267. Self-Motivated Learners

When I was in high school, I had a friend named Michael Cohen who wanted to learn Latin. I have no idea why he wanted to learn it. There were about twenty of us who had been taking Latin for three years, but not Michael; he wasn’t in the “honor group,” so he hadn’t been placed in the Latin class in junior high. But unlike most of the people in my Latin class (including me), he really wanted to learn Latin.
So Michael called me up every night, and I taught him Latin for about a half hour. This went on for about a year, until he was finally allowed to take Latin. I don’t remember whether he had to take first year Latin. I hope not. He should have gotten some credit for all the work he’d done to learn the language on his own, or at least without the help of any paid teachers. To this day, I wonder where his motivation had come from.
Now, I’m teaching Russian to a second-grader named Frederick. I volunteer in Frederick’s class, and sometimes his teacher asks me to help him write or proofread a story. He’s learning disabled, and the regular work he does in school is hard enough; if you thought of learning as work, you’d probably think Frederick had enough work to do without learning Russian. I worry that Russian may get in his way as he’s learning to read and write English.
But Frederick doesn’t seem to be worried about that. So every time he gets a chance, he asks me how to say something in Russian. Sometimes he asks me how to say things I don’t know how to say, and I later ask my friend who is fluent in Russian. The next day, I tell Frederick. His memory is not great, but this is important to him, and when he forgets Russian words, he asks me to remind him.
I’ve considered the possibility that Frederick just likes spending time with me, and sees this as a way to be able to do it. So I suggest other ways we could spend time together – playing games, talking (in English), or studying things that are not quite so challenging. But he wants to learn Russian.
So much of the learning we do is required – so much teaching is so carefully planned – that what happened with Michael Cohen and Frederick may seem a little strange to you. I don’t think it’s strange, though. I think it’s a little closer to education than a lot of what happens in school. I don’t mean this as a criticism of school; we can’t really have one teacher per child. But it’s good to keep in mind that people really do have things they want to learn.

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