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Engaging Your Child's Passion to Learn—Naturally
Is there anyone who has spent time with very young children and not been in awe of the natural intelligence and resilient passion to learn that they bring into the world? Is there anyone who has not delighted in coaching those children to take a first step? Is there anyone who has not agonized while trying to help them with their homework? Almost every one of you, like me, has witnessed the delight of discovery diminish and stiffen as those children march through the rigors of school and "growing up." Does it have to be that way?
* * *
September 1962. 8 A.M. Janey Rothchild was the first one to burst into the classroom when the bell rang. She was clutching a large dead frog close to her chest. Tony Esposito was right behind her. His hands were full of dry maple leaves and an empty turtle shell. Samantha and Jessmyn's arms were entwined, their grubby hands grasping a lifeless snake, a broken tree branch, and several large gray rocks. Within minutes, twenty-five disheveled six- and seven-year-olds were crouched on the polished pine floor, their forest treasures carefully placed in the center. "How do you know these things are dead? How can you tell?" I asked.
Janey traced the bumpy back of the stiff frog she had found. "I can tell," she said. One tear traced a white track down her dirt-smeared cheek. "It doesn't have its light anymore. That was its soul and it went on a sunstick elevator up to the sky. Just like my little brother's."
All of us knew Janey's little brother had died the week before. When she returned to school after the funeral, she brought with her the questions she wasn't supposed to ask anyone. "What does it mean when something is dead? Why does it get cold? Where does its mind go? Can it still love you?"
Those questions were what prompted my homework assignment. I had asked each child to bring in something dead from the natural world. For two hours, the kids poked and probed into the mystery of death. One after another told stories: "When my parakeet died, it got all hard like this snake." "When my grandpa was in the box in church, I touched him and he was all cold so I know he didn't go to Hell, because that's the hot place." "Yeah, but maybe love is hot and so when something dies, the love goes out of it into the people that cared about it. That's why they get all hot when they cry."
When the principal came in at lunchtime, he asked me what the mess was in the middle of the floor, and demanded my lesson plans for that day. Three-and-a-half decades later, I can't remember how I justified what we had been doing in terms of the semester's curriculum. I don't even remember if any of us figured out answers to Janey's questions. I do remember getting a letter from her though, ten years ago. She had become a first-grade teacher. She wrote to tell me she still remembered that day. It was when she discovered she would always love to learn.
* * *
September 1996, midnight. Still teaching, but now I work with adults in businesses that are striving to become learning organizations. On this particular evening, I was trying to play pool with seven guys from the seminar. (They were the ones who had sat for three days with their arms folded across their chests no matter what I said or did.) When my first shot resulted in the white ball careening off the table into the soda machine, it was pretty obvious I was there for some reason other than the game. The guys patiently did their best to teach me, but I finally told them the truth. I was there to learn something, but it wasn't pool. "What I really want to know is why everyone calls you the 'Clay Layer,' and why you don't seem to want to be at this seminar."
Clovis took the cue stick out of my hands. Maybe it made him feel safer. His voice was scratchy as if his words passed over sandpaper before leaving his lips. "Listen, Dawna, we know the company hired you to promote this new vision thing about becoming a learning organization. We know you're just doing your job." He paused and took a long swig of beer. The others snickered behind him. "You gotta understand so you don't take it personally. They call us the 'Clay Layer' because no matter how much money they spend on their vision statement, and no matter how far down the company it trickles, it stops with us." Clovis' hand pointed emphatically toward the center of my chest, as if it were the cue stick and I was the eight ball headed for the pocket.
"They can tell us we gotta be at this seminar. We'll come. We're real good at 'GTTM'—Going Through the Motions. But no matter what they do, they can't make us learn."
I backed myself into an invisible corner of silence, trying to comprehend what it would feel like to be so adamant, so bent on refusing to learn—when learning was what I loved as passionately as life itself. Finally I replied, "OK, guys, I agree with you. No one can or should try to make you learn. Certainly not me. But help me understand why it's so important for you not to."
Jimmy stepped up next to Clovis and put his hand on his shoulder. I had been watching him earlier, during the breaks in the seminar, quietly moving words around on the magnetic poetry board we had set up at the back of the conference room. "We know they think we're stupid, Dawna. We know they think we've got what one manager calls a 'victim mentality.' They say we're not taking responsibility for making things change around here, like kids who whine about hating homework, just so they don't have to do it. They tell us lots of stuff like that. But there's two things no one ever does and until they do, it's GTTM and they can't make us learn."
