Engaging young minds in kind ways

What I love most about teaching is the opportunity to ignite intellectual curiosity in young people. Some days, this can be easy. The subject matter can be so compelling that a student can’t help but get excited about a particular topic. A key goal of Colorado Academy is to make our educational program as relevant and meaningful as possible. Our teachers do a great job of engaging their students.

We are in the middle of Back-to-School Night season where you, as parents, will gain more insight into the work your child is doing in the classroom and the goals of your child’s teachers. Then, in October, there will be mid-term comments and some parent conferences for you to learn more about your child’s progress.

I find that the first three weeks of any school year are the happiest. Students are excited to see their friends. There is a general “easing in” to the life of the school. But, then, around the end of week two and three, exams and projects start coming due. You can feel the tension pick up a bit as it dawns on (particularly older) students that things are getting serious.

One of my favorite memories during my first year of teaching was during those first few weeks. I was talking about colonial American history and loving getting kids excited about history. We laughed. We had a great time together. Then, I gave my first test and the students really weren’t prepared for the rigor of Dr. Davis’s first exam. They silently walked out of my class, and I sensed something had changed. The next day, I walked into the words “DR. DEATH” written on my chalkboard. While the nickname stuck for a couple of years, my relationship with the students stayed strong as I tried to help them understand that our work isn’t about the grade; it’s about the process of learning.

There has been much written on the damage grades do to stifle intellectual curiosity. One reason we don’t have letter grades in Lower School is to help kids be authentic in their learning. There are still assessments, but we want to wait to reduce their—and their parents’—focus on a letter and instead help all focus on how our students develop key skills. The nature of the college process forces schools to apply this reductionist tradition of letter grades. CA is part of a cohort of schools that is looking long-term at how to assess learning differently. But, in the meantime, we have to deal with grades and I want to offer a few words of caution.

I would encourage parents not to obsess on grades. Focus instead on the process of learning. Have conversations with your child about goals, work habits, and your shared expectations. When students approach their classes with the right attitude and right work ethic, good outcomes typically follow. But, remember, that kids learn these skills over time.

Aside from their work in the classroom, there is a whole other education they are learning through social interactions and friendships. Further, they are learning all kinds of life lessons in artistic spaces and athletic fields. A typical Colorado Academy experience is bursting with leaning opportunities.

Also, please remember that life for kids is very different. As adults, we have matched our careers with our best set of skills. Kids don’t have that luxury. They feel the expectation to be good at math, science, literature, history, world language, art, music, and sport. We need to have some realistic sense that there will be things that will come naturally and others will be a struggle.

The challenge for any child is that a student’s individual progress comes down, in part, to their motivation. I have said it many times: A student’s free will makes every child’s journey unique. Some kids are raring to go. Others need a little support.

Although the article I am sharing below is more broadly focused on child growth and development, academic engagement also plays a role. In this New York Times essay, author Heather Turgeon writes about how we can use punishment and rewards in ways that can be both good and harmful. Along with her co-author Julie Wright, Turgeon has written the book Now Say This: The Right Words To Solve Every Parenting Dilemma.

For Middle School parents struggling with your adolescent playing Fortnight instead of doing their reading, or for Lower School parents who are managing your child’s behavior issues, this article has some great advice.

Turgeon provides insight into how we adults can better motivate children, how we can help harness their energy, and how they can contribute to household chores and meet shared family goals.

In this article, she also reminds us how troubling behavior often has a root cause. Adults can sometimes be impatient or too exhausted to take the time to respond in engaging ways. Sometimes we want the outcome—nicer behavior, being kind to little brother, cleaning one’s room, etc.—without considering our process for achieving that outcome is flawed.

In our opening faculty training, Rosetta Lee spoke about how we can better develop cultural competency in our students. What was most insightful about Lee’s talk was that no matter what the ethnic or racial background of the student, all kids need to know their teacher cares about them and their progress. We have to be self-aware. Our classrooms won’t be welcoming if we aren’t intentional about the climate we create.

Whether we are parents or teachers, we must strive to provide unconditional support. There is no doubt we have to have expectations and accountability—without it our kids won’t meet their potential. But, it’s about creating an intellectual climate that encourages risk taking and curiosity.

I am looking forward to this year and seeing you at our Back-to-School Nights. You might consider aspects of this article for your own parenting. Sometimes we tend to follow the example our own parents set—I certainly have. But, the sophistication of current research and understanding does make rethink basic strategies of engaging my students and my own children.

New York Times: Which Is Better, Rewards or Punishments? Neither By Heather Turgeon