Monday, February 20, 2006

Running to Write It Down... Weird where a thought can take you...

The other day I was talking to Blank and she mentioned that so-and-so (someone I don't know) was "nice, but Weird." Suspecting that she and I may have very different views on this topic of What Constitutes Weird, I probed a little.

"Hmm," I said, tentatively, wanting to explore it a bit more, but also not wanting to piss her off by starting an argument. (Blank and I can get into arguments like that.) "Tell me, what does he do that seems weird to you?"

"Well, one time a bunch of us were out at a bar--a loud, dark bar where people were dancing--and suddenly he stopped and said, 'Does anyone have a notebook? I just thought of something, and I need to write it down before I forget it!' Isn't that Weird?"

"Hmm..." I looked at her. She looked at me. We both knew what I was thinking. But I said it anyway.

"Well, I do things like that all the time."

"Yeah, well..." she said. "Well... that's because you're weird too... figures that you would think that's normal." Now this wasn't said with any malice nor did I take offense at this. In fact, if asking for a notebook to jot down a fleeting idea constitutes weird, then let Weirdness be my trademark, my motto, my mission. I wish I acted on my Weirdnesses more Often.

This morning, as I drank my much-needed and anticipated two mugs of heavenly ginger-chai (after having dropped Blank off at the airport at 4:30 in the morning) this incident must have been playing around in the back of my (weird) Subconscious. Because as I drank tea and read further in the logical and yet infuriating book, The Nurture Assumption, I came across an idea that brought me running to this computer, to this blog, right now. But before I share my Weird idea that I came to write down, I need to give you some background on this much-discussed book.

In The Nurture Assumption, through much of the book Judith Harris refutes the commonly held assumption that it is parents who, through proper nurturing and guidance, teach their children (or don't, in some cases) what they need to know to have a successful life. Although I am not a parent, I have been a teacher in the past, and it both maddens me as well as intrigues me that she may have a point there. I won't go into all of her arguments here, but what she basically says is that children learn how to interact in each specific situation-- they learn the rules of interaction as specific to that circumstance and are socialized to behave in certain ways that suit that particular environment. This means that while the child may have been taught to be quiet and polite and honest at home through parental conditioning, he or she MAY be (doesn't Have to be) very different at school.

Why or how would this happen? Well, according to Harris, the child adapts to each situation according to its own peculiarities. If the School environment causes Lying, Cheating and Stealing to be rewarded then the child will be likely to engage in these behaviors at school, even if he or she is quite honest at home. This concept--of switching behaviors to suit the environment--is called code-switching. A very common example of code-switching happens in the lives of children who are immigrants or children of immigrants--they quickly learn that although in the home environment they must speak their native tongue, they must speak in English to survive in the school environment. So they (mostly) do. I would suspect that the ones who don't are able to do this because so many of their peers speak their native tongues. (I have seen this happen in one of my ESL classes... but there is also more going on there--one sign of emergent language is understanding but not speaking the language. Oh my, I am digressing quite a bit.)

One area of influence, though, where Harris concedes that Nurture can have a huge societal effect is that wielded by teachers. She says it's not so much the content of what the teachers teach, as it is the atmosphere of belonging and groupness that teachers can (and yet so rarely do) create in their classroom that can have a huge positive impact on the kids who are part of that rareified environment. She gives as an example the story of an inner city school teacher, Ms. A, all of whose first-grade students continued to do well in school and in their careers, better than their peers from the same school, throughout their lives! Harris attributes this not so much to what the teacher taught them, as the fact that in her classroom these kids probably learned to love learning, and a safe environment was created for learning; thought and education were respected by the whole group. This is indeed very different from most classrooms, where the peer group makes it an Uncool Thing (at least in the majority of American public schools) to want to learn. In fact Harris found that students who weren't in Ms. A's classroom were positively affected by these values, if they chose to identify with them!

While her theories seem very well-thought out and are cogently argued, I can sympathize with the parents out there, who reading this, might despair, or, more likely just reject her theory outright. After all, who likes to hear that they are pouring their efforts for their children into a black cauldron of Hmm... Maybe it'll Help? But my purpose here is not to disprove or agree with her perspective.

Just to say that as I pondered the wonderful Ms. A's of the world, and how I wished I could have been one of those talented leader-teachers who gave their students the gift of the love of learning... as I thought about this, one teacher came into focus. She was my 5th grade teacher, and I was in her classroom for only two days, as my family moved to another state right after school started. Her name was, I think, Ms. Werth and she changed my life forever in that day or two that I spent in her classroom.

What did she do? I distinctly remember that first day; I even remember that I sat on the right front side of the classroom and felt wistful as she outlined how things would work in her classroom--her teaching philosophy. I remember being impressed that she bothered to do this. (This was back in 1980, and things were fairly old school. Especially in NYC public schools.) In fact I remember knowing that she was going to be a great teacher even before I entered her classroom; her reputation had percolated through to the fourth grade, and I had been so excited that she was going to be my teacher, before the impending move turned everything topsy-turvy. One thing though, before my memory strikes you as strangely and unbelievably prodigious. If you were to ask me about her teaching policy today, I would be hard put to describe a single tenet of that philosophy.

However one memory is Crystal Clear. At one point she said, "Sometimes, you may see me jump up in the middle of a lesson to go write something down in my journal. Don't worry--it's because I'm a writer, and so when I have ideas, I have to write them down right away, or else I'll forget them. So don't mind me when I do that... In fact, if you have thoughts you want to write down like that, I welcome you to do it. It's what writers have to do!"

This stuck with me. And the thing is, she was such a leader, so respected by the kids, that instead of this somewhat strange behavior being a point of ridicule, this was actually a Cool thing about her. At least I believe it was--otherwise her reputation with the children would have been quite different. (Remember your teachers? Kids tell each other these things, and they don't mince words.)

At any rate, today, as I sit here reading The Nurture Assumption, my conversation with Blank comes to mind, as I ponder how we are socialized--or not--to accept Wonderful Weirdnesses as Welcome or Strange and Undesireable parts of Life. And I silently thank Ms. Werth. In two days she may have... I don't know. Changed my life?

1 comment:

Shahnazzz said...

Yesha, I do that all the time (running to write things down before they go away) and I have all these pretend-things that I pretend to be doing while I am actually running to write things...A little wierdnes goes a long way!