Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Don't be clever, kid

He's the most clever kid in the class, more clever than some teachers, more articulate, more aware of the world, ready to argue a point and passionately defend a ridiculous idea, an idea that only a teenager could support. He's so intelligent, in fact, that you know the rest: he's bored. Unmotivated. Lazy even. Doesn't turn in work, falls asleep in class, checks his phone all too often.

As is the case with clever kids around the world, he is the one who might not graduate. He's the one who gets zeros on work he would've gotten hundreds on, if he had bothered to do it. He's the one that could pass an AP or IB exam without taking the course, who reads for pleasure. Who is curious.

And he's the one who will fail and won't graduate on time. Why is this? Because his teachers are personally offended.

At a recent meeting, teachers shrugged: Yeah, he'll have to go to summer school. We're so sick of his shit.

Meanwhile, I brought up the name of someone who really shouldn't graduate, a senior who cannot read or write, who also sleeps or is distracted, who scores in the bottom quarter of any standardized exam. "I don't see how this guy could possibly graduate," I said.

"Oh, he's fine," I heard. "He'll squeak by like he always does."

"Squeaks by" means he's a little mouse. Cute. Quiet, usually. No trouble, really. Deals with crumbs of information. Leaves behind evidence -- homework turned in on time, a test paper with a name on top and two out of twenty questions attempted. In other words, he's there.

This is how to get by in school and in life. Show up. Do the minimal. Don't make any noise. Don't offend.

Meanwhile, Clever Kid is participating in university debates (he's ineligible for his high school debate team because of grades) and helping organize an international book fair. Meanwhile, he is deemed a failure.

I spoke to one of his former teachers, someone I respect, to find out how it is possible to for Clever Kid to fail and Mouse to pass.

"He has let too many people down," Respected Teacher said. "One day he'll let down someone he loves. Or maybe himself."

And it took me a while, but I finally understood: It's really about the adults and not the children. We often judge our students by our own failures. We fail to teach or motivate students and so they get the F. Or we fail them because they're too much like us.

Respected Teacher told me a story about himself: When he was a university student, a professor took him aside and warned him that he would some day let someone down. Years later, he had a chance to be published in a major magazine, messed around, missed the deadline, and was told he would never be invited to write for that magazine again. Lesson learned, Respected Teacher cleaned up his act, became a better person because of the experience, and now passes on that lesson to colleagues and teenagers alike.

The problem is this: Respected Teacher learned his lesson as an adult; he expects Clever Kid to understand the same lesson as a teen.

Clever Kid is getting a B in my class, and Mouse is getting a D-. I guess I'm too easy. I accept late work, grade students on what they know and can do. And the thing is, Clever Kid doesn't know everything and can't do everything. He might do better if I freed him to learn how he wants.

Recently my class was talking about a character in a novel, about the character's philosophy. The character said that he respects China because it is a "freedom-loving" country that has never been colonized by a foreign power. I saw Clever Kid typing away on his phone. Just as I was about to follow school policy (take away the phone, punish the student!), he looked up from his Google results and said, "He's wrong. China was once colonized."

And just like that, the class discussion took a turn towards the dangerous territory of actual learning. Can we trust this character? Does the character know what he's talking about? Why would the author do this? What's the point?

One point, I suppose, with the characters in novels and in classrooms, is that imperfections make us human. None of us will get it right every time.