562. Making Sense of School

For some lucky people, school just plain makes sense. It’s enough like the rest of life to keep surprises at a comfortable minimum so that people can adjust easily. Of course, there are surprises for everyone; it’s impossible for school to be exactly like home, or for parents to prepare their children for absolutely everything that will be different about school. At home, there aren’t so many children, what adults are there often pay more attention to each child than teachers can, and things are generally more familiar and therefore easier to understand than they are in school.
School did make sense to me, for the most part. And you, who are reading this essay in a newspaper column or book about parenting and teaching, probably felt more comfortable in school than many other people did. If not, you’d probably be doing something else. Why torture yourself obsessing on something that didn’t work for you?
But most children in our culture have to go to school, whether or not they can see what it has to do with
the rest of their lives. Law, tradition, and practical considerations make school somewhat inevitable for most children in our culture, and if they’re lucky, they find ways to make sense of it.
We adults tend to think about “reaching” children, as if the contexts and systems we’ve set up are “right,” and what we’ve got to do is find ways to get children to connect with those contexts and systems. As unconventional as I tried to be and often was, I usually felt good if I ended up finding out and proving that my “unconventional” approaches brought children to a place similar to the place other teachers’ “conventional” approaches brought them to – the place my own schooling brought me to. And to some degree, that place is the one people have to get to if they want to succeed in our society.
But children who are having trouble making sense of school came from somewhere, and they tend not to want to be taught that what they learned where they came from is wrong. True, there are times when some children rebel against their upbringing, but their roots have also helped to make them who they are, and they can be quite loyal when those roots are challenged.
So there’s yet another balancing act for us educators – to reach out to children, and yet leave room for children to reach out to us. As we’re busy trying to figure out what makes each child tick, we need to make sure children have opportunities to figure out what makes US tick. And we need to show them how to be open to new ways of ticking, by sometimes letting them teach us their ways. And who knows? Maybe together we can make sense of it all.

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