School, Opportunity and Boxes

I have worked hard since my child was young to get him to buy into the idea of school.  It’s been a bit challenging and I think we have finally started to turn the corner there towards the positive.  The extra space this has given me cognitively has allowed me to reflect a bit on the journey and put things into perspective a bit more.  It has also helped me look back and see where different interventions might have helped him take a different path through the system. As a parent, I am trying not to be too self-critical and forgive myself for not getting it right the first time.

Early on he experienced some challenges, mostly with socio-emotional issues that come up at that age.  As a young child he was gifted in reading situations quite clearly however I don’t think he was always able to give teachers a view of the situation that they could understand.  How this manifested was interesting and often got him in trouble. For instance on the playground rough play sometimes ended him into the office.

We talk and reflect a lot about it now.  He’s in grade 4 and he is able to explain what was going better and also able to find solutions for the issues that continue to pop up.  His explanation is interesting and I will share that as it’s interesting how he frames his world. It is also, hopefully, a unique insight into the level of organization on the playground even in the early ages.  As he is now able to explain it, in the school grades K-3 there are already organized groups of children, he calls these gangs. I am sure the word has some influence from popular culture and I am using it to honour his view of the situation.  His explanation however actually leads me more to think of the organization in the terms of subgroups sharing like minds or interests, similar to tribes1When my son helped me edit this he mentioned “clans” might fit here, or fit better or communities on the playground.  

Anyway, his community would frequently have issues with a rival group.  He is a natural born leader and saw it was his duty to protect his group when these transgressions occurred.  Side note here, we have spent a lot of time talking about peaceful resolutions, talking and strategies to reduce conflict.  In any case, he would respond to these interactions to defend his people and he was acting in the best interest of his people.  It’s really an admirable story and I don’t fault his heart at all, nor his intelligence. You have to look out for your people and even adults don’t always realize that they are all your people.

In fact, his grasp of organization, emotional connection to people back then was much more advanced than he was given credit for.  Unfortunately, because of his age, this was overlooked or not understood by the adults around him and the focus was on the behaviour.  It’s taken a lot of work to try to rebuild that trust on both sides.

Unfortunately, I believe some family values might have hurt him a bit in the earlier years.  We are a huggy family, meaning that we hug…a lot. Growing up I have experienced both sides of the hugging fence, the huggers and the non-huggers and fault me if you will I think that I’d rather be on the hugging side even if that’s not always the norm for people.  Don’t get me wrong I am very aware of this divide and really don’t try to push the point but unfortunately forget myself and move in for a hug with a colleague rather than a handshake. This is entirely true, just ask Josh (sorry Josh). I am being a bit silly here and exaggerate the point so the next thing I am going to say has more impact.

Our society is so aware of issues of sexual abuse that school has become an anti-hug zone.  I think these two conflicting things actually ended up making my son’s emotional journey through school a little more challenging.  I won’t throw anyone under the bus but there were teachers who did not subscribe to the anti-hug zone that my son really bonded with.  Their ability to make that emotional connection reflected in increased trust and reduced behaviours. When I talk to him nowadays he will even use that as a dividing factor, saying that some teachers “did not know when he needed a hug”.  

I want to take a moment after those two paragraphs to pause and note that I did not have the same awareness of the situation as we were going through it.  It is only after a lot of experimentation, talking, listening, learning and reflection that I’ve reached my current understanding. It also doesn’t boil down simply to hugs and emotional connection although that’s a core part of it.  As I will point out there are a lot of areas we’ve worked on including communication, self-advocating and peaceful conflict resolution. That being said a good hug goes a long way, at that age and even for us adults.

Opportunity

I try to look at most challenges in life as an opportunity.  Before I tell you that story though, I need to tell you this story.  If you don’t know “Captain Underpants” the last sentence won’t make much sense.  What I am trying to convey is that I know it’s not always possible to see things positively and I want to walk you through some strategies that have worked for me to reframe before I get into the opportunity talk.  I am doing this so you can reframe whatever current struggle brought you here most positively and hopefully use the next section to spark some ideas for a solution.

Supports

Let’s be real because if you are in the middle of one of these struggles, or any struggle really, being real is going to help you more than whatever I talk about next.  Real me says this: when I am in the moment or at the end of a hard day I can’t always see a challenge as an opportunity. In those moments I often reflect on this quote, you’ve probably seen it before in my writing:

courage does not always roar.
sometimes courage is the quiet voice
at the end of the day saying,
“i will try again tomorrow”
— mary anne radmacher

The practical take away for the impatient: get some sleep and you’ll see that challenge as an opportunity tomorrow.

I also want to take a moment to focus on gratitude, taking some time to do this helps as well because it allows you to frame things in a positive light.  I am very grateful for the opportunity to get to know the school staff better and deepen that relationship. There are a number of caring individuals I don’t think I would have gone beyond “surface knowing” and that would have been a real shame.

I also want to take a moment to show some gratitude for my work, workmates and employers over the years.  I have been very fortunate that they have been understanding and supportive as my attention has needed to shift focus to the various opportunities that have come up at school.  I am grateful that their awareness, kindness and understanding. They really helped me keep my poop together.

I could go on and probably should about my amazing family and friends that have been there.  I do however I am not going to write about it though, the point is: take a moment to be grateful.  It will help you see whatever is happening as a good thing and will shape your response to the opportunities life presents you more positively.

