September 30, 2014
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Learning is a journey
Robert Houghtaling

A great amount of emphasis is being placed upon how we educate young people these days. Standards, Racing To The Top, Senior Projects, High Stakes Testing, Failing Schools, Teacher Training, etc. are all a part of the discussion. Lost in the shuffle is the fact that kids often teach the adults. This holds true for teachers and parents alike. My children, Alex and Nicole taught me many lessons. The following two are merely examples.

Many years back I left the Town of East Greenwich to work for the RI Department of Education. At the time my daughter was about 4 or 5 years old.

Part of Nicole’s childhood bedtime routine included my making up a number of stories and reading a book or two. These stories included topics like The Magic Bed, The Little Bridge, Chunky The Ghost and The Adventures of Baby Boy (a cat). Along the way there would be an object lesson or two. The books were too numerous to detail. I enjoyed the experience easily as much as Nicole (perhaps even more).

About a month into my new position, RIDE decided to send me to represent them at a forum in Washington, D.C. On top of this, I was expected to deliver a speech about Drug Prevention and young people to Educational Leaders from all over the country. It was nerve-racking, to say the least.

For days I jotted down thoughts in an attempt to sound borderline intelligent. Each attempt produced something that just did not sound right. As the day for departure neared, a waste paper basket at the bedroom’s corner began to overflow with crumpled yellow paper. The words seemed stiff. They failed to convey a message that depicted the thoughts I had about kids.

The evening before the trip, Nicole entered my bedroom and watched another futile effort. She innocently asked, “What’s wrong Daddy”? My answer was something about going away to speak to some very smart people and having nothing to say. Nicole preciously replied, “Why don’t you read them a book”? I then suggested she help by going to her room to pick one out. At least there would be 5 more minutes to jot something down again while the search was on (and changing gears might be of help). On top of this, it would be nice to read to my daughter before going away for 4 or 5 days. Call it luck. Call it genius. Call it whatever you may. When Nicole returned she brought with her The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Of all the books that she could have picked, my 4-year old daughter selected one about the power and honesty of children. Immediately I saw an opportunity to reinforce how we have to listen to kids more often. All too often adults pretend to know, without really knowing. All too often we forget how kids learn. Fun, wonder and magic need to be infused in to their lessons. The Emperor’s New Clothes, along with a young child’s effort, helped make for a nice introduction to my presentation.

A few years later, the Houghtaling clan decided to move from Warwick to a brand new home in West Greenwich. While awaiting a few finishing touches on the new home, my in-laws were gracious enough to allow us to stay with them in their condo. Living out of boxes, along with a few minor adjustments would be doable. At least for a few weeks.

At this time, I was teaching a graduate level class at Providence College. It was fun. It was challenging. It was something enjoyable and a source of pride. There were but a few short days until the end of the semester and between 12-15 students had recently handed in their major topic papers (approximately 15-20 pages each). Because of my work in East Greenwich, the reading, commenting and grading of these papers often took place at home, in the evenings.

Alexander William Houghtaling was about 5 years old during this time (much like Nicole was for her book choice). He was a happy little kid, full of energy, questions and occasional mischief. Alex also loved to draw pictures.

After a long evening of grading project papers it was time for bed. Without giving it a thought I put them in a folder to be placed on the top of the piano. Most had been read and graded. The rest could be looked at tomorrow before breakfast.

To make a long story short – Alex chose to get up early the next morning. Upon noticing that a bunch of white paper sat atop the piano he decided that drawing pictures with an orange crayon might be fun.

One can only imagine the horror that hit me upon discovering my son’s latest masterpieces. Panic, anger, fear – all set in at once. How was this fiasco going to be explained? I just looked at the papers in disbelief. But, before uttering a word, something powerful struck me. Alex had drawn numerous smiley faces on the graduate student’s papers. To compound matters at least 5 times a paper he wrote ‘I love Daddy’ (along with Mommy and Nicole). Needless to say, how can one get mad at their kid for such messages? The fact of the matter is that despite Alex’s decorating the student’s essays I was given a beautiful gift. It took me a moment to refocus, but not every dad gets a hundred beautiful messages before heading for work in the morning.

Eventually it was time to hand back the student’s work. Before doing so I addressed the class telling them that their projects were so good that an additional reader was enlisted. It soon became apparent, to one and all, that the additional reader had graded their work with smiley faces and ‘I love you Daddy’s. Thank goodness they were good sports.

These little vignettes are simple examples of lessons my kids taught me. Nicole’s innocence and honesty were reminders of how we need to listen to kids more closely. Alex’s smiley faces and ‘I love you’s reminded me to always take the time to remember loved ones, as well as look at the big picture. Alex and Nicole taught me much more along the way and continue to do so.

Adults often get caught up in politics, money, power and prestige. They also tend to rely on adultisms that many times fail to recognize kid’s needs (and how they think). All of this can lessen the importance of the adult role rather than strengthening it. Young people need limits, guidance, structure, mentors, role models, parents and teachers. They also need to be given incremental opportunities to explore, succeed and sometimes fail. Learning is a journey. Learning is a process. It should not be rushed or forced. Adults can have a huge influence if they can recall being a kid from time-to-time. Sometimes it is as easy as reading a book. Just make sure you don’t leave anything on the piano.

Robert Houghtaling heads the East Greenwich drug prevention program.


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