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Disrespected, Underappreciated, Underestimated

When my son was in 5th grade he was assigned to read (over the course of a semester) about a dozen “chapter books” from a group of books carved out for his class in a special section of the library.  At that time, Curtis was not a reader, and the after-school coaxing match to help him find something he wanted to read from that special section was not a contest either one of us was enjoying.  My parental embarrassment gauge spiked when I visited the classroom midway through the contest and noted that all of his classmates had numerous stars behind their names, streaming across the posted chart on the wall, and Curtis had none.  None!  His father and I were avid readers and we couldn’t understand why this fine example of parental modeling wasn’t transferring into a household of kids (we had four) tripping over each other because their noses were in books.
On another note, Curtis loved planes.  He could look up in the sky and identify the type of airplane flying over, offering information about the make and model, along with weight classification, performance characteristics, and identifying statistics.  He acquired this unique talent from his father, who also loves and can identify any craft soaring through the skies.  One evening, his father was sharing with Curtis some fun facts he had learned about Chuck Yeager (retired brigadier general, test pilot, and the first to break the sound barrier) from the autobiography he had just finished reading.  Curtis was spellbound, and the conversation went on for quite a while.  He asked if he could read his father’s book.  Overhearing the conversation, I scoffed in my mind at the idea that he could read an adult 342-page autobiography when I couldn’t even get him to read an excerpt from the Box Car Boys.  To my astonishment, his dad handed the book to Curtis and he immediately sat down and began reading.  For the entire weekend, Curtis only pulled his nose out of that book to tend to his most basic needs.  He was hooked, and he finished reading the last page late Sunday night with a sense of excitement that I had never seen before about searching for his next reading adventure.
I probably don’t need to tell you that I proudly marched him into school the next morning, autobiography in hand, to share with his teacher his great accomplishment.   After a brief discussion in which Curtis regaled her with facts from his weekend of reading, she pulled the coveted packet out of her desk drawer and promptly pasted a line of gold stars across the empty row following his name.  We were all elated, and it was the beginning of an insatiable appetite for reading as Curtis began selecting more and more adult books that captured his interest.  

I share this story with you because it came to mind once again when I recently read a wonderful article written by Mark Prensky, “Our New Global Empowered Kids, and How Educators Can Help Them.” Prensky is an internationally acclaimed speaker, author, innovator, and consultant in the field of education.  I have heard him speak and have learned a lot from his words.  His opening statement in this article totally took me by surprise. Prensky writes, “It is no exaggeration to say that the world’s kids, from roughly 6—18, are the most disrespected, underappreciated, underestimated, and yet – potentially – the most powerful group in the world for our future.”  

It is easy to see how they are potentially the most powerful group in the world for our future, because they are our future.  Ready or not, the future of the world will be in their hands.  But, disrespected, underappreciated, and underestimated?  I needed to read on.  Here’s my understanding of Mark Prensky’s reasoning:

  • Disrespected – we think for them.  We impose our expectations on them, and we define their goals.  We don’t listen to our young people enough, or ask their opinions on important issues.
  • Underappreciated – we rarely give them credit for all the things they accomplish. Their technology skills, and organizational skills when using their technology are impressive, but we rarely reward the initiatives they take outside of the classroom.
  • Underestimated – we hardly ever let them reach the full potential of what they can do.  Prensky notes that, as parents or teachers, we hardly ever ask them to find real problems and solve them because we feel a need to leave the real problems to adults.  We hardly ever say to them, “Surprise me!”
In prior memos you have read my concerns about parenting, and that we are raising this generation of young people to be dependent, soft, and helpless to face life’s challenges on their own because we protect them from all the bumps and bruises in life’s path that would otherwise make them strong.  We rush in to save them from every possible adversity so they never experience sadness, embarrassment, or failure.  And, as a result, I worry for the future. Well, I need to amend that diagnosis. I learned from reading Prensky’s article that the issue I am championing is the wrong issue.  It is not that we are raising a generation of soft, dependent children; rather, the concern should be that we are failing to notice the wealth of talents that our children possess.  We cajole them to read chapter books when they can devour autobiographies!  We defend the results of their shortcomings when we should be teaching them to overcome them. We set their goals for them both at home and at school.  And, it is not nearly often enough that we note the uncanny ability they have to explore, create, and innovate on their own.  The problem is that we want them to be working at something altogether different. Could it be that we spend too much time telling them what to do, rather than letting them show us what they can do?

I love Prensky’s message: “In this new technological age we are starting to see, around the world, the emergent beginnings of a new kind of empowered young person with a new relationship to their educators, and to their own educations.  For now it may be only glimmers here and there, but the cumulative effect is very powerful.  It will, I predict, become stronger and eventually, the norm – if the kids learn to believe in and use their new power, and if we don’t continue to do our best to – and succeed at – squashing it.”

At St. Martin’s we are empowering our students of all ages with the very opportunities which Mark Prensky describes.  We are providing them new relationships to their educators, and to their own education, through the Gibbs Family Center for Innovation and Design, our Mobile Idea Lab, and our International Student program.  In doing so, we are setting them up to successfully guide the future of the world by providing for them a deeper understanding of the world they are living in.  Adding the ability to work alongside their teachers and peers to design and prototype solutions to real world problems in our Center for Innovation and Design will expand their capacity for critical thinking, team building, and problem solving.  What an incredible achievement it will be when we learn to trust the natures of these talented students and guide them in finding the capacity of their own wings to soar and to reach the heights they are destined to reach! 

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