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What students could teach academics and policy-makers

Such lessons schoolchildren could supply Minnesota academics and policy-makers, if the latter would peel their eyes from the data sheets long enough to spend regular time volunteering with students.

Imagine if, say, once weekly each of these thousands of brilliant minds replaced sitting through another high-minded lecture in an ivory tower with sitting in the low chairs of their local school — not telling teachers how teach, but asking how to help. 

It wouldn’t help their résumés. But it could powerfully demonstrate what research has recently proven — that Minnesota is the nation’s leader in civic engagement as measured, in part, by volunteerism. More important, it could make big strides in solving our education crisis.

These leaders would witness themselves reflected in the brilliant minds of youngsters who will someday be the academics and policy-makers of our country. Or, more ominously if the trends continue their current trajectory, the many more brilliant minds left behind — as no child’s should be — leaving our future in far more trouble than it is now.

Two such young minds
I’ve observed such brilliance in two boys I tutor. One is a sturdy black child; we’ll call him Paul. the other is a slight white child we’ll call Robert. I’m no teacher and didn’t sign up for this task. I only offered regular reading to their class to earn a good-citizen gold star. But their teacher, starving for classroom support, foisted flash cards and the students on me before I could decline. 

I fumbled through the first lesson. While Paul flew about jumping on his chair, hiding under the table and darting away, Robert sat patient and polite, looking wide-eyed and worried. When for a few seconds I could get Paul’s attention, he loudly shouted the words I flashed. When, between hustling after and hushing Paul, I had a few seconds for Robert, he stuttered and stumbled over the words nearly inaudibly. In short, they couldn’t have been more different. 

Unencumbered by the rules governing pedagogy and teacher’s paychecks, I improvised and began bringing a football. It was my desperate attempt to figure out some way they could both learn.

We play a simple game where I throw the football to whoever says the word on the flash card first. It turns out Paul has the hands and reflexes of a running back. Robert lacks grace, but has the strategic vision of a quarterback. Competing to catch — and thus learn — these little boys are also learning to share their abilities with each other. As they do, this erstwhile, unlikely team is demonstrating skills adults could learn from. 

A new dynamic
I first noticed this when Paul saw Robert struggling with his spiral. Paul, so driven by distraction and the impatience it triggers in others that he sometimes lashes out in aggression, stopped moving for moment and offered to help Robert. With utter focus he gently took Robert’s hand and, positioning it over the laces, moved Robert’s arm in a perfect elbow to wrist arc.  The football soared — and so did their mutual esteem.

Robert, in turn, has helped Paul manage his personal fouls. Sensing Robert’s frustration with Paul’s constant disruptions and flummoxed by them myself, I asked Robert for ideas. Puzzling the question, he tentatively offered that we could count to 10, and if Paul didn’t settle down he’d have to sit out a round. So we did. Precisely at number 10, Paul screeched to a halt, smiling. When Paul started up again, Robert confidently asserted that this time we should give Paul only to the count of five.  Again, it worked.

We take breaks to practice writing. While Robert struggles for enough words to write, Paul struggles with too many. With little coaxing from me the boys help each other finish so we can get back to football. Recently Robert suggested Paul maximize his linguistic overabundance by simply writing more sentences. Paul, scanning Robert’s sentences like a seasoned professor, offered snappy advice. “You didn’t capitalize the first word and there’s no period at the end.”

Two boys, one common goal
In her effort to give the rest of her class attention the needs of these students sometimes deplete, Robert and Paul’s teacher has given me the privilege of witnessing synapses connecting brain pathways as two boys collaborate in their common goal to learn and play. While they do, we are all flooded with brain-building endorphins.

Which leads me to wonder if the question for academics and policy-makers is not what next brilliant idea or new legislation is needed, but rather this: Will the brilliant people puzzling how to solve the education crisis be willing to stop thinking and start doing?

More to the point: Will they sacrifice their political and personal agendas — for an hour or so per week — to give teachers and students their classroom support?  If so, they would demonstrate true brilliance. And so, before any more are left behind, would our children.

Andrea Grazzini Walstrom is a writer from Burnsville interested in civic-engagement issues.  

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 11/16/2009 - 09:51 am.

    There’s a hidden lesson here. Teachers and pupils don’t need the threat of standardized tests to improve mastery of skills and content: they need small classes where the teacher can adjust the lessons to each pupil’s strengths and weaknesses.

    I taught on the college level, but the advantages of small classes, those with fewer than 15 students, were evident even in that age group.

  2. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 11/16/2009 - 12:33 pm.

    What a positive perspective and reorientation of the learning process. One size never fits all and recognition and opportunity is given here, to the individuals who do not always fit the group norm.

    And wee chairs for visually-challenged politicians and academics getting so involved? Great idea…the better to understand.

    Plus one added bonus…the ‘tall’ guys, not the ‘short’ ones; cuts them down to size?

    I am again rereading Andrea’s piece, now sitting on a child’s chair in my library. Gives me a whole differant view of the scene; yes indeed…although it also highlights the dust balls nestled under my desk.

    Thanks for an innovative approach…it’s a good one.

  3. Submitted by Bob Anderson on 11/27/2009 - 11:56 am.

    Andrea, I really enjoyed and appreciated your article. We all learn differently and I feel the most important task is to get kids to feel confident and comfortable in the early years. We need to make sure our students can read. I feel this starts at the home but I realise not every home faces the same circumstances.I have always advocated for volunteerism. We should offer help in the classroom to help the struggling kids get on the right track,and free up the teacher to handle the majority. I feel this benefits not only the student and teacher but also the individual who is helping. This is a win-win and it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Thank you for your uplifting piece.

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