Expecting More and Getting It
June 14, 2010 at 3:00 PM
My dad died a few months ago at the age of 93. I don't think one is ever prepared for the death of a parent even when it's expected. While my dad had become increasingly frail over the last two years, his death seemed a bit surreal to me. I was relieved his struggle was over, but I missed the dad I'd known most of my life.
My husband and I had devoted the past eight years to taking care of my dad and enriching his life as best we could. We moved him to Seattle from New York City eight years ago following a brutal stroke. Although my dad was severely physically disabled, for most of those years his mind was fully alert and he understood everything, although it would be a while before he would learn to speak again. To keep his mind active, I read aloud to him, books on politics and other nonfiction I thought he'd find interesting as well as articles from his favorite news source, The New York Times. We also did some shared reading of articles where he followed along as I read. Now and then, I would pause, show him a line and have him fill in the next meaningful word or the rest of the sentence. To make sure he was understanding what we were reading, I would ask him what the article was about, and with a very few, precise words, he demonstrated he got the essential meaning.
I learned a lot about teaching from seeing how my dad was treated in the nursing home and how little was expected of him. As nursing homes go, it was an excellent one. For the most part, my dad received expert and compassionate nursing and medical care. It was his mind, however that I worried about. The philosophy seemed pretty much to be, "Keep him breathing," with little attention to "Keep him thinking." There were few expectations for engaging him in conversation, beyond the superficial, "How are you?" or "Who's here to visit you today?" even though he was perfectly capable of making and receiving an intelligent or humorous comment.
Seeing my dad mentally starved reminded me of some high poverty schools where the credo seems the same: "Give the kids a scripted program and keep them breathing. Make sure they have a pulse, that they're well behaved, but don't worry much about getting them to think for themselves." Sadly, when I've shared this commonality between nursing homes and schools with educators, there's always instant recognition.
The head nurse, as well as my dad's physician, told me they were surprised by his progress, that they'd rarely seen anyone who had suffered such a severe stroke able to mentally function at my dad's level. I hear the same thing in high poverty schools where I do demonstration teaching in classrooms. Often, teachers say, "I didn't know he could do that," to which I respond, "I didn't know he couldn't."
I believe the gravest civil rights issue facing our nation today is how little we expect from our underserved schools and students. As one teacher once told me, "We all say we have high expectations, but the truth is the kids have to prove to us first that they are capable." Let's turn that around and really believe "they can do it" and teach in a way that respects and maximizes each individual's intelligence and potential.
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