Jimmy was a master. He knew exactly how long to wait smugly in silence until I had to ask, "OK, OK, tell me. What are the two things?" He lowered his voice until it was barely above a whisper, and each word was spoken separately, with great care. "One—they've got to ask us what we know already. Two—they've got to listen to what we tell them about what's wrong, without explaining it away as victim mentality. When they do that, maybe it will be safe enough for us to learn."
* * *
Let me be explicit. I love to learn. It has always been my handhold in the darkness. I wouldn't be offended if you called me a learning junkie. Nothing is as compelling to me as the light that is emitted from a person when learning is occurring. For fifty-five years, I've followed that glow from playgrounds to corporate boardrooms. I've pursued it through graduate degrees in psychology and education, through the professions of classroom teacher, psychotherapist, trainer of trainers, educational consultant, corporate consultant. It doesn't matter what labels were attached to it—what has always drawn me forward is my desire to be around that radiance, to foster it, to encourage it, and to study the conditions that generate and direct it.
For me, learning has always been so much more than a transfer of information. It has meant wholeness, empowerment, actualization, liberation. Children like Janey remind me that there is a seeker of excellence built into our DNA. Children embody this inherent impulse in their rampant curiosity about themselves and their world, the way they naturally follow their interests and rhythms, seek out and risk experimentation, honor their dreams and daydreams, consider mistakes as information rather than as something wrong. Children have taught me that learning is discovering that something is possible.
A teacher of mine, Parker Palmer, asks, "Why is it that in this country with the most widespread educational system on the globe, so many people walk around feeling stupid?" It hurts me on a cellular level when I think about that. I ache when I remember seeing shining five-year-olds who thought in images or were clever with their hands or danced and sang and told brilliant stories; six years later they had become hungry ghosts or haunted pariahs because they didn't catch on to reading or multiplication. I grieve when I think of eight-year-old Simon; when his teacher asked him to give the definition of infinity, he responded, "A Cream of Wheat Box!" and was sent to the principal's office for being a smart aleck. Later, when I asked him what he meant, he said, "Well, there's a guy on the box holding a Cream of Wheat box. And on that box there's a guy holding a Cream of Wheat box, and...."
I mourn when I think of adults like Jimmy and Clovis caught in a battle for control of their spirit, whose only ultimate power is refusal. I feel despair when I hear someone say how children or adults are unmotivated, resistant to learning. They may be resistant to being taught, but not to learning. No one who is sane and alive resists learning.
What interferes with this natural impulse? What causes the lights to dim? What hinders our children's innate passion? Why do kids complain that they're bored, that they can't do it, that they don't know how to do it, that they don't need to know it ? Why is it that Griffin charges in the door, kisses the air, and yells at his mother, "Don't bother me now, I've got to go to soccer practice. The coach says I need to work on kicking with my left foot," but when it's time for him to write a report on the Lewis and Clark expedition, he stubbornly collapses on the couch?
Does it have to be that way? Why do we change from coaches to cops? Even more importantly, how do we transform the forces that limit the expression of our children's natural intelligence? What can we as parents, teachers, and concerned adults do to foster the love of learning that is every child's birthright?
When I live inside these questions, my first response is to shrug with a sense of helplessness. That shrug has followed me from classroom to classroom, year after year, as I taught at every level from first grade through graduate school. I wanted to foster the unique brilliance of each child, and instead I watched it turn dull by the very process that was supposed to enhance it. I was interested in the art of learning and encouraging ingenuity, and I was supposed to be training children to be obedient workers, to maintain the status quo. I taught in order to eradicate ignorance, but found myself instead in a massive battle with fear—the fear of being different, the fear of vulnerability, the fear of the unknown. I thought I was there to help children learn, but found that I was supposed to be part of an "expertocracy" whose main responsibilities were to impart information and keep accurate records.
In my frustration and pain, I searched for someone to blame. It was the other teachers' fault. It was the administrators' fault. It was the parents, the school board members, the public at large, the culture. But everywhere I turned, I found victims of the same misunderstandings about what a person is, what learning and intelligence are, what education itself is and can be. Everywhere in schools people spoke of the Golden Rule but practiced the Silver Rule—they did unto others as was done unto them. After fifteen years, I felt as if I were trying to teach children to breathe deeply in an oven with the gas turned on. I shrugged one final time and left the classroom forever.
But the questions would not leave me. They lurked in the shadows of every session I had with families and individuals as a psychotherapist in private practice. They pursued me into the adult world of organizations—-businesses, health care, social service agencies, teacher-training programs—places where I thought I could make a difference. They followed me to the Organizational Learning Center of the Sloan School at MIT and the Visions of a Better World Foundation. Everywhere I went, I found others who were also plagued by these same questions and shrugging under the weight of the same feelings.
