Friday, October 5, 2012

Teaching My Own: Memories Of A Happy Learner

As it turned out, that book falling off the shelf and into my waiting hand seemed to have been the lead domino that was now knocking over ideas and preconceptions in my life faster than I could catch my breath. While I read books that stirred up new ideas in me about education and learning, I was led to honestly assess my own childhood experiences.

Sorting through my school memories disturbed me. I was surprised not only to realize what a passive, game-playing student I had been, but also sad to see how strongly the emotions of boredom, anxiety and fear factored into my school experiences.

But as I turned my attention to thinking about times when I felt like I actually learned something as a child, I felt only warm and happy memories come flooding back to me..

* * * * *

My brother's baby quilt was made of simple squares just like this one.
My mom still has it.
The Fickle Pickle 

When I was four, my older brother was learning to read. He had a pack of homemade flashcards, with one 'sight word' written on each card, and he and my mother would go through them together several times a day. I loved those cards, and I soaked up every sight and sound of their practice sessions with curiosity and passion.

One afternoon in January, my mom and grandmother were sitting at our dining table making a quilt for my youngest brother, and the flashcards were sitting on the corner of the table. I remember the bright winter light filling the room, and the view of those cards and the quilt makings on the table, from the perspective of my four-year-old height. I clearly recall picking up that stack of cards and reading them aloud, casually, nonchalantly, as if I did it all the time. And I remember my mother and grandmother nearly falling off their chairs with delight and amazement at my new-found ability to read.

This set of markers looks a lot like the ones I had.
Luis Rafael Betancourt on Flickr
It was the Christmas when I was ten or eleven that I received a nice set of markers in every color of the rainbow, maybe 20 or 30 pens in all. It was quite an extravagant gift for me, and I loved them dearly. For some reason, they inspired me to make my own paper dolls. I understood that the basic technology of paper dolls required me to make a sturdy doll with a stand, whose pose would allow me to dress her in a variety of outfits that would stay in place with a series of paper tabs.

Sounds easy enough, but through trial and error, I found that there are quite a few subtleties to the process. What weight of cardboard will keep the doll rigid without being top heavy? Which type of stand design is best? How wide should her shoulders be, in order to facilitate the tabs that will hold her dresses and shirts in place? How to pose her legs, so that I can make shorts with tabs on the inside of the legs?  What foot position looks natural and still allows for the tabs to hold socks and shoes in place?

For about six weeks, I remember drawing the doll and her clothes over and over and over again, making careful adjustments and improvements each time. And what did I do when I finally got all the details worked out? I got bored with my paper dolls and moved on to something else.

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds = LSD
Rolling Stone
During our teenage years, my older brother was the proud owner of a vast and expertly curated collection of albums. When he was out of the house, I would often sneak down to his private lair in the basement, and play them to my heart's content. One day, as I was listening to music from the late sixties and early seventies, I suddenly became aware that many of the songs referenced current events and political messages from that era. My maturing brain began to make rapid connections between the real world and musical expression, and in order to help myself sort out these thoughts, I grabbed some notebook paper and a pencil, and I began to write.

I remember that I worked chronologically through the Vietnam War, the drug culture, Kent State, the 1969 political assassinations, emerging concerns about the environment, and Watergate, noting that the fierce energy of the emerging hard rock genre paralleled the disturbing nature of these events, and the frustration of young adults who wanted their voices to be heard. And I noticed that the mid-seventies unfolded as a kinder, gentler time, just as music took a turn toward disco.

I was not writing for any purpose other than my own desire to understand myself, but when I finished, I looked at my nineteen-page analysis, and remembered that the student teacher in my government class at school had invited us to turn in anything for extra credit that we thought might interest him. So I handed it in, and the next day, he gave it back to me with a page-long note, saying that my work in class had always been strong, but this essay just blew his socks off. And for the first time in a long time, I was genuinely proud of my schoolwork.

* * * * *

These are just a few memories of times when I felt that I truly learned something of value; I can think of many more. But here is an interesting observation: at the time these things were happening, I never thought about the fact that I was learning anything; I was just interested and engrossed with something new that I had stumbled upon. I might even have said I was just having fun, playing around, amusing myself. 

And no one made me do any of these things. They were just things that I wanted to do; the desire to do them just sprang up out of my soul. And I did them till I didn't want to do them anymore, and then I stopped. Somehow, that seemed to be just the perfect amount of time. 

* * * * *

As I thought back over these happy memories of learning, I could see that my observations about my own life were squaring with Holt's philosophy that human beings are born with an innate and insatiable desire to learn; when left to our own devices, we learn quite effectively. And because we are in control of our own minds, we generally feel happy, safe and contented.

Yes, yes, and yes. With every page I read, and every memory I examined, I had to admit to myself that my life certainly bore evidence of the truth of Holt's teachings. 

But it was one thing to look back on my own upbringing with 20/20 hindsight. If I was seriously considering teaching my own daughters (Yikes! Was that really what I was doing??!?) then the more important question was this: What about my daughters - did they show evidence of being natural learners? And what about me - did I have the courage to trust them to lead their own educations?

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