By Olive Andlairn
I lead a reading group in my son’s third grade classroom. The other day the assignment was to finish reading a book and then to answer some questions.
My son Jerry has recently been depicted as having “learning problems” and unable to finish his work. In his group of eight he was the first to finish the book. (Look at that, what a surprise! How would I have known that had I not volunteered in the classroom?)
When Jerry was finished his buddy Roderick asked him across the table about the answers and how to spell certain words. It was interesting to see that my son was considered to be the one who knows the answers and that “buddies” have their own system. Roderick was the second to finish his work. I had the pleasure to teach Roderick in my art club and I have known him since kindergarten. He is a typical overly intelligent boy, spirited, animated and active. He can't sit still, disrupts others and is hard to deal with in the classroom because it takes so much energy out of you. He is also very talented and inventive when he draws and paints and very inquisitive.
Roderick started answering the questions from the reading assignment – but only after rolling his eyes, disappearing under the table, stealing Jerry’s apple, and rolling it back to him across the table. Aiming at my son with his pretend bazooka, Roderick was the only one to finish answering the five questions before the teacher abruptly ended the groups.
One of the questions on the page was: "How does Jim cope with the changes Lizzie's visit brought along?"
This is a third grade class. After they finished reading, every single one of them asked me: "What does ‘cope’ mean?" I told them it means to deal with something, to find a solution for a difficult situation.
I earned blank looks. Those eight year-olds don't seem to reflect much on another person's ability to handle changes in life. Maybe that explains the low participation rate of eight year-olds in Buddhist retreats.
Kids already live in the moment. Should we not foster their abilities and help them develop their own innate strength instead of breaking them and messing them up to make them more like us? We who spend thousands on retreat centers, self-help books and clubs, etc., because we don't know how to be in the moment anymore?
The kids in the reading group on another table – a group I had worked with during earlier weeks – were sliding down their chairs and over their tables. Few things scare me more than a classroom of depressed children. These kids were looking for the answers to the assigned questions. I went over to them and because we have established trust they asked me what the questions meant.
They were reading a book about the garden and were at a loss as to what to write. We started a nice little discussion group. A boy who is labeled with a “processing issue” could just not understand those very abstract questions. When the group came up with a possible answer he looked at me with alert eyes and wrote down the words almost as fast as I said them. Processing issue… well, I'm not a child development specialist but aren't the kids being over diagnosed?
We continued debating over the questions and I walked between the two tables. The classroom teacher's group, the kids with reading difficulty was dissolving a bit. A boy from her group looked over at our group with alert eyes, an open face, and a ready smile. He seemed eager to take in information. I asked what they were reading. "I don't know," he said. What are you supposed to be doing? "I don't know," he said again. Then the teacher handed out some papers to continue their work.
Back in my own debate group, six engaged kids were giving some real thought to how to write and answer the questions. We came up with different variations of answers to the question: "What does the title ‘Dreams come true’ mean in the last chapter?" Their answers I thought were valid and needed some elaboration. We were having a very nice, active little discussion with captivated students. All of a sudden the teacher declared that since the two groups (my debate groups) were not listening and just kept talking even after she asked us not to, we would have to stop the reading group.
This was 15 minutes before designated time. If this sort of thing happens regularly I do understand why my son can't finish his work. I saw that most of the kids in my group did not understand the questions on the paper. The kids did not know what to do. They were lost and unguided.
After the class the teacher thanked me for my help and said that I'm a gentle presence in the classroom and that this helps a lot. So now I know my son's teacher is crazy-making : She does one thing and says another.