When Jackson's parents came to me asking "Is our child ADD?" my first instinct was to look at Jackson's curriculum rather than at his behavior. What Jackson is supposed to be learning and how he is supposed to be learning it may have more to do with how he is acting than might be apparent at first. Jackson's behavior in the classroom and at home may be influenced by what and how he is being taught.
"Our kid is all over the place," Jackson's parents began. "He doesn't pay attention in school; he runs in the halls; he doesn't know what the homework is. And when we get home and finally get started on the homework, it's a battle of wills. We struggle for hours to get the worksheets done and I don't think Jackson is learning anything." His thoughtful parents pause and reflect. "No, actually he is learning something," they go on. "He's learning to hate homework, how to hate school, how to hate us." Jackson's parents look at one another. "How do we get him to do his homework?"
Rather than address how to force Jackson to comply and do homework, my first question for Jackson's family is: "Is what Jackson is supposed to be doing for homework of interest to Jackson?" "Does his homework make sense to him on any level?"
I had an eighth grader in my office not so long ago who was required to memorize the names of the 67 counties in Florida.
The 67 counties in Florida. Can you imagine?
Why in the name of all that is good and decent in the world would anyone ever in a thousand years need to know the names of the 67 counties in Florida? A good buddy of mine is a judge. Do you think she knows the names of the 67 counties in Florida? I would venture to suggest that she does not. I myself certainly don't know the names of more than half a dozen counties in Florida and I'm considered pretty well educated.
Need the names of the 67 counties in Florida? Ever hear of the Internet? Type "counties in Florida" into Google and you'll have the list in under 12 nanoseconds.
So what is a concerned parent to do?
How do we force our children to comply with this assignment? We can make mnemonic devices, (ABB stands for Alachua, Bay, Bradford...) We can make a song. (I've always admired Tom Lehrer's rendition of "The Elements" to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Modern Major General" from "The Pirates of Penzance.") We can use visualization imagery. ("Imagine a Manatee with an Orange in his mouth standing on a Baker...) We can promise. (If you learn the names of the 67 counties in Florida, I'll give you a pony.) We can threaten. (If you don't learn the names of the 67 counties in Florida, I'll take away your cell phone.) In short, we can stand on our heads, but the short of it is that learning the names of the 67 counties in Florida is a completely stupid waste of time.
Why would any child want to do that?
The agenda of this curriculum is about power and control. "Do what I say because I said so." This lazy teacher communicates, "Learn what I say, how I say."
Now admittedly, it is easier to point out what's wrong with what teachers are doing in our children's classrooms than it is to develop and implement thoughtful curricula. And then there's the stupid FCAT in our state sucking time and creativity out of our teachers.
But how is this Jackson's problem?
Because now his situation starts to roll out of control. "He's learning disabled;" "He has attentional issues;" "He's oppositional;" "He refuses to learn;" And my favorite: "He chooses not to be a good student."
You go learn the names of the 67 counties in Florida. Spend a few hours of your precious young life memorizing this pointless information and tell me how you like it.
So the question remains: is Jackson's curriculum interesting to Jackson? Because if his curriculum is "Sit down and shut up" he just might not be too into it.
And don't tell me that much of education is learning material that doesn't seem relevant or interesting and that there's a lot of "Learn this because I said so" coming down the road. There are a lot of pollutants in the "real world." That doesn't mean I should add asbestos and radon to the mashed yams.
Now, as it happens, I've known Jackson's father for 40 years, pretty much since the day he was born. I had a lot of respect for Jackson's grandfather (rest his soul) and I remain extremely fond of Jackson's grandmother. So I've been hanging out with Jackson's family for three generations beginning about the time that the Beatles came to America.
Jackson's father, I remember, used to be a pretty active kid--riding his bike up and down the street, working in the garden with his dad, playing cards with his mom. Jackson's dad is sharp as a tack, but never much liked sitting at a desk for seven hours either. I wonder if Jackson's dad learned in spite of what went on in his classroom rather than because of it.
Maybe Jackson's classroom is harmful rather than helpful to Jackson.
Next week: What Jackson's parent can do to help him learn to read, write, think and spell. I have advice for all loving parents who think that learning is more important than grades. I have advice for all sensible parents who care more about what goes into their children's heads than what letters are written on a piece of paper.