When I met with my reading buddy the following week, she seemed eager to be read to and learn more about what would happen next in the story. In the story the main character receives an anonymous gift. It is a tie with porcupines on it. I saw a questioning look on my mentee’s face and I asked her if she had ever seen a porcupine. She shook her head. I described a porcupine to her and I could see that she was confused.
I can remember feeling confused in school as a child. I had not been read to much and when I heard unfamiliar words or terms that other children seemed to miraculously understand, I felt stupid and a little angry. It was a startling revelation to me that there were breeds of cats and dogs and that there were different kinds of fabric. I so often did not know what other people were talking about. Much later in life, while preparing for graduate school, I read Howard Gardner’s, The Unschooled Mind. In his book, Gardner writes about the gap between the intuitive learning that we all do as children and the often contradictory learning that we encounter at school. His contention is that young children have “scripts” about how the world works and why. These scripts are largely affected by the socializing forces of the environment in which a child is raised. There can often be a great conflict for children when the intuitive script they have for the world is vastly different than the reality presented at school. This reminds me of my oldest son, who is autistic. When he was learning language around the age of four, he had so much frustration with me when I tried to teach him colors and the names of things. One day I pointed to the wall and said, “That’s white.”
In response, he banged his head and screamed, “Green!”
I tried to tell him again that it was white and his reply was the same. This lasted about five minutes. I showed him a variety of white objects and then pointed to the wall and repeated. “White.”
The poor child was sobbing. He put his finger on a spot on the wall and asked in a questioning voice, “Green?”
Sure enough that spot was green. This wasn’t limited to colors. As his ability to communicate improved, I learned that the table was the floor, as they appeared to be connected by the leg of the table. The huge iron fence around a church he took classes at was clearly train tracks to him. In order for us to communicate, we had to crack each other’s code.
So when I saw my mentee’s confusion about the porcupine, I broke one of my own rules and took out my iPhone during our session. I searched for images of porcupines. My mentee laughed out loud, when she saw them.
I asked her, “Is this what you thought a porcupine would look like?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “I never saw anything with those….what are they called?”
“Quills,” I said. “You wouldn’t want to sit next to him on the bus.”
We then went back to the reading. Yes, I took a few minutes away from our “work” time. I wanted my mentee to become activated by unfamiliar or unclear terms. I wanted her to be engaged with curiosity when she wasn’t sure of something. For some children, learning has been or can be scary. I love to reassure students that in order to really learn something, you have to not know it first. Not knowing is not only okay, it is essential. Language is a tricky thing. Maybe her parents use different words for this animal. Maybe she wasn’t familiar with the word because she is a city kid. If I hadn’t asked her, I wouldn’t have known. This is another confirmation of something I have learned in teaching. You and your student can be using the same words and talking about very different things.
To be continued…