Monday, May 10, 2010

Stop and Listen to the Children

By Jacob Gutnicki

They say I gotta learn
But nobody's here to teach me.
If they can't understand it, how can they reach me?
I guess they can't,
I guess they won't,
I guess they front,
That's why I know my life is out of luck, fool!
Coolio, Gangster's Paradise

Many students often feel that they are misunderstood; viewed as a misfit. To be clear, it does not start out this way. Children entering kindergarten are usually enthusiastic about going to school regardless of their socioeconomic stratosphere. Unfortunately, over time our failure to understand their passions and struggles can result in students becoming despondent and feeling that their life is indeed out of luck. Luckily, both our children and students often drop hints. With this in mind, I will share with you a few anecdotes that depict hints in action.

Anecdote 1- Several weeks ago, I hosted the 3rd day of our High School Macintosh Certification Program. Students from East NY, Brownsville, South Ozone Park, Howard Beach, and the Rockaways were in attendance. Throughout the day various conversations were taking place. Topics included the best web sites for student research, running batch installations, software tools for cloning computers, and other topics. At one point of the day, several students asked me for a copy of the troubleshooting guide dispersed at the last session.

Anecdote 2- I have a nightly ritual during which I ask my son what he did during the school day. On one particular Thursday night this routine was a bit different. My son stated, “Daddy I think you should ask me what I did in school today.” Naturally, I asked him the question. He responded that he watched a video that discussed Earth Day. I then asked him, “Who is the president of the United States?” He told me that it was Abraham Lincoln and told me Abraham Lincoln built the first transcontinental railroad. I asked him, “So who is Obama?” He said, “Barack Obama he is also the president. He is a nice guy.”

Anecdote 3- A few weeks ago, I was watching my younger son play with toys at a playgroup. I noted to my wife, "Isn’t it interesting that he is choosing to play with the toy refrigerator and stack it with play food?"

Anecdote 4- My son has been playing Timez Attack (software that helps children learn multiplication) for the past few months. He also frequently visits the Big Brainz web site to investigate if the company is releasing any new versions of the software program. Naturally, he became very excited when he discovered that the web site was promoting a new screen entitled “Ruins”. However, there was no download available to update the software. With this in mind, I had a brief discussion with him during which I suggested that he write an e-mail to the company asking how to download the new screen. Needless to say, he was very excited and could not wait to compose the e-mail.

What does it all mean? These four anecdotes are very different, yet they are the same. All of the stories describe brief interactions with children. More importantly, each of these stories represents a chance to learn what motivates your child or student. In the second story my son discussed in great detail about Lincoln’s contribution to the railroad system. This turn of events is motivated by my son’s interest in trains. Similarly, my other son’s choice of toys speaks to what motivates him. Likewise, the conversations that took place with the High School students provided a glimpse of what motivates our youthful teenagers.

Finally, my son’s experience with Timez Attack shows how important it is that we listen to our children with an open mind. At first I did not understand what my son was referring to. Subsequently, I asked him to show me “the new feature” he was mentioning. He then logged on to his computer and showed me the “Ruins” screen. It then occurred to me that I should have him write an e-mail asking the company about the new feature. With this in mind, as parents and educators it behooves us to capitalize on their interests and use it as a springboard to motivate them to learn. So… Stop and listen to the children.


  1. If they truly want to be understood and accepted by mainstream society, they need to stop embracing rap/hip hop music and its attendant culture, which preaches violence, misogyny, homophobia, and illegal substance abuse.

  2. Hmm... These are all interesting points. Having said that, the media preference of inner city children is not the real issue. It really harkens to the question of whether educators are taking the time to understand the struggles of the children they are servicing or not. I have also found that providing children with opportunities and a forum to present their ideas to be very effective. For example, I have been running a Math Science Technology Fair for 12 years which celebrates academic achievement.

  3. Jacob: the only way to improve the lives of at-risk urban children is to fundamentally change the poisoned culture from which they originate, a culture that condones irresponsible behavior, disrespect for authority, and the rejection of the traditional core family unit of a mother AND a father leading a household. Well-intentioned folks have been wringing their hands for years and throwing money at the situation because they feel safer and more politically correct by offering band-aids instead of truly tough love solutions. It starts in the home. If that fails, then everything else is for naught.

  4. There is no question that parental involvement is the key to academic success. Whenever possible, I believe a parental-home connection should be advocated through parent workshops, family learning nights, and so on. However, all too often (for varying reasons) active parental interaction is absent. When this happens, we as educators need to examine other options to assure that out future generation flourishes in school despite their immediate surroundings and closes the performance gap.

  5. Jacob: you would think that educators would have learned by now that spending more money (primarily money not their's, but the taxpayer's) doesn't return enough on the investment, i.e. more symbolism and less substance. Of course, if these schools are receiving grants from private or corporate interests pushing their goods and services, then a teacher really has no choice but to sign-on and see what happens until the $$$ dries up. I'm discovering that this circumstance is more pervasive than ever. That kind of relationship would make me uncomfortable, because conditions are always set that's antithetical to what a teacher should represent. We're not taught in teacher training to curry favor with vendors and money people and understand their purpose.

  6. The business of education has always been an odd lot. You are correct in stating that monies are often invested foolishly or used for the wrong reasons. At the same time, careful planning, research, and follow up could prevent these unfortunate calamities. Of course this means that the grant manager (or whoever is in charge) must be organized, truly understand data, and have the courage to stand up for what is right.