I wonder how many parents out there remember when anyone at their child’s school asked these questions:
- What are your child’s interests?
- Does your student have any hobbies?
- How do they like to spend their free time?
I am reading an interesting book called Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy by Richard D. Kahlenberg. No matter what you think about unions, Shanker had a big influence on public schools. Mostly, I wanted to learn about his ideas and involvement pertaining to charter schools. But I found something quite curious about his thoughts about schooling in general.
Shanker had a lot of difficulties as a boy, but he overcame some of those problems by becoming involved in the Boy Scouts. The kind of learning he found there helped form him as a leader. He wasn’t much into drill exercises, but he later would think back to activities leading to merit badges. He used the example of bird watching. Watching birds out in the field and later learning their species made the lesson come alive. As a boy, Shanker even willingly memorized the different bird species with flashcards! Merit badge topics are what make clubs like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts fascinating for young people.
Likewise, children come to school with all kinds of outside interests. I’m not saying there isn’t a certain amount of basic information, and even some drill involved in learning subject matter, but schools have lately become all about structured drill. It’s far too much. And curriculum, with Common Core, is so outlined, and micromanaged, that students are given no access to learning about things that might not be on the program!
This actually frightens me about schools today. I worry that there is little attention, if any, paid to what students might really have at the “core” of their being. I’m speaking about the hidden spark which, if ignited, could lead a student to the career of a lifetime! That career might not only be rewarding to the student, but propel all of us forward as human beings. Perhaps a student might hold the key to solving our greatest problems, or maybe their kind hearts will make our neighborhood a happier place to live. But if we don’t unlock these interests, they could be lost forever. We may never know a student’s real potential because nobody ever cared to ask!
I believe if you talk to parents about what they want for their child it is precisely this: Find what motivates their child, and help them to find their way with the necessary skills to reach a goal. And if they can’t reach a goal then emphasize compensatory activities that will give them a different route to a life that is fulfilling.
I remember a particular high school student I worked with who dreamt of going to med. school. His grades were good but not good enough. He had some learning disabilities that got in the way. But he became just as happy thinking about a medical career outside of being a doctor—one that would emphasize his physical abilities. At that time he considered being an Emergency Medical Technician. If I ever need help in an emergency, I’ll be glad if it’s someone like this individual looking out for me!
I will add parents mostly do care about the kind of test scores that provide them information about how their students are doing in school. But because the tests today don’t do that—they focus on “gottcha” politics surrounding schools and teachers. Tests don’t focus on the child. A lot of parents are opting out of tests altogether. They recognize the tests aren’t benefiting their children—and in fact they often make their students sick! Certainly, they aren’t geared to bringing out their child’s strengths and interests.
When I was teaching, I always started the school year with an interest inventory. I made it up myself. I’d ask students outright what they liked to do outside of school. I’d also ask them what subjects they liked best. Most students would be surprised by this exercise. Some would write silly things and not answer sincerely. But I think most students respected the fact that I wanted to learn more about them as human beings. I’d try to use their answers to find books and materials from the library to focus on their interests. I’d try to remember to ask parents some of these questions as well. What is your child interested in doing? Who are they? How do we bring out their best?