379. A Young Academic

Something happened today that I can’t help writing about. Perhaps by the time I’ve written a few paragraphs, I’ll have thought of a point I’m trying to make. But for now, I just have to tell you what happened.
All the children in one reading group had just read a story, and they were supposed to write the goal the main character had in mind. One boy named Adam told me, quite seriously, that he thought the main character didn’t have one particular goal – that he had several goals. He hadn’t written anything on his worksheet, because he didn’t think there was a right way to answer the question.
I like it when a child gets academic like that, and a dialogue starts to sound more sophisticated than the average. I respect children’s thinking, and I think they know that, and like it. And so we talked about the various goals the main character had, and the boy impressed me with his thinking about the story. But after ten minutes, there was still nothing on his paper. And time was going by. He really did have to do the worksheet, after all.
His teacher suggested that he talk with Helen, who had already finished the worksheet. I didn’t intervene, although I wondered how eight year old Helen was going to help this boy when I, with a master’s degree in elementary education, couldn’t guide him through the intellectual quagmire in which he was stuck.
But after about one minute, the boy was writing. And after about five minutes, he was done. I’ve always known that children are often better at explaining things to each other than adults are at explaining things to them. But I’d thought this particular job was for an adult – that it was a little too abstract for another child.
I asked Helen how she had managed to help Adam. Her reply cracked me up. She hadn’t spent her minute with Adam solving the intellectual issue that was plaguing him. Her advice to him was far more down-to-earth than anything I would have thought of. She had told Adam that if he really thought that the main character had had several goals, he should do one worksheet for each goal.
Helen had addressed the child in Adam. I had been addressing the academic. Amherst is a college town, and I guess the academic environment had temporarily gotten me to forget that children are still children.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with what I had been doing with Adam. Children ought to know that their thoughts are worthwhile. But I’m both amused and impressed by Helen’s approach to Adam. And as far as getting the worksheet done, I have to admit that her words were more practical than mine.

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