August 21, 2009
Powerful memories of school
It was the small tub of bingo chips I remember most from that year – translucent, cherry red, with the width of nickels and the thinness of dimes. Those, and the inner courtyard that abutted the classrooms in our modernist school, and the tetherball circles at recess: one for winner plays on and another for already formed pairs of players.
Grade 1 was the first of 22 nearly consecutive years of school for me. And I recall, in 1978, hoping to make the most of that, my first.
It's back to school this month for students across the continent – including for my own two young kids, as well as for the students I teach. This semester I'll be helping doctoral candidates be conversant and passionate about international relations theory. Together, we'll outline the contours of the disciplinary conversation – itself evolving like a moving stream, and discover what each student can contribute. I hope to help them shift quickly from being consumers of knowledge to producers of it. As in any creative and intellectual undertaking, to "find one's voice," each student must first believe he or she possesses one.
In Grade 1, we learned about centimetres by stretching paper rulers sectioned with small blue lines across our desks. (Canada was still in the process of transitioning to metric, so our teachers were probably learning along with us.) We were taught to read, and I recall sneaking Judy Blume books at my desk (containing themes far beyond my grasp of life) before they were confiscated during Hebrew class. Our English teacher went on maternity leave halfway through the year, something I found rather mysterious. Our Hebrew teacher was called Anat, an appellation I thought irresistibly funny. "Anat, gamarti!" (Anat, I'm finished!") she taught us to say. I was confused, thinking Gamarti her middle name.
No doubt, curiosity and motivation carried me along for most of my school life. There were subjects that excited me more than others, certainly. But to me, those bingo chips were like mirrors of possibility, reflecting my curiosity back to me as I absorbed their ruby sheen. Maybe it was their toy-like quality that reassured me. They represented a crucial bridge between the playfulness of early childhood and the orderliness of school with its wooden desks and wall-bound pencil sharpeners.
Being confounded by why some students seemed to struggle with motivation, in later grades, I listened closely to my teachers' classroom interactions. To one, a boy who seemed to bring a series of unnamed challenges to the classroom, a teacher implored, "Do it for me! Just this once." And for my creative project on dreams, she "thanked" me for my effort.
I felt pleased by my teacher's approval, of course, but now I wonder how children can be helped to discover their voice so that they engage in the learning process to please themselves. As I've written elsewhere, children seem to have an innate curiosity about the world. Witness the incessant "why" questions of preschoolers. But, as we see all too often, sometimes those questioning voices fade to silence.
How can we ensure that our kids find their voices and discover the excitement of internal motivation? It's rewarding to interact with a motivated child. A positive feedback loop develops, but it can be one where naturally inclined kids race ahead, leaving their quieter peers behind.
Certainly those bingo chips struck a chord with me, as did Jewish activities like making wine from green grapes, carving a smooth bow and arrow for Lag b'Omer, or greasing my hair with Vaseline (a hasty act not soon forgotten by me or my hair) for a Purim costume.
And so did children's authors like Blume, but also Roald Dahl and Beverly Cleary and Farley Mowat inspire me. Each of those writers seemed to effortlessly capture and repackage childhood feeling and imagination. Others, like William H. Armstrong, the author of Sounder, captured the universality of humanity through the experience of racial oppression – a life far from my own. All these writers brought the written word alive through sheer narrative skill. And by validating childhood perspectives, they amplified our own emerging voices. Those books were like teachers, reminding us that we, too, had much to say. (No wonder that Blume has long had to fight the banning of her books.)
I'm looking forward to delivering my kids to school on their first day. I hear that parents nowadays are stymied by the seemingly endless amount of homework. I hope I don't find helping with the learning process tiresome. I hope I manage to jump into that moving stream of knowledge – with bingo chips and chapter books and tetherballs flying by, and shout out with my kids, not knowing where the sound and motion will take us.
Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She is currently writing a book on nostalgia and political change.