Porch Talk

a Southern Momma speaks

Family Visits

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I have just returned from a trip to the northeast, where three daughters, two sons-in-law, and three grandsons live.   The central occasion was my fourteen year old grandson’s graduation from 8th grade: the serendipitous occasions were baseball games my twelve year old and nine year old grandsons played.  I am a long-time baseball fan–my first memories are of games when my family lived in Lake Charles.   I don’t remember if the local team was a farm team for a big league team.   I do remember sitting on bleachers on  summer evenings, the aroma of popcorn and the scent of insect spray combining to create a button that, when activated, takes me back to those games.   The sound of a ball hitting a glove, the crack of a bat meeting a ball, the sight of a runner racing to beat the ball to the base–these images and others from the years we went to games played by the Brahma Bulls in Lafayette are the foundation for an abiding interest in this national game.

The Brahma Bulls, named for the bulls imported from India to mate with local breeds and create heat and insect resistant cows, were a D class farm team for the Yankees.   Ron Guidry, who would play for the Yankees, started his career on the local team. My brother and a first cousin were bat boys, positions that gave them opportunities for casual exchanges with the future star.So going to my grandsons’ games brought back many happy memories, and created new ones.   Both of my grandsons’ teams will play in the Championship finals on Saturday: both boys made the winning play in their teams’ last play-off game, and though I will be absent, I will be present in spirit, cheering them on.

The graduation ceremonies were impressive, dignified, beautiful and everything such a solemn event should be.   My grandson and four other class members have been together since kindergarten, so this commencement was especially meaningful to them.   Their school, a Rudolph Steiner school, uses the pedagogy developed by a German educator of that name at the time Maria Montessori was developing her methods.   The portfolios of work these students had achieved over eight years there were proof that the school’s methods work.

The class had the same teacher for eight years: Nancy Franco, who, to me, is a model of all a teacher should be.   She knows how to open young minds and inspire them to be curious about everything from the ancient world to zoology: I know from my own experience as a teacher that once a student’s curiosity is aroused, it is only a few steps to having a student who not only sees the value of education, but enjoys learning.

For all too many students in this country, learning is not enjoyable, but a challenge, even an obstacle, that must be endured.   When I read of yet another method that is supposed to improve student achievement, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  The Common Core is, in my view, one of most badly conceived of these methods.  The brain, especially the adolescent brain, doesn’t learn by rote, or by drills, or any other task that doesn’t fully engage the brain.  The brain is most effective when it thinks rationally and creatively–and it is especially effective when it thinks outside the box.

Educational methods that don’t provide the flexibility teachers need when dealing with the various ways in which his/her students learn account for many failures, much frustration, and a great deal of despair.

In my view, the most effective learning comes when a teacher does not consider teaching an adversarial situation.  I have never understood why anyone thinks that trying to dominate a class is the way to earn trust and respect.  In an ideal world, these two would be a given: students trust and respect teachers, period.   But we live in a far from ideal world: in all too many cases teachers must deal with children who have more than enough adversarial behavior in their lives.    When a teacher is thoroughly conversant with the material he/she is introducing to a class, and is not only enthusiastic but passionate about transferring that enthusiasm to the students., learning happens.

I taught Freshman Composition at LSU; U of L at Lafayette; and Southern University in Baton Rouge.   And yes, being open to class after class of eighteen year olds is risky, particularly if one thinks of oneself as a superior being in charge of lesser ones.   Or is simply afraid to take the risk of being laughed at, or worse.   For me, the worst thing that can happen in a classroom isn’t that the teacher occasionally feels overwhelmed, embarrassed, and fed up.   It’s when students come away from class after class resentful and less interested in learning than when they began.

My three grandsons are immensely fortunate in the schools available where they live.  They are even more fortunate that their parents, aunts and uncles, and grandmothers take an active interest in their educations.   We do this to support the boys, of course.  We also do it because watching young minds expand, seeing how one bit of information opens a door to more, is some of the best fun around.  Better even than baseball!


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