Hard to Write

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“OK,” I say to the room full of seventh graders. “Listen, some things we write only for ourselves. Some things for one or two people. Some for a small group. And sometimes we write for as many people as will listen or read. Now, that said, who is willing to share?”

The first voices come forth with nervous tentative starts, but come forth they do. Stories of losses great and small. Of family disruptions and crisis. The kids listen with rapt attention — these aren’t assigned stories, they aren’t stories they’ve heard before — these are glimpses directly into the dark places we adults wish kids did not know, that we adults often pretend kids do not know. They are bruisingly authentic stories, and they are pouring out to peers for the first time.

The assignment? A micro-writing task at the end of a long conversation that precedes the reading of the book, The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. We’ve talked about my growing up in New Rochelle, New York, where that story begins. We’ve talked about multicultural communities, religions, urban density, where the kids are from, the Passover Seder. In the end we’ve talked about why people write about awful things: the Holocaust, 9/11, 8/12#charlottesville, personal horrors. We even talk about the stories we have stopped telling: the Prison Ship Martyrs, the General Slocum Disaster, America’s war against Philippine independence.

“People tell the stories so they won’t do the same things again,” one kid says, “so we don’t forget,” says another. A third might be less hopeful, “People tell this stuff so they can feel better about themselves,” she says, “they think, ‘I’m better than that.”

And then they have begun to write their own tales. “Just throw some sentences at a page,” I suggest, “or at your screen.”

Now wait. I need to say this first. I have zero tolerance for people who reach some arbitrary age and begin bashing kids in loud restaurant conversations or with stupid posts on Facebook. Kids are great. Kids have always been great. Kids will always be great. If humans disappoint — it is adults.


Children are brilliant learners because they don’t think of themselves as learning; they think of themselves as doing. They want to engage in whole, meaningful activities, like the activities they see around them, and they aren’t afraid to try. They want to walk, like other people do, but at first they aren’t good at it. So they keep trying, day after day, and their walking keeps getting better. They want to talk, like other people do, but at first they don’t know about the relationships of sounds to meanings. Their sentences come across to us as babbled nonsense, but in the child’s mind he or she is talking (as Holt suggests, on p 75). Improvement comes because the child attends to others’ talking, gradually picks up some of the repeated sounds and their meanings, and works them into his or her own utterances in increasingly appropriate ways.” — Peter Gray

⬆️to get ready for The Devil’s Arithmetic the kids had a Seder


As John Holt observed back in the late 1950s, kids are every day, without us, already learning, exploring, doing, making, becoming… and if they are learning, exploring, doing, making, becoming things we don’t like then there are two possibilities.

One is that they are reacting to the world built by their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents — if you don’t want mass shooter children perhaps you shouldn’t raise them in a society that celebrates violence and then arm them with military weapons. If you don’t want crude, rude, lying, molesting children perhaps you shouldn’t elect someone who does all that as your national leader.

And two is that they have seen the world built by their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents, and have decided that they want no part of our values. Either one, or the other, but probably a combination of both.

You see, no kid needs “a growth mindset” (or the more odious and racist “grit"), being a child is to be a growth mindset. What they do need is for adults to support them in that growth by making their world safe enough to explore — even when that exploration must go to truly uncomfortable places.

Cheryl Harris — the teacher gracious enough to share her children with me for a day — is about to publish a book with Michael Thornton — another brilliant teacher and administrator, called, A Space for Risk. Read it when it appears because this is what great educators do — they do not try to convert children into compliant followers, rather, they create a space for risk where children can be children, where children can grow their own way.

⬆️one of Michael Thornton‘s kids builds a boxing ring after reading about Muhammad Ali.

⬇️Global Play Day in Michael Thorton‘s school. One of many choices kids could make.

We took a risk, Cheryl and I did. We talked to kids as if they were the equal humans that they are. We talked to them in very real terms of about life that is, far too often, far too real.

And then we let these kids explore — explore themselves, explore their world, explore their pains. And, well, a few things happened.

Emotion poured out. The starts of amazing stories poured out — stories so complex that these young authors may not be able to fully tell them for decades. Children discovered deep things about their peers — I have a feeling that these kids will never see each other in quite the same way. Oh, and yes, they’ll be better prepared to read the novel, they were better prepared to learn about the Seder, they will be better prepared when they enter the National Holocaust Museum next month.

But most importantly I truly watched these kids grow while I was with them. I watched them search for understanding, I watched them want new knowledge, I watched them begin to see themselves in new ways.

That was an amazing gift these kids gave me. We need to make that possible every hour of every day.

  • Ira Socol