across the planet 400  million years ago”?

Usually that’s exactly the kind of thing we say, even in cases like this one in which a group of scientists has agreed upon something based on evidence of some kind.  We usually leave out the “Most scientists [or doctors or nutritionists or historians or neurologists or sociologists] believe…”

But these three words tell a part of any story that can be, especially for young people, very powerful and empowering.  If you stop to read some information at a trailhead, or you ask a parent or other adult a question, or you look something up on the internet, and what you’re told is “Many people who have studied this believe that…” you find out that the information you’re about to receive is based on something.  You find out that there was research, and also that there was interpretation.  And it is suggested to you that someone else might believe something different; someone else might interpret the same observation a different way.  You get to decide which things you believe; you get to decide which information and interpretation is most compelling.

Learning about the world and what there is to find out about in the world gets a lot easier when we’re willing to say things to kids (and to each other) like “Many geologists believe…”

Clean-up

I forwarded a notice to a friend about an upcoming volunteer clean-up event. It’ll be on a Saturday morning, on one of the local beaches.  My friend has two young sons who, whenever they have the chance, walk around their neighborhood picking up litter.  They learned these stewardly ways by watching their parents, but both of them seem, at the ages of 4 and 6, to have surpassed those parents in their dedication to tending the nearby earth.

Their mom responded to my email to let me know that the boys were very excited about the beach clean-up day.  “They have soccer on Saturday mornings,” she wrote, “but they may just have to miss a week for this; it’s more up their alley anyway.”

The boys like soccer, and they’ll probably keep playing at least for awhile because it’s a relatively fun way for them to spend a Saturday morning.  But their mom knows soccer doesn’t invigorate and inspire them the way cleaning up the beach will.  It’ll be lots more inconvenient, and to an uninformed onlooker it might appear as though she’s keeping her kids from playing, from being kids.

But the truth is, kids are more connected with the playfulness of work they take seriously than adults tend to be. For these two boys, there is more satisfaction and delight available in tidying up a patch of land than in running up and down the soccer field. For other kids it’s the opposite.  And no one’s right or wrong about how kids should be spending their time. People, including kids, are just different from each other, and when we’re given the chance to be who we are and care about what we care about, the lines between chores, work, fun, and play will blur all the way until we can’t see them anymore.

Forced math love

The heading of the article reads “Learning to Love Math.”  My pulse quickens for a moment.  I like the sound of this. From personal experience, I know that it is possible to learn to love math. When I was 8, and 9, and 10 years old I’d have told you I hated it.  Then I got the hang of it (or maybe something changed about the way it was offered, or even what was offered as it), and I started to like it.  Later still, it became something I would think about voluntarily, something to do for fun.  And now sometimes I get to share my love of it with other people, and then it’s fun again, and more.

So when I came across this article about learning to love it, I read on with excitement.  But then I got to this part, explaining a professor’s mission in rethinking math education: “We need to teach kids to love math, not just to get through math.”

While I agree entirely that it’s better for everyone if we come from an intention of inspiring love, rather than settling for the survival of “getting through,” the use of the word “need” left me a bit disappointed.

Every time we decide that we have to teach someone to love something (reading is another place we demand this of ourselves), we make the work of sharing knowledge and skill more difficult for ourselves and the task of receiving it more difficult for those with whom we intend to share it.  To show kids how something like math can be loveable is indeed more effective than just shoving boring-ified things down their throats.  Much more effective.

But to demand of ourselves that we get every person to love one thing is to doom ourselves to failure.  It’s just not possible. People are not like that. We’re not all going to love the same things. And further, humans (children included) are more available for learning when we don’t feel as though we have to take on someone else’s experience of the content, or someone else’s expectation of how it should seem, feel, be appreciated or used.

And we don’t have to love things in order to use them for what we’ll need them for. With the same commitment (to revealing the beauty of math and other potentially useful and loveable things), we could say things like “If we expect kids to be able to understand and use math, we should stop turning it into something that feels disconnected and arbitrary.” I know that’s probably what the quoted professor mostly meant.

