Welcome to Beyond the Classroom: a new column that will address topics such as school culture, standards, and standardized testing, parental involvement, educational strategies, core values, rigor and expectations.
As a medical professional, parent of three kids and teacher at the David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center in North Miami, my goal is to help create the thinkers and makers that this and tomorrow’s world critically needs.
For my first column, I want to address the concept of struggle.
It used to be that complacency was simply not an option, because if you didn’t try hard enough, someone would get your job. But things are easier for us — we don’t have to struggle in the ways our grandparents did. Technology has drastically improved life for us. In the classroom alone, we have access to things we never dreamed of: Students can watch YouTube videos on how to work out a calculus problem. Just a few weeks ago, my class live-streamed the spacecraft Rosetta launching the Philae lander onto the surface of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko moving at nearly 84,000 mph.
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You could argue, however, that technology also has replaced the need for struggle to become accomplished in basic skills such as math and writing. Many teachers will agree that today’s students have difficulty doing basic multiplication and division problems without a calculator. Even my brightest students cannot apply the rules of grammar or spell correctly in class because the spell/grammar check on their computer does it for them. Writing an essay is as simple as copy and pasting information from Wikipedia. Because of the high rate of plagiarism, some high school teachers require their students to submit their work to TurnItIn.com, an anti-plagiarism software application.
In American culture, intellectual struggle in our students is often perceived as a red flag, an indicator of weakness. We jump in to try and make things easier — to remove the struggle. Expectations are changed, tests become more straightforward, homework gets easier and we wonder about the outcome.
But in Eastern cultures, families and educators not only embrace struggle, the ability to struggle through a challenge is often used to measure emotional strength. A few years ago, the NPR correspondent Alex Spigel wrote of the graduate school experiences of Jim Stigler, now a professor of psychology at UCLA. While studying teaching methods in Japan, Stigler observed a fourth-grade teacher who was teaching his students how to draw a three-dimensional cube on paper. The teacher saw one student clearly having trouble and told him to go to the board and draw it.
Stigler was intrigued by the fact that the teacher took the one who couldn’t do it and told him to go to the board. In American classrooms, it is usually the best student in the class who is asked up to the board.
This student struggled to draw his cube, but ultimately managed to draw it correctly by the end of the class. “The teacher turned to the class and asked them what they thought. They all looked up and said, ‘He did it!’ And they broke into applause.” The student, clearly proud of himself, sat down in his seat with a huge smile on his face.
As a teacher, I agree with Stigler’s reflection on struggle in that “this small difference in our culture’s approach to struggle, may have some [later and] larger implications.”
In my own classroom, I have noticed that the expectation and acceptance of rigor and the struggle to succeed has diminished over time.
Most students and many parents, if given the choice, will opt for the easier road instead of a more demanding but enriching path.
I have had parents remove their students from my gifted class for the simple reason that my curriculum requires too much work.
I have observed that the parents of motivated and curious children do not necessarily have an abundance of wealth, but they do have the keen sense to reinforce the fact that hard work and challenge is good, failure is OK as long as it is re-examined, and the bottom line is to always do the best you can.
On a personal note, my children never owned a video game. They read book after book. And I read books. When they asked about why we had books and no games, I reminded them that the more they read, the more they would come to know and understand about the world, and they more they knew, the better their life would be. As children, they accepted it. Now, as young adults, they understand it.
So, when parents ask me how they can help their child, here are some of the questions that I ask in return:
▪ How well do you know your child? Struggle has its place. The expectations for one child cannot be applied to all children, especially if there are limiting circumstances. Yet every child should be encouraged to learn more and do his/her best.
▪ What do you do as a parent to model the value of struggle? Do you stick with a task (or use resources to guide you) until it is completed, or do you get angry/frustrated and give up? How often do you work together with your child on a project?
▪ How do you reinforce the struggle for knowledge in your home — do you talk with your children about what they learned in each class? Do you talk about world topics with your children? Is there a newspaper or are there reference books in the home? Do you go to the library with your children?
▪ Do you review the homework your child has to do before it is begun and then again when it is complete? How often do you access the parent portal that is available through the Dade County Public School system website?
▪ When was the last time you met with the teacher, visited the classroom, or volunteered to share your profession — not because you were called in but because you are truly motivated?
We need to embrace struggle today and there are many ways to do this. As John Denver said in his song, The Eagle and the Hawk, “be all that we can be, and not what we are.”
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.