Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Kindness and giftedness and schools

One of the things that has really come to the forefront of our minds as parents during this whole school research and selection process has been what our priorities are for our kids and how we raise them. That, to me, is honestly what a lot of this school stuff has boiled down to. As we've thought through this process, the question hasn't just been "where can Callum (and eventually Annika) find the academic rigor we need?" In fact, that hasn't been the question at all. For us, the question has been "where can we find a school that will nurture our kids holistically, help them grow and collaborate and learn from others, and foster a spirit of kindness and community?"

Of course we care about academics, but honestly, I feel comfortable that any solid school can provide those, and we are lucky to have multiple solid school options available to us. Torsten and I were both gifted as kids, and we both spent our fair share of school time sitting around waiting for others to catch up. It's too soon to tell, with our kids not quite 2 and 5 yet, whether they will also be classified as gifted. So far we have heard from each of their preschool teachers that both kids appear relatively advanced, so although they are too young to label as gifted, we currently have no concerns about their general ability to thrive academically in pretty much any decent school environment. So truly, what we are looking for is (excuse the buzzword) a whole child education. And we feel that we've found that in Callum's school, and are deeply happy with our choice, and are very hopeful that he will be able to remain at that school throughout elementary, and that Annika will be able to attend there as well.

Because here is the thing about schools: even if our kids turn out to be gifted, I am not really worried about them being challenged with difficult enough material (granted, they are still very young so I may change my tune about this down the road). But I strongly believe that "gifted" in the sense of academically talented and/or high IQ is just one way for kids, and all people, to offer things to the world. Kids who might be more middle of the pack, or even behind, academically, have just as much to offer to the school, to the class, to their peers as everyone else. I don't want my kids to be bored in school, but I want them learning the value of collaboration, and considering diverse perspectives, and understanding that even if schoolwork is easier for them than it is for some of their peers, their peers still have thoughts and opinions and ideas that they didn't have, and that maybe the very fact of school being more challenging for some kids actually enhances their ability to contribute in certain ways, because they are learning from their experiences, and every child's school experience is unique, even among kids in the same class.

So, if my kids are gifted and fly through their schoolwork and need to be challenged? Fine. I want a school that will challenge them by encouraging them to collaborate, and look elsewhere, and work harder, and revise, and keep trying, and consider new ideas. I want them to be encouraged to spend any leftover academic energy on thinking critically, and growing as a person, and caring about their friends and classmates, and investing in their little community. I want them in a community of diverse people and I want them learning how to work and play with all different kinds of people. You know, kind of like adult life.

So, for me: I don't care if my kids are academic standouts who test well and are known as smart. I don't care if they are the class president or the star of the debate team or the star of the football team (actually that's a lie, I DO care because they will not be allowed to play football, sorry, but you get the point).

What I do care about is kindness. That is my top priority to teach my kids. And I LOVE Callum's school (and Annika's, which also has this DOWN, and which isn't the point of this post just because I'm thinking long-term here and her school is preschool-only) because the educational model is ALL ABOUT teaching kids the value inherent in each person, and teaching them how to collaborate and learn from each other, and I feel like those are the sources from which innate kindness grows. There's no superiority conveyed to kids who have an easier time with academics or are considered gifted, there's no glorifying or separating out for accomplishments. There's a focus on effort and feedback and sharing and considering multiple viewpoints. And I believe that is how you teach kindness.

Callum's class this year is also much bigger than it was last year (15 kids compared to last year's 5 kids), and I've been impressed at the opportunities that this social structure has provided for teaching kindness. For example, the very first week of school Callum made a friend, let's call him Howie. For the whole first week all we ever heard from Callum was Howie this and Howie that and Howie is his best friend and he and Howie played superheroes together and Howie Howie Howie everything. Then, in the second week of school Callum made another friend, let's call him Davey. At first Callum said that Davey was his "second best friend" but very quickly we started hearing more and more about Davey and not quite as much about Howie.

Then, one day on the ride home from school I was asking Callum about his day and he told me that he and Davey had played together but they hadn't let Howie join, even though Howie wanted to play with them. He told me that Howie was sad and didn't have anyone to play with and that he and Davey didn't care. Then, he added that if Howie came over for a playdate that weekend as planned, he (Callum) would lock the door and not let him in, and wouldn't share with him or play with him at all.

Seriously, my heart almost broke. These kids are only four years old, and it's already so complicated! Also, not having been particularly popular in school myself, I think somehow I was much more steeled to deal with other kids being mean to my kids than mine being the mean ones. I felt so terrible for poor Howie being shut out, and so so sad that it was my kid making another one feel bad. The whole way home from school I talked to Callum about how it's OK not to be best friends with everyone, but about how it's all of our jobs to make sure that our friends feel included and have someone to play with, and how it's never OK to make someone feel sad or excluded. Every time I tried to explain this, he just interrupted to say that Howie wasn't his friend anymore and only Davey was his friend and how he didn't want to play with Howie anymore. By the time we got home, I was feeling super defeated and exhausted, like I was beating my head against a brick wall and not getting through to Callum at all about this value that is so very important to our family. Finally I just gave up and reminded Callum of how much fun he had had playing superheroes with Howie, and he brightened up and was like "Oh yeah, OK, Howie CAN come to our house for a playdate and we'll play superheroes!" and we all moved on. But I still walked away feeling like I had completely failed in teaching the kindness lesson to my kid in this instance.

BUT! The next morning on the way to school? Callum started talking independently about how that day he was going to play with Davey AND Howie, and the other kids at school too, and how he was going to be kind and make sure that everyone felt included so that nobody would be said. Honestly, I almost fell over. He had so CLEARLY been listening during our talk the day before, even while he was arguing and protesting and acting like it was all going over our head, and I could see that what I had said had stuck in his head and that he'd been thinking about it and was planning to act on it. And! He truly did. He came home that day and told me all about how he'd played with Davey and Howie and also Susan and Willa Jean, and had so much fun, and was so kind to all his friends. In the month since then, this problem hasn't arisen again. Callum, Davey, and Howie seem to be a little trio of friends, they play together regularly, and Callum also talks about playing with the other kids. He knows all of their names and things about them, and I have been really impressed at how well he has gotten to know them so quickly. He talks about who does what and who likes what and who does art and who brings lunch from home vs. eating the school lunch. I can see that he has been absorbing the lessons we've been trying to teach him, and that makes me feel so much better about those frustrating moments when it really does feel like I'm beating my head against a wall for no reason.

And--to bring it full circle--I love how this is the exact philosophy that Callum's teachers are working so hard to impress on the kids. They have the same approach, that you don't have to be best friends with everyone but that it's not OK to ever be unkind or exclusive, and they are very big into fostering collaboration and teamwork and encouraging everyone to provide feedback to everyone else to help them grow and improve their work. For example, they all did self-portraits and have gone through multiple iterations based on class feedback. They all share their work and discuss it together and offer ideas and suggestions to each other on how to build on early drafts. Obviously, at the preschool level we're not talking about rewriting essays, but I've been impressed at how they've applied this philosophy with age-appropriate activities. Here's Callum's first self-portrait iteration and his most recent version, created based on class collaboration sessions:

I guess in the end I'm just really grateful that we've found a school that makes me feel like I'm not going it alone in this, where I really feel like the principal and the teachers and the whole educational philosophy are working to support exactly the same priorities that I have for my own kids. That, to me, is much more important than academic rigor to promote giftedness. My kids are thriving, both of them, and learning in every way, and learning social skills and values that are exactly consistent with what we are trying to teach them at home. And THAT is exactly what we want in a school.

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