Sunday, September 12, 2010

The 4th "R" for Unmotivated Youth: Relationship

(Reflections on RESIDENT ALIENS by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, "Why School 'Reform' Fails" by Robert J. Samuelson in NEWSWEEK of Sept. 13, 2010)

Educational reforms since 1970 have produced no rise in scores and an increased percentage of college freshmen who need remedial work in the three r's, and efforts to halt the flow of young adults away from the churches of their youth have failed. Is there a common thread?

Economist Robert J. Samuelson tells how efforts have failed to improve schools.  Lower student-teacher ratios, higher teacher pay, and locally successful reforms haven't made a difference across the nation.  He blames "shrunken student motivation."  He does not automatically blame teachers, pointing out that unmotivated students used to have another option: 40% of 17 year olds dropped out of school in 1950.  He adds that "adolescent culture" has eroded the authority of teachers and schools.  He has no solution, ridiculing the aim of having "a great teacher in every classroom" as akin to having every football team comprised only of All-Americans.

Hauerwas and Willimon argue that American churches are failing because "we Christians have given atheists less and less in which to disbelieve." I'm only part way through this book, interested because I saw Hauerwas in early August.  So far, this statement, and some anecdotes from chapter five are the only things that have struck me.  The rest, so far, is stuff familiar to me but presented as if it were some kind of revolutionary revelation emerging from the ashes of everyone else's theology.  I reserve judgment.

But H and W do present an anecdote in the most interesting chapter that I've read so far in my jumping around, chapter five.  The two tell how one of them belonged to a church that challenged itself to reform its routine for confirming youth.  Classroom learning "about" Jesus and "joining the church" were discarded in favor of trying Jesus' own method of discipleship, or, in more modern terms, mentoring.  Adults identified by fellow members in confidential surveys were each paired with a teen, expected to meet once every couple of weeks to compare notes on reading a gospel, attending a church funeral, experiencing the same worship, performing some community service. 

This idea of mentoring is something I've been trying to achieve with my seventy-odd seventh graders this year.  I have in mind the tutoring I did for a stammering, non-writing, test-failing repeat eighth grader named Mike back around 1984.  He'd already failed my course; I soon felt it was futile to keep beating the dead horses of the curriculum.  We began to make progress the day that I stopped talking at all, and instead took out paper and wrote across the top, "Tell me in writing about your family."  He wrote, as usual, a one-line answer about having a mother, father, and grandmother. He handed the paper back.  I asked a follow-up: "Tell me more about your grandmother."  He wrote that she lived next door.  "Anything else?" She had red hair.  "When was she born?"  He had no idea. "Go home and talk to her."  He came back the next day, grabbed the paper, and wrote two pages of closely spaced text. 

I don't recall much of what happened after that, except that it was a major break through, my own Helen Keller at the water pump. He went on, not only to succeed at the high school, but to become a self-confident track star and scholar, who went on to gather more than one advanced degree.

I'm thinking that in-class writing for my kids could easily take that form.  Could I start class with a question, "What did you learn yesterday in class and in reading that you want to discuss more?"  Then, I keep pressing them with follow up questions until they do tell more.  I've done this in drama class, letting other students write the follow up questions for me.  Some write one sentence and answer a dozen follow up questions; others develop their thoughts fully, the first time.  The aim, of course, is to teach the questions that a critical thinker asks himself when reading or developing an idea.  It's worth the time, if I can do it.

So, let's keep thinking about a fourth "r," relationship.

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