Monday, January 28, 2013

Oiling the Hinges: Nurturing the Inner Light in those who Find Book Learning Difficult

By Kirk Smothers, Upper School Director, Mary McDowell Friends School, Brooklyn, New York

The Persian poet Rumi speaks of two kinds of intelligence. The first comes from books and teachers’ lessons. It is the intelligence by which the world ranks and judges us; and with it comes the badges and certificates that attest to our achievement and expertise. The second type of intelligence is not acquired. Rather it pours out of us like a spring that cannot be kept within its banks. This intelligence never becomes spoiled; it is ageless and ever fresh.

The four walls of a classroom for many is an invitation to the life of the mind and preparation for academic success. Teachers who are adept at creating the conditions for intellectual stimulation give a great gift to learners. Not all students are alike, however, and some find that the doors that give access to the books, charts, and discourse in “school” are much harder for them to open. Students who have learning disabilities have minds that are as fully capable of curiosity and wonder as their peers, but the doors which allow them to acquire the first kind of intelligence can be heavy and mounted on rusty hinges; it takes a great deal effort and sometimes specialized help to open them.

Friends schools are well familiar with the second type of intelligence and our name for it, of course, is the Inner Light. Like Rumi’s spring, all students have an infinite abundance of light that shines brightly from their core. Friends schools that specialize in serving students who have learning disabilities, like the one where I am privileged to work, create curricula, structure programs and train faculty to help oil the hinge of the doors to book learning, while always focusing on the even greater value of the Light within.

The mission of a Friends school that serves students with learning disabilities provides a powerful confluence. In most educational environments, students who have LDs are often spoken of in terms that fall on a pejorative continuum. At the less judgmental end, these children and adolescents are referred to as slow, unmotivated, lazy or unfocused. As part of my position, I read many applications for admissions and often the narrative reports of teachers contain phrases such as, “Susie would be a good math student if she only applied herself.” At the harsher end of the continuum, the words are much more pointed, such as dumb, stupid or incapable. Imagine what repeated instances of either softer or the harsher versions does to a student’s self-esteem over the course of years, even for the brightest students.

In a Friends school, our predisposition is to see That of God within every single student. At a Friends school that provides specialized educational supports, we fully acknowledge the difficulties our students face in traditional academic learning. Our first practical effort is to identify where a particular learner’s challenges lie and the onus is on our teachers, specialists and administrators to provide that student the tools to be successful. We believe in our students’ innate worth and unique gifts and we do all that we can to oil the hinges of the heavy doors that block their way to the types of achievement recognized by the greater world. At the same time, we recognize that the spring of a student’s innermost being is a profound source of life and growth that nourishes both the self and all of the neighboring gardens as well. We create environments that provide appropriate challenges, opportunities for authentic accomplishments, and enable students to recognize and embrace their innate worth and that of all those around them.

Monday, January 14, 2013

What is the locus of a school?

By Paul Lacey, Retired Earlham College professor
A Quaker school had a student die in a car crash. It happened over the weekend, so the news was already known to many students when they arrived Monday morning. As a faculty member told me, when the students arrived they went directly to the meetinghouse. I know of no other details: how long they stayed, whether anyone spoke, whether those who attended felt it "a gathered meeting." What catches me is that an upper school of students, very few of them Quaker, many not especially religious, knew without instruction where to go and what they needed, in a time of grief. The meetinghouse was familiar and beautiful and they were there once a week for meeting for worship. Knowing so few details, I might be tempted to make more of it than the participants did. "See, I told you they remember the school meeting for years to come." But the event does not require turning into a lesson. May students have not known any death close at hand. This was the first time they had been together since their classmate’s death. By habit they went where sitting in silence allowed fellowship and reassurance in sharing fear and grief together.

At Earlham, our response to a serious event is either to stand in vigil around the Heart or to go to the Meetinghouse. On 9/11, we did both. The Vigil was a public, silent response to our national horror.
What happened in the meetinghouse was what we always experience in terrible events. Some people are moved to speak. Many are moved to tears. Someone may begin a hymn in which we join. We begin the work of channeling anger and sorrow into strength.

What happens with us happens in many other Quaker schools and communities. (And in so many other places, or God help us.) Most of the time, our place of focus is probably the classroom, the library, the dining room. These are where we do our most important work, see each other familiarly. If you need to find a colleague, those are the places you look first. Confronted with tragedy I think the locus of our deepest experiences together shifts. We practice waiting in silence to gain the strength we need. The Quaker school that helps its community to learn and practice the habits of attention, listening and silence can help them find a deep locus of meaning.