Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Social Experiment

My social experiment has been  almost 14 years in the making, long before I knew I was performing a social experiment. I'll leave off all the normal disclaimers. What is working for me will undoubtedly not work in every situation, nor for every person who tries it. However, what I've learned is working. I thought it was something that I mostly employed in my chosen career, but as I continue experimenting, I'm finding many practical applications outside of education.

I started working in developmental education when I was 20, a senior in college. I had very little training in education, no formal training at all, and yet I instantly found a connection with my students. I was silly. I was often preposterous. Most of all, I genuinely enjoyed my students.

I was so young. I had no idea what I was doing. 
Developmental education on the college level has changed monikers several times throughout the years. Academic support, college preparatory. In a nutshell, I basically worked with students who had not been academically successful. Low test scores. Negative attitudes. Behavioral problems. Lack of study skills. Poor concept of education. Intuitively, I acted like they were all simply marvelous and diamonds in the rough who just need a bit of positive polishing here and there. Even back then, one of my favorite activities was taking a student no one else seemed to like much, and encouraging that person to shine.

Over a decade later, I'm still working in developmental education, but in a very different environment. I am still getting the students that other teachers have labeled troublesome, deficient, delayed, problem, behaviorally challenged. In fact, in 2004 I gave birth to a son who would go on to be similarly labeled by the public school system (Ha! Thanks, Universe, for giving me my very own test subject!).

My little social deviant in need of frequent in-school suspensions. In kindergarten.  
At my current place of employment, I was given a six year old referred for remediation. I could write pages on how I don't think a six year old should ever be told he needs remediation, but let's skip over that for a moment. A cursory glance through this boy's file will show a negative relationship with his teacher, behavioral frustrations, low performance on testing, and a hint that perhaps some emotional/behavioral/psychological testing is in the works. A cursory glance at the actual child will show you a very cute little boy, with a quirky smile and a vocabulary older than his years. Look a few extra moments at his eyes and you will see the insecurity, the uncertainty, the self-doubt and the questions lurking there. "Am I smart? Am I liked? Am I ok?"

He writes his S's backwards and spells "Pikshre" for "Picture." Adorable! 
I gave this kid a goofy nickname, started calling him "My favorite [insert child's name withheld to protect the innocent]" when he walked into my job, and began praising him every single time he did something right, while completely minimizing his mistakes. As he opened up to me, he would ask, "Am I smart, Miss Kara?" And I would grin from ear to ear and answer with a resounding, "So smart!" Now when he is working independently on his little phonics workbooks and manipulatives, I can just barely catch him whispering to himself, "I really am smart!"

Instinctively, I believe we should tell all six year olds that they are smart. Every single one of them.

I have a middle-schooler who is simply fantastic. Somewhere along the line she has been told she really stinks at math, so now she is in remediation for math. She has a flair for the dramatic (how's that for redundant: dramatic middle schooler!) and frequently puts herself down about how dumb she is. I think she is charming and nothing short of hilarious. At first, she was a little surprised I laughed at her jokes. Quite frankly, I was a little surprised everyone in the vicinity wasn't laughing at her jokes. Also, I take pictures of her drawings because they are awesome.

This is Sad Giraffe. So sad. So freaking awesome.
I have hundreds of these stories, stories of these kids I've worked with. The quirky little characteristics about them that I fall in love with and have no shame in telling them so. And as I love them (oh, yeah, I have to teach them sometimes, too), I start to see amazing things happen. I watch as they blossom. I see them gain confidence. What is more, I see their own developing confidence helping them so much more than just curriculum and drill-and-kill and worksheets and textbooks and even elaborate projects. I've been watching this phenomenon in my career for almost 14 years.


One day, an indefinite amount of time ago, I met someone I was instantly unfond of. You know how it is. You more than just "don't click" with someone. You pretty much off the bat can't stand them. It happens. It's regrettable.

This is the face I used to give people when I didn't like them. And then I wondered why they didn't like me, either.
I've grown up a lot since then. 

I had been thinking a lot about my positive success with students over the years, mostly about how just acting like I was thrilled to see them and thinking they are ever so smart and funny, and that they absolutely have something worthwhile to contribute changes them on an intrinsic level. And then I thought, what if -- WHAT IF! -- what if I started treating... wait for the epiphany... what if I started treating everyone like that? What if I started treating -- oh goodness, my brain is coming up with the impossible! -- people I don't like very much like that?

It's Christmas, and I just pulled a miniature frying pan out of my gift bag.
This face adequately expresses how I felt about my epiphany. 

I'm game for social experiments. Why not? In all honesty, what's there to lose? I picked that one really hard-to-like person who had come unexpectedly into my life. This time, when I saw her, I smiled hugely and waved and generally acted extremely pleased to see her. When she said something funny, I laughed. Then one of the most interesting things happened. She began to not be so annoying. Or rather, I began to not be so annoyed by her. It's hard to pinpoint exactly who changed, her or me.

This social experiment is still in progress, but I think I'm on to something.