Fourteen years ago, a short woman with flashing black eyes and a huge spirit surged into a program on holistic education that I was facilitating in Boston. Anne Powell had been a classroom teacher for a decade, but had not lost her commitment to find as many ways as possible to respond to the unique needs and abilities of the children she worked with. When I began sharing what my experience and research had taught me about the multiple intelligences of children, and multisensory ways of creating learning experiences for them, the embers in her eyes ignited. I knew I had found a partner who was dedicated to exploring those questions in the classrooms I had left behind. In our coming together, the organizational world and the educational world found common ground. As parents, we both knew it would take the entire community to help raise our children.
When Anne and I coauthored our first book, How Your Child IS Smart, we felt a great deal of passion about helping to create the conditions where the full range of natural intelligence can flourish, where all who are different can belong, where instead of trying to force our children to be unique in the same way as everybody else, uniqueness can be the norm. We knew we were not alone in this commitment, but even we were surprised at the positive response the book received from parents, teachers, and children themselves. We received letters and phone calls, faxes and e-mail from around the world supporting much more than the model of six patterns of learning we had presented. What we were hearing was an overwhelming shift in perspective from judgment: "What's wrong with my kid and how can I fix him or her?" to engagement: "No matter what anyone says, I want to help my child keep his love of learning," and "I want to do something more than be a homework cop for my kid. Where do I start?"
Sponsoring Learning Unlimited
This book was born from the encouragement that our readers' responses fostered. It is a direct result of the overwhelming request for a means of exploring how a concerned parent can engage the natural intelligence of his or her children and foster their passion to learn. We knew we wanted to help parents help their children develop lifelong skills specifically tailored to their unique style and needs. And we knew teachers felt understandably overwhelmed by the changes in thinking and classroom management required to meet the needs of many different kinds of learners. Because they could not possibly cater to the special gifts of every child, we saw a new responsibility emerging for parents and other caregivers—sponsorship. This entails nurturing the gift in each child, as one nurtures the oak tree to grow from an acorn. We knew this was possible if we could help parents find a practice field to instill self-trust, concentration, determination, and awareness.
We decided that homework would be that field of practice because it is the part of the schooling process where parents have the most contact with their children's daily learning experience, and so it is the place where they can make the most difference in helping their kids learn how they learn. We knew we wanted the results of the book to be very specific: for children to have some grounded and necessary information so they could help themselves when they were stuck or confused or needed to organize their thoughts; for children to gain the confidence necessary to experiment and explore independently; for children to develop the internal discipline that would help them reach for what they really wanted and bring it into being.
We also knew the book would not be about how to make children do homework, but rather about the real work of home—protecting and fostering the child and the gift that child brings to the rest of the human community. We asked ourselves a pivotal question, "What could help transform the homework experience into a partnership between parents and children to discover just how valuable they both really are?"
You are holding the result of all of those questions and aspirations in your hands. Welcome to what is unabashedly a "how-to" book. But it is not about how to parent the "right" way, or how to make your child do his or her homework the "right" way. It is a book about how to have conversations of discovery with your children that will reveal their capacities, gifts, and natural style of intelligence. Homework can be transformed from a tedious burden and an arena of struggle that tears you apart into a worthwhile adventure and exploration over time that brings you closer to yourselves and to each other.
Excerpted from Learning Unlimited by Dawna Markova, Anne R. Powell. Copyright © 1998 Dawna Markova and Anne R. Powell. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Foreword by Parker J. Palmer
Chapter 1 Engaging Your Child's Passion to Learn—Naturally
Chapter 2 Sponsoring Your Child: Becoming a Learning Partner
Chapter 3 Tapping in to Natural Motivation: Remembering What They Love
Chapter 4 Getting Organized: Keeping Track in New Ways
Chapter 5 Managing Time and Energy: Putting Homework in Its Place
Chapter 6 Getting Started: Engaging Mind, Body, and Spirit
Chapter 7 Understanding Concentration, Confusion, and Distraction:
Managing Movements of the Mind
Chapter 8 Enhancing Learning Conditions: Personalizing the Study Space
Chapter 9 Getting Stuck and Unstuck: Expanding Mental Resources
Chapter 10 Calling It a Night: Learning As Its Own Reward
Chapter 11 Sharing What You've Learned: Becoming a Learning Resource
Chapter 12 The Greatest Gift of All: An Attentive Heart
About the Authors
Posted March 27, 2013
Posted February 15, 2013
Posted October 29, 2012