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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Creative Dissidents: Stop Shortchanging Talented Kids Who Challenge Us

A few years ago I spent time at Eagle Rock School, a wonderful school in Colorado for so-called "at-risk" kids from all over the country. I noticed that many of the best students were highly creative kids with extraordinary leadership, presentation and communication skills. Exploring further, I discovered that many of these same students had been in and out of two or three high schools prior to coming to Eagle Rock; in some cases voluntarily, in some cases not.

Talking with the students, I became aware that each one of them could be described as creative dissidents, kids with high intellectual and/or creative abilities who were difficult for teachers to handle. The trouble they caused was not criminal but disruptive. This usually took one of two forms. One was active, such as sabotaging a class with wise-ass comments, or talking back continually to the teacher. Some, however, did it through relatively passive means, via sullen non-participation or other forms of quiet defiance. Not infrequently these students were also a challenge to their parents.

These were not kids who needed a psychologist. Most of them were articulate, self-aware and positively provocative in their thoughts and feelings about our society. If they lacked anything before Eagle Rock it was: a) a supportive environment that engaged, encouraged and rewarded their spirits and their minds; b) teachers and administrators who didn't react defensively to their confrontational behaviors; and c) the skills to effectively assert themselves. In schools that they found discouraging, they didn't know how to respond in an effective way to improve their situation.

Inviting the Outsiders In

Our schools are reasonably good at identifying intellectually gifted kids but still fall far short in understanding, reaching and strengthening creative kids who are defiant or unreachable. Importantly, in failing these kids we greatly shortchange ourselves as a society. Many of these students are leaders at Eagle Rock, with the potential to play a similar role as adults. In their former environments, they were often lost and angry.

There is usually an award for those who comply. High achieving, studious kids usually conform to the norms of the school and get rewarded. Our social leaders also usually do well, even when their academic work isn't quite up to par. Some creative kids don't do well in classes that they find boring and often hate rote learning, but their disengagement may not be coupled with defiance.

But we generally do poorly with kids who talk back or sullenly withdraw. I've lost count of how many times I've heard a teacher say, "He's really bright, but he's such a pain in the ass." And teachers and parents who play strong authority roles have particular problems with these kids.

Yet recent research shows us that teens who talk back and argue, if properly mentored, will emerge stronger than more compliant teens and better able to resist succumbing to peer pressure.

At Eagle Rock and similar schools, the answer is in teaching these kids to effectively channel their frustration with the world (or at least "their" world) into effective ways of changing it. And it's also tough love, an environment that is high on support but sets very strict limits. Most importantly, there is patience and genuine compassion for students even when they are angry or withdrawn.

Attitude Adjustment on Both Sides

Much of this has to do with how we as educators respond to defiant students. Can we get past our own defensiveness and reach these kids? Years ago a wise senior colleague told me that when a kid is sullen, angry and pushing you away, that's often the time they most need your arm around their shoulder, when they most need your compassion. That's quite a challenge and calls for real strength on the part of the teacher or administrator.

There are helpful hints about how to best reach these students in a number of books. Richard Curwin, Allen Mendler, and Brian Mendler's, Discipline with Dignity,3rd Edition: New Challenges, New Solutions, LouAnne Johnson's Teaching Outside the Box, and Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our Hope for the Future, Revised Edition, by Brendtro, Brokenleg, and Van Bockern, can all be helpful.

I think the key variable is not methodology, but rather teacher attitude and the ability to genuinely care about these students. Here I'm reminded of a passage from Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, in which he wrote: "How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are the beginnings of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave."

Most of the students I interviewed would laugh to hear themselves described as princesses, but almost all would acknowledge that they'd been dragons. And contrary to the way many teachers and administrators react, these dragons need to be cared for and tamed, not avoided or slain. The cost is too great and the potential payoff too rich to not reach out to and engage these students.




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Mike Morgan's picture

This issue is a great way to hi-light the need to end the standardization of education. We're going to realize this too late, as a society. I think the modern world has plenty of strengths. But some of the greatest value in the "olden times" has got to be the opportunity for people to truly learn by living & doing. We have got to learn of a way to truly marry the two......on a large scale. As long as the social norms and traditional expectations for what education is "supposed to look like", we won't be as strong of a society as we could be.

Dona Matthews's picture
Dona Matthews
writer & consultant, optimal development, giftedness & talent

to change a kid's bad attitude almost always requires an open curious supportive attitude from the adults in his/her life

HoneyFernDotOrg's picture

I agree that changing standardized education needs to happen, and fast, and I can also tell you that once changed, things will get worse before they get better. Our current students have been institutionalized for so long that they don't know how to think or make decisions about what truly motivates them. They are so used to being mediocre and doing the minimum that it is a struggle to get them to go beyond and really tap into their talents.

I do agree, too, that attitude is everything, starting with the teacher, but including the student as well.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist
Blogger

Thanks. I really do understand some of your justifiable cynicism. I do think that it can help more kids to be motivated to find and use their voices if (a) we positively recognize and reward those kids who speak up and don't punish kids for speaking back to us...thus effectively modeling for the others and subtly encouraging them, and (b) provide safe opportunities for others to do so, using teaching techniques that positively provoke students' thoughts and feelings.

The books I mentioned are a big help in all of this.

Attitude may not be everything, but , yes, it sure is a big part of this.

Again, thanks for your response.

Mark

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist
Blogger

I strongly agree with you regarding standardization. We do need to individualize education to meet the needs and match the learning style of each student. But, as you and I both know, the road to doing that will be a long one and will require far more support for public education than we now have. And, as another reader noted, some attitude changes as well.

BUT, in the meantime, classes meet next Monday, in the schools we have. What changes can take place immediately that, in small ways, improve the quality of what is taking place in each classroom? Yes,macro changes are needed. Between the vision which many of us have, and the reality, most schooling today, there is a vast highway on which we can continue to take small steps in the right direction. As a teacher in one of my favorite episodes of "My So Called Life" said, "yes, but what are you going to do now, today?"

Thanks for your care about all of this Mike, and for your response.

My best,

Mark

[quote]This issue is a great way to hi-light the need to end the standardization of education. We're going to realize this too late, as a society. I think the modern world has plenty of strengths. But some of the greatest value in the "olden times" has got to be the opportunity for people to truly learn by living & doing. We have got to learn of a way to truly marry the two......on a large scale. As long as the social norms and traditional expectations for what education is "supposed to look like", we won't be as strong of a society as we could be.[/quote]

HoneyFernDotOrg's picture

I am so NOT cynical about the concept that I left and started my own school. Kids have a voice, and they use it, which is the opposite of what I left.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist
Blogger

Well, maybe I used the wrong word...probably more realistic than cynical!

How great that you did that!
What school and where?
That is truly more than taking a step on the road of reform.

Mark

[quote]I am so NOT cynical about the concept that I left and started my own school. Kids have a voice, and they use it, which is the opposite of what I left.[/quote]

HoneyFernDotOrg's picture

HoneyFern School (www.honeyfern.org) in Marietta, GA. The dissidents have always been my cup of tea, the ones who don't quite fit in for whatever reason (2E, airy creative types, radical thinkers - you name it). I felt like many gifted kids were being marginalized in the gifted classes by motivated high-achievers who were not necessarily gifted, and the classes were getting watered down (less critical and abstract and more focused on lots of material quickly, like an AP class). On the other hand, some were so inclusive that they were really nothing more than a regular class: too slow, with the gifted kids reading for most of the period.

I am a believer in the concept of public education, but I couldn't stay anymore, and I couldn't let my daughter stay anymore either. Hard to start a private school in the middle of a recession, but we get stronger every year!

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