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Teaching Students to Have Patience in the Presence of their thoughts

August 28, 2012

The above title is lifted from a line in a recent New York Times article by Verlyn Klinkenborg. He asserts that most of today’s students are not receiving the education they most need: learning how to trust and value their own thinking. It’s true. Too often educators simply ask students to spew forth the proper information in the proper format to get the proper grade, thus never training them to compose their own thoughts with their own sentences for their own pleasure.

As a college writing teacher, one of the first orders of business with my freshman writers is to shake them loose from their formulaic, Stepford-Wife approach to the task. “I’d rather you write something interesting than something perfect,” I announce. When they hear that, most of them look at me like I just cut in front of them in line at Starbucks. This inoculated majority is cut off from their own minds. As Klinkenborg puts it, they have “a fear of the dark, cavernous place called the mind.”

So I try to push them into the murky unknown, equipping them to play with language in their heads, mentally crafting thoughts into sentences. This requires them, Klinkenborg says, to “learn patience in the presence of their own thoughts.” To his point I’d like to add an important sub point: the surest way to teach young people to think patiently is for parents and teachers to be patient with their clumsy attempts at profundity. This is especially true with the weakest writers; many of them have never had an authority figure who valued what they thought or said. How can we expect them to come into our classrooms with confidence in their words?

When my sons were seventh-graders, they were invited to take the ACT test as part of the Duke TIP 7th grade talent search program, based on their PSAT scores. They scored 20 and 21 on the English portion of the test. Compare their scores to the college freshmen in my remedial writing classes (students scoring between a 16 and 18 on the English portion of their ACT), and you’ll find my thirteen year old sons scored between two to five points higher than my eighteen year old students. I’m not pointing this out to disparage these students, but to paint a stark picture of the situation, and to ask this question: what did my sons receive that these students did not?

For me, the answer to that question is not as obvious as you might think. Sure, things like reading to my children when they were young and making sure they do their homework come to mind, but many of the practices of parents who instill a rigorous engagement with thoughts and words in their children are second nature. We usually learn them from our parents who learned them from their parents. Subtle talk about things learned at school, meanings of texts, songs or movies, political goings on, even the trials and tribulations of friends – these little conversations add up to an invitation to thoughtful reflection, a charge to our children to see and ponder the world in which they live.

In my family of origin, the supper table was home base for these conversations. Every evening at 5:30 sharp, all seven members of the family gathered around the table to give thanks and cogitate. My dad, never short on opinions but by no means a demagogue, drove the conversation around the table, engaging each of us in his or her own way. Of course I didn’t realize it then, but my dad was teaching us to think, freeing us from any fear of venturing inside our own heads. The thing is, I don’t think my dad realized what he was doing either. He was just being himself, doing what his parents (mostly his mom) had done with him.

Most of us who inherit such a legacy are unaware of the richness of our upbringing. Some people even seem to think their sharp mind is the fruit of nothing more than their own hard work and natural brilliance. Even worse, some teachers seem to believe this, regarding their struggling students as simply lazy or stupid. That’s a crime whose victims are robbed of the opportunity to realize their intellectual potential. It shouldn’t be so. Everyone in the teaching profession can point to parents, caregivers or teachers who nurtured their thinking along the way. One would hope that memory would produce a humble gratitude, and that gratitude would lead to patience with students who haven’t been so fortunate.

Unfortunately many parents and teachers don’t understand this concept, so struggling students arrive at school distrusting teachers and, even worse, distrusting themselves. I can’t tell you how many students express shock at the level with which I engage with their thinking in their essays, often telling me no teacher has ever responded to them in that manner. I hate that they have come so far in life without anyone managing to rev their cognitive engine, but I count it a challenge and privilege to find the key that will get their mental motor started and keep it running strong.

I remember one particular student last fall; he was an artist from Memphis, sporting a large afro and a mellow smile. He typically wandered into my 10:00 class late, bleary-eyed and seemingly unconcerned with what was happening. That type of nonchalance usually can’t pass a Comp class, which requires regular attendance and consistent effort, but I managed to draw his interest enough that he hung on and turned in the first major assignment – a personal narrative. And it was exceptional. The writing was technically a little rough, but the “street” style and depth of insight in his urban story were brilliant. I felt a little like I was reading the first work of a young James Baldwin. I gushed over the essay in my written response and again as I handed it back to him. Then a funny thing happened at the end of class. He approached me with a bemused look on his face and asked “Did you really like my essay that much, or are you just messing with me?” He wasn’t kidding. He couldn’t believe that it was that good. Apparently no one had ever recognized his talent. “Your writing is so fresh, man, it pops off the page. Will you read your essay to the class next time we meet?”  He smiled and nodded.

Do you think his attendance and promptness improved? You bet it did, dramatically. He started trusting his own thinking, believing in the power of his own words. I only hope he finds other teachers who will continue to see past his shortcomings to his immense potential, helping him develop patience in the presence of his own thoughts. He deserves as much, as does every student under our care.


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  1. This post is profound. As someone who regularly engaged in conversations around the dinner table and was included in the dialogue regardless of how naive my opinion may have been at the time, I think it allowed me to trust my instincts and not merely memorize what was said to me by teachers. Everyone has a valid point of view and their own experiences. They just need to have the freedom to tap into that at an early age. In my day, I remember showing up freshmen year only to have professors tell us, “none of that 5 paragraph essay stuff you learned in high school.” That really loosened the restraints. I admire your teaching style and think the educational system could use more thoughtful, encouraging educators like yourself who allow students to realize their full potential.

  2. Loved this. Thanks for sharing it with us.

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