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How to Succeed with Limited Life Experiences

on Mon, 07/01/2013 - 3:15pm


In 1833, Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in Ulysses:

I am a part of all I have met; yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untraveled world....

I first heard this quote, almost 20 years ago, recited by one of my very special mentors.  I have never forgotten it and tried to apply it to my teaching, and to teachers whom I meet and train.

We often think that providing classroom instruction and making sure that students master what the curriculum dictates is enough.  However, we forget about those students who come to us with virtually no experiences.  

We forget about those students who answer an old standardized test question, "Who do we go to to fix our teeth?," with the answer, "I don't know.," because they only go to the dentist to get their teeth pulled.  Or the student who answers the question, "What happens to a piece of ice when you hold it in your hand?," with the response, "Your hand gets cold.," because they have never held a piece of ice in their hand long enough for it to melt, or for that matter never participated in a science experiment.  What about the student who all of a sudden gets sick when asked to share what he did for summer vacation, because he didn't do anything?  He didn't travel anywhere.  He didn't experience anything, new.

If students are a part of all that they  have met, and they haven't met much or many, their worlds are not as big as students who have experienced more or much.  Yet, these students are expected to bring some experiences, interpreted in the academic realm as knowledge, with them when they enter school and throughout their academic career.  Most curriculums are written with the expectation that students are building upon what they already know. Unfortunately, too many children come to school without what we call "background knowledge."  It is not that they are not as smart as students who have experienced more.  They just have not had the opportunity to have those same experiences and build their knowledge base, and it shows up in their academic skills and their ability to grasp and generalize new information.

When I was growing up in Chicago, my father used to say that one of the problems with more young people being able to obtain more than their parents and create a better life for themselves is because they have not met better.  They don't know what better looks like.  The part that they have met is not that large.  It didn't make sense to me then, but it definitely does now.

Many children come to school with few experiences, and it is up to us to help them catch up.  We have to encourage them to read something on a daily basis, and we have to encourage this practice to continue throughout high school and life.  We must tell students about our experiences, travels, books we have read, people we have met, in detail.   Paint a picture for them of your travels.  Help them be a part of all that you have met, vicariously, until they can have the same experiences.  Give them a hunger for more.

Many economically disadvantaged children who grow up to become prominent, productive pillars of society, or successful in their own right, often describe a yearning for more.  They had a vision of what their life could be, or they knew what it would be if they did not expand their horizon.  Instead of considering Johnny to be, "poor little Johnny," because he cannot experience what other children can, give him those experiences, better yet, go through the experience with him.

Helping children get to the cap and gown, means more than making sure they attend class and master the curriculum.  A lot of our students need more.  They need you.

Dr. Lori

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