Thursday, September 5, 2013

Non-Academic Skills: Can We Teach Those?

Originally posted on Monday, October 29, 2012

This was originally written as Hurricane Sandy approached the East Coast, her sights set on a point a couple hundred miles north but determined to give the Washington, DC area a wind-lashed deluge over the next few hours and interrupt my typing with power outages. The original post was lost; I was only able to retrieve the opening paragraphs, but I have more to add, so it’s due to be updated anyway.

With this in mind, my younger child decided to use the windy afternoon before the storm arrived to be outside and to burn off calories and to She'd been working on jumping rope recently. As recently as 4-5 weeks before, she was jumping awkwardly and managing perhaps 3 or 4 jumps before the rope caught on her legs. She would try again, over and over, before giving up in tearful frustration - and then, a minute or 2 later, with the tears not yet dry on her face, she was at it again, raging at the rope and at her inexperience as it happened again and again. And then, something very interesting happened.

After the 3rd or 4th time of hearing her frustrated, I went outside to her to see if she wanted to take a break, but she was adamant. She didn’t want my help, or my interference, OR my input, and certainly not my sympathy. LOL Actually, she wanted me to get the heck out of her way, give her the space and the privacy to work on it on her own, at her own pace, in her own way, so I did. I knew from experience that she’d come and find me when she was ready. :-)  She persisted for probably another 40 minutes without a break before she did, and I could tell before she spoke a word that she had mastered it to her satisfaction: she was beaming from ear to ear.

Sooo....over a period of a couple of months, she went from “not even close” to the cusp of the regular skip-hop pattern I mastered in first grade (back when we had not one recess but THREE, so lots of opportunity to work on mastery of whatever skills were important to us as kids). And then, it seemed as though she were “primed” to finish the job, and she did it all on her own in one gusty afternoon. She followed it up by extending the activity on her own: making up chants, jumping to the alphabet, so also reinforcing those skills, marrying them to the newly-acquired one of jumping rope. And when she got to the end of the alphabet, she started working on jumping rope backwards. [proud mommy face goes here. :-)]

This was persistence, plain and simple, and I didn’t have to teach it to her. She came born with it, pre-wired to persist. My limited experience working in a Montessori-type setting gave me the mental space to get out of her way and trust that she would overcome the frustration on her own without intervention or prompting, at HER pace.

So what was it that made that learning so effective? Why did she persist with this activity till she mastered it, when so many other children, faced with, say, 20 minutes of homework, would give it up at the first sign of frustration?

A few things occurred to me as I mulled this over:

- The activity was one of HER choosing. It was important to HER. It wasn’t given to her by anyone else, nor was it even suggested, except possibly passively by her playmates at school, whose recess antics were part of her inspiration.

- She worked harder when I did NOT interrupt, and she went back to it more consistently when I wasn’t riding her about it.

- She knew that she could eventually do it, or at least trusted that she could. She got herself to a place after each episode of frustration where she could consider what had gone wrong and make adjustments. I also believe that had this not been an activity of interest to her, she wouldn’t have had the motivation to stick with it.

This mirrors my experience as a music teacher. Getting students to practice their instruments is akin to pulling teeth sometimes. And I get it: scales can be dull, schedules are already full, assembling an instrument and then practicing and then putting it away is right up there with chores for many kids. The exceptions, though, seem to be percussionists and guitarists, for whatever reason. High schoolers with guitars will play those things till their fingers bleed, and then go back at it and try again with bandaids on their fingers. (Ditto for bass players.) And percussionists tend to play on EVERYTHING: tables, chairs, school desks, books, their bodies - and whenever possible, drums of all kinds. Trying to get either of these two groups of students to STOP practicing and [eat/do homework/go to school/sleep] is the hard part. LOL Sure, there are some outliers in the winds and strings and vocal realms, and more than a few pianists who relish 3 hours a day at a piano keyboard, but they tend to be the exception, not the rule.

After we moved to our current neighborhood, I remember the boy who lived across the street spending 2-3 hours each day as soon as he was finished with his homework out in the street with his skateboard practicing tricks. Flips, jumps, sometimes with a ramp, sometimes without, the works. For HOURS. When he graduated and moved out, we missed the sound of the skateboard wheels, and I remember thinking at the time how good my private music students would be if, somehow, their music study were as valued to them as the skateboard was to this guy.

How could we use a story like this to reach students in school settings, where assignments are generally not optional, and they’re not always going to be of interest to students?

Discuss. I want to come back to this another day, as “Social Emotional Learning” is now officially one of the cornerstones of my kids’ public school education.

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Please keep it clean. Differences of opinion aren't a problem for me. Rudeness is. Thankyouverymuch. :-)