Down to Business

I have spent a lot of hours volunteering at the school and meeting with staff that support his school journey.  Having that presence has helped me to build those relationships at school. It has taken a lot of time however it’s really been helpful in helping to create a support structure for him at school.  It’s also made me more aware of the issues he’s encountered and helped identify the “huggers” so I am better able to point them out. Those individuals in his school that are able and willing to support as well as the level of support they can provide.  It’s helped also show him what to look for and how to build those relationships going forward.

An example of this is that although his school is not openly embracing technology [yet], they have been open to trying out technology in the classroom.  My son has challenges with the fine motor required for writing and although this has improved remarkably with all of the practice he has been doing it is still difficult  To support these challenges he is allowed to use a laptop in the classroom, something his school teacher championed early on in the year.

The school has also moved forward with G-Suite so that we can tackle the issue of doing homework at 2 or sometimes 3 households.  These adaptations in practice mean that he can use voice to text and Google Docs rather than having an EA2This refers to an Education Assistant, not Electronic Arts in this context, both are amazing. scribe his work.  We are seeing a lot more work being done now and it has identified strengths and weaknesses in his writing such as:

  • [strength] He is brilliant and often able to connect some very abstract points
    • Although this was known given his verbal ability it’s more concrete now that there is writing as evidence for this
  • [progress] His thoughts are sometimes disorganized and he needs to read his work back
  • [progress] He has issues with sentence structure, paragraphs, punctuations3Maybe he has a problem with “rules” in general, I say with a smile and lots of love and a little chagrin as I am a strong proponent for questioning rules.
  • [progress] He is able to edit blog posts and give critical feedback

Introducing this new technology has come with some learning pains.  I’ve worked on reframing the challenges as opportunities for the school folks when needed.  Looking at the long view anything that comes up with technology can be generalized to identify the issues that will come up when more students have laptops or technology in the classroom, he’s their beta tester.  This reframing is required I think so that they can look for constructive solutions when, like all 10-year-olds, there are some irresponsible moments. I’m happy to provide that optimism until someone at school takes up the drum.

I also look for the opportunities that show themselves with his passions.  For instance, his latest passion is building a school newspaper. What an amazing opportunity on so many levels.  He has already taken the leap to identify that he needs support and hired a few of his classmates to write articles.  He has assessed the market and identified that although an article generated by a word processor might be more what people are after he’d like to focus on a “kid” newspaper and have it written.

Some great opportunities there:

  • Work on writing → he needs to provide at least 1 article
  • Work on editing → he is the publisher and will have to edit the articles
  • Work on math → it is a big leap for kids to relate math and money

Some teachers have really been intuitive here and identified the writing component.  The math has been a bit more of a struggle partially because of my understanding of what concepts they have already covered at that age.  For instance, my first look at this angle was to ask the following questions:

Question: If I pay my employees $10/ month and have a subscription cost of $0.25, how many subscriptions would I have to sell to pay my employees?

We worked out the example and I think he understood the process but solving for x is complicated and it will take a few tries and maybe some more backstory to explain it.  We will get there.

That being said I am told that understanding that associating math with money is an advanced concept.  I am not sure why but most kids will not link money with math when they are presented with problems.  Part of my volunteer work is with the math group so I had seen something going on when we did some examples with money and giving change.  I don’t have a teaching background so I just assumed it was the emotional power that people give money.  When I gave the children $100 and asked to make the change for a $30 purchase I needed to prompt some of them to work the result out on paper.

The linkage from money to math, for my son, gives more meaning to math as it’s a practical application for it.  I had been directing him towards computer programming and we would have eventually hit but we got here first.  The linkage helps them with that aha moment, “OH!  That’s why this is important!”.

It can also be used to explain practically that 25/100 means 25 cents out of 100 cents and have fractions really hit home.  If you have the presence of mind you can also start ensuring that units are honoured and prepare your child for a world of physics. Sometimes focusing on practicality can help the kids that already have a higher concept of the issue really make that connection.

Boxes

In software, we often talk about approaches to a solution and thinking in terms of boxes.  You can think inside the box or outside of the box or if you are zen or a disruptor you can ask what box.  If you aren’t familiar with this terminology it means that you can either have a solution that fits a paradigm and is traditional, one that fits a paradigm and is untraditional and one that disrupts or makes us rethink the entire paradigm itself.

What the experience has really taught me is that educating a classroom full of 25-30 children is difficult and takes a lot of skill.  It has also helped me better understand the constraints that are placed on education in terms of time resources and classroom supports.  One of the downsides of this limit is that a lot of time is focused on just getting the rules across to students. This direct conveyance of rules to students is what I would call in the box thinking.

I see this being challenged more in the school system though as we look for alternate styles to engage diverse learners.  In my case, it’s through the use of technology or linking learning back to some practical aspect of life. Working with my son to identify his passions and how he can work them into learning is something that will open him up to a lifetime of learning and growth.  I see this as a deeper approach to learning and although we are spending more time at this point to understand the pain points I think that the payoff will be worth it. He is already able to to look at learning more outside of the box at his age. I see more positive changes in the future as more and more adults trust him and the disruptions becoming more mainstream for classroom learning in the future.

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