But the words matter, and our longstanding habit of using the insistent language of “have-to” when we talk about young people and education is not without cost.  It’s possible to use language about math and other realms that won’t force us to face off with the diversity of human preference. We can choose words that make room for us to draw the potential appeal forth from the numbers (or the books or the music or the carpentry), words that will let us look for ways to make things feel more humane,  attractive, and accessible without insisting that those things occur the same way for everyone.

Chicken, cucumbers, listening, complying

One summer, soon after I graduated from college, I was staying with my mom at her house.  She called one day from work and asked me to do a couple of things.  The conversation went something like this:

Mom: Could you take the chicken out of the freezer and slice up a few of the cucumbers from the bottom drawer of the fridge?

Me: Sure.

Mom: Thanks. I’ll be home around 6.

Me: OK.

As soon as I hung up I realized I had no recollection of what she’d asked me to do.

You’re likely giving me the benefit of the doubt here, concerned that I was having a stroke or something.  I wasn’t.  There was nothing wrong with my brain.  I just wasn’t listening.

I thought of this the other day when I overheard a mother and her son in a parked car.  The mom was in the front passenger seat looking at her phone, and the boy was climbing in and out of the driver’s seat while they waited for the driver to return.  Their conversation went something like this:

Mom: Stop it.

Child:

Mom: Oh, I got a message from Grammy. On Thursday we can go see her.

Child: At her house? All day?

Mom: Yeah, she gets back from her trip on Wednesday.  Stop climbing over the seat!

Child:

Mom: I said Stop it.  You are NOT LISTENING.

Unlike the distracted twenty-something I was that time my mom asked me to do the thing with the chicken and the cucumbers, this little guy was definitely listening.  That much was clear from his response to the news about seeing his grandmother. He just wasn’t complying with the direction about the seat-climbing.  Of course we know perfectly well that that’s what his mom meant. When we’re attempting to get kids to do things (whether for their own good or for our convenience), we tend to conflate listening and complying.  We say “You’re not listening” and we know that what we mean is that they’re not doing what we’re telling them to do, and that if they did, we’d know that they were listening.

But I think it would make a difference if we were more careful about distinguishing between listening and complying.  Maybe the most compelling reason is that most of us who interact with children want them to learn to be discerning about when they comply with what they’re being asked or commanded or pressured to do, and when they choose not to comply.  There are indeed situations that will arise in their lives when we hope they will listen, hear, and then not comply.

The earliest interactions kids have, with their parents and others who speak with them when they’re young, are the ones that train them in how they’ll relate to input from others.  We can’t reasonably expect them to listen/comply without much discernment when we’re talking, and then when others are talking (their peers or strangers or political zealots), listen first before making a considered choice about whether or not to comply.

And if kids are actually having trouble listening, or processing the content of a dialogue, it’s important to be able to recognize that, distinct from a resistance to compliance, so we can address that difficulty with listening or processing for what it is.

After a few rounds of what happened with me and Mom and the chicken and cucumbers, we decided that maybe she could, when making a request or delivering information that needed to be retained and acted upon, ask me (nicely) whether I was actually listening.  We realized that I was able (without meaning to be) to make it sound as though I was processing what I was hearing thoroughly enough to retain it, without actually retaining it.  I needed to consciously alert myself to pay a particular kind of attention when I was going to need to remember something.  Who knows why – maybe I was burned out from all the remembering I did as a college student, or maybe I’d developed a habit of tuning my mother out when she was giving instructions, or maybe I was just tired that year. But I was interested in keeping track of what she was saying, and so we figured out a way to make sure I did. And we laughed about it and I reminded her frequently to not be snippy when she was reminding me to listen. We treated it like a joke, but for serious purpose. Because of course it wasn’t always just about chicken and cucumbers.

It’s a gift to kids every time we invite them to inquire with us about the impact of what we (and they) say, and what it actually means. It often feels as though there isn’t time, but it makes a difference even if we find the time once in awhile, with just a few of the words we use over and over.

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