“Every student can learn, just not on the same day, or the same way.”George Evans
I have been working in education in various capacities going on 24 years. As I reflect back on what I have learned over the years, certain conversations standout. One such conversation happened around 10 years ago as I ran into a colleague on Saturday “night on the town.”
This was a gentleman who had taught many years in a day treatment classroom at a high school I worked with. At the time, I was a general trades instructor at a regional technical school. I had many students from his classroom over the years. After some typical greetings, I brought up the topic (without naming anyone specific) of how we have both experienced students entering high school lacking basic academic skills. He took in what I said and told me how he doesn’t like to talk about “shop” outside of work, but would say one thing about the topic. What he said has stayed with me since, “All students can learn.”
Before this time, I had worked with many teenage students who could not read, lacked writing skills, and were bereft of basic multiplication facts. What I should have recognized and perhaps praised more were the skills they were learning. These students learned how to make three course meals from scratch, how to use basic woodworking tools while creating beautiful crafts, count money, and how to work with peers collaboratively. Plus, I was fortunate enough to have the vast majority of students participate in all activities. Task refusal was pretty rare.
Even with all the above mentioned success, I still tended to focus on skill deficits. Why? This may have been to my youthful drive that involved a bit of perfectionism. Also, there was this constant drive from state and local officials to show student progress on core academic standards.
We often see students arrive at Ironwood who have struggled with aspects of school. Many students have had success academically in the past, but hit an obstacle in their lives preventing them from being productive in school. Some students have fallen behind in school and have felt overwhelmed at the prospect of catching up with their peers. Part of being at Ironwood allows students to recognize how learning allows them to feel proud of themselves and realize what they are capable of accomplishing.
In all of my educational experience, Ironwood has been the one place where growth in learning is the most apparent. Time after time we see students who initially were resistant to participate in school and/or programming shine in a short period of time. We see students who never liked to read growing into voracious readers. Math is no longer a class of perpetual failure; it may actually be an area of study which may be rewarding after one realizes they are good at problem solving.
We also see students succeed in their programming. Many students arrive at Ironwood being afraid of animals and never would have thought of ever riding a horse. These same students often leave here bonding over particular animal and enthusiastic horse riders. Some arrive here having peer difficulties. During their stay, these same students learn collaborative skills and learn that they have positive leadership qualities.
What gets an individual motivated to learn? I don’t believe there is one magic answer to this. However, if one looks again at the quote at the top of this page we are reminded of something that is very important. Once we buy into the realization that all students can learn, we can guide individuals to find within themselves the gift of acquiring knowledge and allowing them the time to recognize their strengths. From an educator’s perspective, this takes compassion, empathy, respect, and patience. I now celebrate more than ever the growth of all students and truly focus on what they have discovered about themselves as learners.
Matt Littlefield is Director of Education at Ironwood