A while ago, I heard another story about string that made me think about how we do things in education. This time, it wasn't about time travel though (but wouldn't that be cool!). Instead two men were talking. One of the men was trying to persuade the other in his opinion of a topic, and the second man responded by telling him, "Don't push me." He didn't want his friend to give him the hard sell in his persuasive argument. The first man promised him, "I will never push you in regards to this subject."
After several weeks, months, and possibly years, the first man brought some bailing twine along with him. He kept it in his pocket until the end of a casual conversation when he pulled it out and innocently fiddled with it in his fingers. When his buddy asked him about the twine, the man laid the string out straight on the table and explained: "If I grab one end of this twine and push it off the edge of the table, the resistance I get just causes the twine to get all bunched up into a big mess, but if I take the end and pull it, the twine follows along in a peaceful manner." He said, "I promised I would never push you on this topic, but I will pull you in hopes that you will follow." Pretty soon the second gentleman was more willing to pursue a respectful conversation with his friend until, ultimately, he came around to his friend's point of view.
These men were conversing in regards to a religious subject, but I think the illustration explains a better way to teach and persuade. I have students who are eager to step out of their comfort zones; they aren't afraid to plunge into deeper waters and work hard to swim. Then I have students who are scared to get their toes wet; they won't even consider working hard. They are satisfied with their current state of achievement and see no way forward. While the others will dive in and swim laps around the pool, these have consigned themselves to sitting in a deck chair and watch.
A teacher can attempt to force a reluctant child into the water, throw them into the deep end and hoping they will dog paddle back to the edge, spitting and sputtering once there, or the teacher can instill a love of challenge and and inspire the kid to muster the guts and the desire to try something for himself. With the former, the instructor must continually battle with the child, repeatedly muscling him back into the water. The resistance to this method is strong, and more often than not, the child quits altogether. With the latter, the child does the work because he wants to do the work. He gets in the water because he is inspired to get in the water. He ventures deeper and deeper because he is curious. He succeeds because he wants to feel successful. Not only that, but once he feels that growth and victory, he wants to feel it more and more. In many cases, this child becomes unstoppable.
The bailing twine analogy helps me understand how this process works. It also helps me understand what is happening when I have successfully lifted a child from the funk of academic depression (when I have pulled them along), as opposed to the times when I have tried to force a kid to do something before his attitude would allow him to try something difficult. It is something to comprehend as I continue to evaluate my teaching methods even after all of these years.
For me, it's not about finding a scientific approach to teaching kids to read and write. It's not about tricking kids into tackling assignments. It's not about hitting them common assessments, sticking with some pacing guide, and staying on the same page with my colleagues across town. It's about changing mindsets in my students, helping them understand that they have a family culture in my classroom, and that we celebrate with mistakes are identified and when mountains are climbed. I will try to maintain that trajectory as I enter my 32nd year of teaching.