Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made. Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
-Henry David Thoreau
Kids who march to the beat of a different drummer – our classrooms and schools are filled with these kids. In fact, my home even has a couple of these kinds of kids – my husband (the adult “kid” in my family) and my eldest son (now a young adult). A friend and colleague shared the term “Sideways Kids” with me – a very appropriate way to describe the “out of the box” individuals who sometimes challenge us as teachers, as parents (and as spouses!)
When I think about the school experience for both my husband and my son, it is safe to say that the traditional classroom setting did not consistently serve either of them really well. While each possess incredible language and communication skills – both being avid readers and having outstanding comprehension, problem-solving and critical thinking skills – they also have a very low threshold for boredom. This is typical of the “Sideways Kid” – that student who picks up on new ideas and concepts easily, who demonstrates creative ability and strength in figuring things out for themselves. These are the kids who often challenge us to explain the reasons behind why we do what we do – and who, in my opinion, are at risk for leaving the world of “formal” learning behind just as soon as they have the opportunity because the education system has tried to sort and process them not as individuals, with unique skills, talents and abilities, but instead has pressured them to conform to the status quo of the classroom. My son, the “Sideways Kid”, who taught himself how to play a number of musical instruments, to write songs, to compose his own arrangements and to record his music, wrote a song in his grade 12 year entitled Our Last Year as Cattle. I think it describes, extremely well, the way he felt about his formal public education experience.
How many “Sideways Kids” are in our classrooms, daydreaming, wishing they were somewhere, anywhere, else but sitting in that chair day in and day out hearing the same old messages about their school performance. Words like “what’s wrong with him?”, “why isn’t he motivated?” “why doesn’t he try harder?” “why doesn’t he pay attention?” are common themes throughout the years of teacher conferences and report card comments; or worse, these are the kids who are labelled “attention deficit”, “oppositional defiant” or “lazy”. I believe that there is absolutely nothing wrong with our “Sideways Kids”. In fact, there is something wrong with our assembly line, factory model classrooms and schools if we fail to serve the needs of our “Sideways Kids”. These kids have the potential to be the innovators, the problem-solvers, the creative and collaborative “right-brained” thinkers that will be needed to lead our communities into the future. Our school systems cannot lose these gifted individuals. We must re-create our schools to serve their diverse needs.
How can we do this? There are so many great ideas out there for how we can tap into the passion and talents of our young people. This year, our school experimented with one of these ideas - Innovation Week. It was an amazing way for our students to become highly engaged in their learning through a week long exploration into a topic of their choosing. The results of this endeavour were overwhelmingly positive and we learned, as a staff, that our students are capable of so much when we give them the opportunity to pursue something they care about. Since that week long experience at our school, I have been thinking about ways that this kind of learning could become more integrated into the daily and weekly learning that takes place at Greystone. Recently, I came across this video that shows a High School pushing this notion of providing students with interest-based learning even further.
After I watched this, I wondered how much better my husband and my son’s school experiences would have been if they had the opportunity to learn this way.
How many other “Sideways Kids” would re-engage in the notion of lifelong learning if this was their experience at school? I can’t help but get excited about the possibilities for all of our kids if we were to infuse more choice and personalization into our programs.