There are No Stories in Songs

Kneeling on a worn red pillow as a boy named Johnathan told me enthusiastically about the strawberry seeds he had planted as part of a science experiment, I was feeling idealistic.

We talked about methods for watering, predictions for the number of delicious red fruit that would spring from those scrawny green stalks, and took the time to write it all down neatly and with correct spelling. He was happy to have someone to talk to– an excellent student often overlooked because he is so independent and prepared. He was quiet and polite. He worked with his head down. He knew how to play when it came to the rules of academia. I felt comfortable working with him because I too know the guidelines and lists and how to check them off.

Fast forward twenty minutes and the plot thickens. Working with Michael, a boy with restless legs and a buzz cut, I struggle to make up for a lack of knowledge about sentence structure that seems too far gone for only an hour’s help. How do I explain the tenses of verbs and the need for the article “a” before nouns in this short period of time–much less in a way that he can actually understand the concept? He scribbles sentences for his spelling words. He writes “I sees ranch.” He doesn’t understand that the reader can’t understand what he means. We work together to construct a sentence about ranches and horses and a trip he took to the country to see them. He hangs on for awhile and plays along, but he is soon frustrated. He is demoralized when he thinks he knows the meaning of a word only to find that he learned it incorrectly. We both feel like we are in over our heads. We keep on trucking.

Michael takes breaks from his furrowed-brow frustration with his spelling words to sing along with his friend Will to popular American songs by LMFAO and Rihanna. They know every word. At one point, Will replaces Rihanna’s lyrics “We found love in a hopeless place” with “We found love on a facebook page.” He goes on to talk about the cell phone in his pocket. This is one of the first times I have felt old. These kids are competent when it comes to pop culture and technology, but they can’t write sentences with context that demonstrates the meaning behind a list of words.

Will makes up short little rap songs about each of the words Michael struggles with. Over and over he sings: ” I’m gonna go to college and get a degree so my pops will be so proud of me.” I smile and imagine lesson plans where children could write lyrics and songs to remember their spelling words. I think of all of the possibilities for creative learning experiences. When the teacher hears what they’re up to, she tells them sternly to return to their books.

I mention the idea of making up rap songs to practice spelling words before weekly Friday tests. The two boys laugh at me.

A little girl Stephanie wanders in late and needs help with her sentences. Michael gets a break and pretends to read a book he has no interest in–flipping the pages absentmindedly. When I turn to ask him what happened in the story, he makes up a plot that I know isn’t true. It’s impressive nonetheless. Would he have gotten more out of the book if he’d actually read it, or is the fact that he looked at pictures and made up his own just as valuable?

Like Michael, Stephanie has little sense of how sentences are put together. She hesitates with every word. When I try to help her sound out the letters, she tells me; “stop treating me like a baby!” I tell her I was only trying to help and sit silently beside her–urging her to try spelling the words before asking me to do it for her. She surprises herself by getting many of them correct.

When Will is done with his homework and sitting with nothing to do, his teacher tells him he must read a book. Like so many of the children in this room, he declares that he hates to read. He claims to have read every book in the bin. He says they’re all boring. Stephanie agrees. When we finally settle on a chapter book he’s never seen, he purses his lips disgustedly and proclaims “76 pages! Are you trying to kill me?!”

I tell him he only has to get through the first 10 today. And there are plenty of pictures. He begins to read as if he is carrying out a prison sentence. When I attempt to ask him questions about the characters, he snaps at me. “I hate books and stories. All they do is ask you questions. I hate answering questions. I don’t want to do this.”

It takes me a moment to come up with something to say to this. I decide on something that relates to what I know about him personally after 45 minutes sitting near him.

“Well you like to rap don’t you? You like songs and lyrics and rapping? Those are stories too. ”

“What are you talking about? Those aren’t stories!”

Stephanie agrees. “They’re songs,” she says defiantly. “Songs can’t be stories. They’re just songs.” All of the children nod. They look at me like I’m crazy. I go on to explain that everything in our lives tells a story. That it doesn’t have to be bound in a book to be a story.

They don’t believe me.

I leave the room feeling defeated. Stephanie tells me “you didn’t help me properly!” before she flings her pink Hannah Montana backpack over her shoulder. She is angry I spent time reading with Will–a boy who didn’t want me reading with him anyway.

These kids need one on one attention and listening, but they are resistant to it. They see it as drawing attention to their academic “weakness.” They only want help that will help them to get through the ordered tasks that make up their school life daily grind. They have been taught to see no intersection between work and play. It is disheartening to find that they don’t see the stories all around them. They don’t understand how to use what they learn in a classroom in the life outside of its walls. Who are they being groomed to become?

Homework for these students has become an alienating experience. They sit down and get it done. They aren’t allowed to talk to their friends. They do it because they have to. In a radio clip we listened to in our Service Learning course this morning, a dyslexic woman attempting to change the Irish education system declared that “this system only suits about 25% of the people who go through it…we are fitting round pegs in square holes.”

What is the purpose of education today? Is it to sort people into categories–fulfilling a strange human need to divide into boxes and groups? Is there a way to cater to all types of intelligence at once? To offer choice without chaos and to aim to form happy adults rather than “productive” and “successful” workers?

I end with this thought: Shouldn’t education be for 100% of learners?

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