How Can Kids Pursue Their Passions in School?

Sitting around out campsite the other night, kids from all around the campground were gathered to play “truth or dare.”  They were all choosing the dares on the G-rated iPod app.  They were kissing rocks, licking bicycle tires, doing hand stands, and naming as many states as possible in 30 seconds.  The 12 year old girl who got the state “dare” proceeded to sing the song…”Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, California, Connecticut, Delaware…” and she kept going.  I was impressed as I stop at Connecticut and even for the purposes of this post don’t care much about going any further.  Hearing her do this brought back a ton of memories of, well, memorizing.

Let me just say that one of the quickest ways to kill my interest in something is to try to make me memorize something about it.  Want to know why “I don’t like (school) biology?”  School biology is all about memorizing names of things and definitions and labeling diagrams of things that don’t look on paper like they look under the microscope.  Want to know why “I don’t like (school) history?”  School history is all about memorizing who did what when and where.  (School) English is all about reading books you don’t care about and wouldn’t choose for yourself and answering questions about dress colors of supporting characters AND writing stuff that only your teacher will ever care about in complete, grammatically correct sentences.  And school math?  Don’t get me started on that one.  Just read http://beckyfisher73.posterous.com/learning-as-a-hobby.

I know I have probably ticked some of you teachers off by now and have highly offended you by saying that your discipline is stuck in the first two level of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Maybe I didn’t have you as a teacher, maybe I had the teacher next door.  Would he or she be offended by this or would he or she defend these scenarios?

I remember asking one of my English teachers if she was a writer.  She said that she read a lot but her creativity went in to baking.  I wonder how she survived school to become an English teacher.  I remember asking one of my high school math teachers if she thought she was doing more math or more performance, like an actor.  She said she already knew “all of the math” so she was more like an actor.  My notebook for these two classes was most likely filled with the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.”  When it came out in 1979, it became clear to me that I wasn’t the only one feeling like school was designed for other people, not me.

I did have a few teachers throughout the years that allowed me to feel as if school were designed for me, or could at least flex a bit for me!  My fourth grade teacher was a storyteller and while she was rumored to be 102 and had been the principal’s teacher when he was in school, she was constantly learning new things.  I would bring stuff to her – turtle shells and rocks – and we would examine them together.  She would always find something in these treasures I hadn’t found yet and she would always ask an “I wonder” question.  “I wonder if a turtle can survive without his shell?” or “I wonder if this is the kind of rock the Indians used to make arrowheads?”  Her amazement at the world and her “I wonder” questions always sent me off, determined to learn more.  See http://www.schoolnet.com/bfisher/Blog/PostDetails.aspx?postid=11&Paged=True&Page=1.

I approached my fifth grade teacher some time in the first week of school and let her know that I knew all of the math she was teaching and asked when something new was going to come my way.  She basically allowed me to test out of fifth grade math and spend math time as a helper in the kindergarten classroom where my younger brother was.  The deal was that I would continue to work with my older brother, who had her as a fifth grade teacher as well, to learn what he was learning in math.  I loved this arrangement and I am certain had something to do with me becoming a math teacher.

My eighth grade English teacher picked up on my interest in poetry and loaned me a book from her personal collection.  I was thrilled.  I shared my poetry “black book” with her and she read every word in it and asked me questions about word choice and imagery and encouraged me to keep writing.  She went through her poetry unit outline and marked a few of the assignments I could be excused from.  Two of the poems that were in the collection she read were ones I shared with Gwendolyn Brooks when I had the chance to spend a day with her in college.  

My senior year, I enrolled in physics because my older brother hadn’t taken it and wished he had.  It was my one chance to possibly teach him something!  I walked in to class the first day and saw this man with a long beard and pony tail standing at the front of the room between a lab table and the chalk board.  He looked cool.  There were rockets and electronics all around the room and it looked cool.  He asked us if we were tired of not hearing real answers to “When are we ever going to need this math?”  He promised to spend the first two days of physics reviewing all of the math we had ever been taught AND would really need.  I was hooked.  He told us we did not have to memorize formulas, he expected us to understand them instead.  He never “gave” us a formula, he taught us how to derive it or at least make sense of it by thinking through simply situations or through dimensional analysis.

Did these teachers allow me to pursue my passions in school?  To some extent, yes.  However, they mostly validated me as I pursued my passions outside of school.  Like many kids, I felt like school got in my way and I picked and choose what to do with an eye on balancing staying out of deep trouble while not wasting too much time.  These teachers taught me to explore how I learn and what interests me.

@paulawhite recently blogged about Passionate Learning at http://tzstchr.edublogs.org/2010/03/27/passionate-learning/ – telling the story of two severely gifted “kids” coming together around technology.  This is an amazing read!  How can teachers feed in to kids’ passions within the confines of the traditional school day and other structures?  What would it look like for 25 8 year olds to simultaneously pursue their passions in a classroom?  Is this possible? As teachers, how can we at least honor students’ passions and allow them a place in our classrooms?  Looking back with a critical eye, I would say 4 out of 55 of my public school teachers did just that!

One Response to “How Can Kids Pursue Their Passions in School?”

  1. Rare next-day posting: a tribute to my fourth grade teacher | The Calculus of the Classroom Says:

    […] Mrs. Bing was a storyteller.  She was the kind of teacher who could make you feel like you knew a ton one minute and had so much to learn the next that you were overwhelmed by the prospects.  Perhaps my fondest memories of Mrs. Bing come from the field trips we took.  This piece was originally posted by me in another blog: […]

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