The sun is shining after days of dreich. A young friend rings up. She is twelve. She has been asked to write a critical essay on Little Red Riding Hood and she doesn’t understand it and she doesn’t know where to start and she would like me to help her. I’ve been offering any tutoring time she needs for a while, but she’s so confident and independent that she had never asked before. I am so thrilled that she has asked now. I love to be asked.
I plunge in, delighted. This is my wheelhouse; this is my prairie. I know this stuff. I can do some good.
After a little while, I sense that my normally garrulous girl is uncharacteristically quiet. I have an inkling. I say, ‘Have you ever done a critical essay before?”
‘No,’ she says.
‘Have you been taught anything about critical essays?’ I ask.
‘No,’ she says.
I pause. I say, ‘Do you even know what a critical essay is?’
‘No,’ she says.
I take a long, deep breath. I remind myself not to swear. ‘This,’ I say, ‘is the kind of thing that makes me nuts in the head.’ She laughs. She knows me well enough to know that there are a fair few bees buzzing in my bonnet.
I master my rage at a system which is letting a generation of young people down and I take forty-five minutes and I teach my young one about critical essays. She has to think of her own question, so we come up with a smashing Red Riding Hood essay title. I explain to her about how to structure and express and order her ideas. As we go on, she starts talking again, in her customary enthusiastic manner. She is back. She knows where she is going now; she is no longer speechless and afraid. I have my bright girl again. I feel a giddy sense of relief.
But here is the thing. This child is bold and self-assured and she has resources. She knew that she had me, and she was brave enough to ask. But there are thousands of children out there who don’t have that boldness and don’t have those resources. When they are asked to do something they have not been taught, they feel sad and stupid, and they slink away into their silent rooms and marinate in their own misplaced sense of failure and shame.
When this happens, they tell themselves their own stories, their own fairy tales, their own Little Red Riding Hoods. They don’t know that it’s a flawed system, they assume it is their own inadequacy. If they don’t understand something, or they can’t find their place to start, they tell themselves it’s because they are useless. And that story gets ingrained so terrifyingly quickly that it can go on being told for the rest of their lives.
We, as a society, have this beautiful and precious natural element, which is the intelligence and courage and bright boldness of our children. And we are squandering that, as if it were nothing. It breaks my heart.
What drives me even more lunatic is that giving children what they need is not that complicated. When I started tutoring, I did a lot of research on learning theory. There’s some fairly complex stuff out there, and you can have a wonderful wander into the weeds. Thanks to the miracle of the internet, I would find myself watching two hour lectures given by professors in Chicago and reading dense papers by experts in the field. But the more I investigated, the more I saw that the shining principles are gloriously straightforward. You don’t need a doctorate or a degree to understand them. I’d find inspirational TED talks by the kind of educators who made me want to cry with gratitude and love. And they all said the same thing: to learn well, children need encouragement, and someone who believes in them, and someone who cares about them.
That’s the alpha and omega. That’s the difference between a sad, lifelong story of ‘I’m not good enough; I can’t do this’ and a thrilling, eternal tale of ‘I can do anything, if only I believe’.
One of the best teachers I know gave me an even more simple, even more valuable piece of advice. ‘You’ve got to give them a win,’ she told me. What she meant was that you start with a question you know they can answer. You get them to do something easy, and you hang out more flags when they do it. That’s the win. That’s where you begin. They feel good about themselves, and their young minds open with possibility, and then you can gently invite them to move out of their comfort zone into the more challenging places. They’ll go with you, because you gave them the win.
I teach my students not to be afraid to be wrong. But I’ve got to let them be right first. I want them to have that sense memory of success. I want them to know the flush of triumph. Then I teach them to laugh when they tumble into error, when they try something that does not work. I want them to be brave enough to take risks. If they don’t learn how to do that, they will never reach the glittering peaks. They’ll just mooch along in the non-threatening foothills. They will never be the dazzling, complex, complete humans they were meant to be. It’s my job to help them to be those humans.
Ah, thank you. Thank you for letting me get that off my chest. This was not what I was planning to write about today. But here’s another thing I tell all my students, the young ones and the old ones: give it to the page. When you’ve got something preying on your mind, when you are sad or furious or frustrated or fried, write it down. It has to come out of your heart and our of your brain and out of your body. The page can take it. The page has broad shoulders; it has unfathomable depths of resilience and understanding. The page is never broken. So, you give it all to the page, and then you can sigh and smile and lift your head and walk forward into the world, with grace and hope.