My 12-year-old daughter, Anevay, loves playing the cello. Not only does she practice at home, but she chomps at the bit for her weekly instruction at Turtle Bay Music School, and, while carting around her instrument around New York City, will, when prompted, occasionally play for strangers.
A few weeks ago, Anevay helped teach other kids music theory and instruction on violin (she not only plays cello, but viola, a bit of violin, and piano) at Still Waters in a Storm, the local literacy program where she first had lessons on a stringed instrument. After some coaching by Concetta Abbate, the amazing violin teacher at Still Waters, Anevay led a small group of her peers, and helped teach a number of them about the mechanics of a D scale, note value, etc. She plans to continue assisting Concetta this autumn, and appreciates being entrusted with this important work.
Most of our friends, upon learning that Anevay’s been teaching violin, tell her, “Way to go! Awesome!”
Occasionally, however, I get a raised eyebrow. “Don’t kids need real, professional teachers?” a friend recently asked.
My answer? “Absolutely… I believe Anevay is a real, professional teacher.” See, while my kid might not have the credentials, and certainly doesn’t have Concetta’s expertise, she does have a passion for music, a working knowledge of the material, and is willing to put in the time and energy required for being one of Concetta’s assistants.
1. Kids are open to the idea that many paths can lead to the same destination
When one of Anevay’s students had a hard time following along with written music, she instead allowed her charge to learn by ear. Sounds like an easy solution, right? Wrong.
While school districts devote tremendous resources towards “differentiated instruction,” and give extensive training to teachers about how to train different “types” of learners, students are often still expected to fit into a category, whether it be special ed., gifted, or general, and are then taught in accordance to their label. Little room is given, however, to how kids learn, and what they want to learn. A kinetic learner, for example, who needs to be active as she’s learning, will end up in a principal’s office no matter what label has been forced upon her.
In the case of Anevay and the student she was assisting, many adults would have forced their charge to learn how to read music instead of letting her learn by ear. Kid-teachers, on the other hand, seem naturally open to the idea that we’re all different and that we learn in different ways. They don’t need to be taught the need for differentiated instruction. They just get it.
Let’s face it… Teaching is tough! By letting our kids assume important leadership roles and telling them that they are capable of teaching, we are telling them that we think they are brilliant, capable, thoughtful problem solvers. We are also telling them that we trust them to make wise decisions. Most importantly, because teaching is difficult, kid-teachers improve their critical thinking skills.
None of this is to say that kid-teachers don’t need guidance. It’s often up to adults to help set clear expectations, and, when needed, suggest ways to meet goals. When Anevay confided in me that she felt a couple kids weren’t paying attention, I offered suggestions of what I might do in the same situation. She applied my ideas to the situation- not exactly how I might have, but in her own way, on her own terms, she helped the students she was working with complete the task they were working on. In addition, because Anevay really had to think through what she was doing and be solution-oriented, I have a feeling that the next time she faces a similar problem, she’ll be able to solve it on her own. Awesome.
3. Kids have no expectations of their students except that they have fun as they’re learning
Schools expect that kids will graduate and get into college if they learn what they need to know in the classroom. How many times have I heard teachers and parents tell kids, “if you don’t get good grades, you’ll ruin your future!”
Adult stakeholders must often feel like they’re pulling teeth to get their students to submit homework, pay attention in class, and perform well on state exams. Grown-ups are constantly looking forward. If we learn THIS, we think, then we can then do THAT.
Kids, however, aren’t always looking ahead. When Anevay teaches music, she isn’t thinking of what her students will gain. She isn’t bothered by their futures. Instead, she wholeheartedly concentrates on the goals that need to be reached NOW. If her students are having fun and learning the lesson she’s teaching, that’s good enough. Seeing as how great learning happens when we’re enjoying ourselves, I think that we adults could afford to get a little zen, concentrate on the moment, and let learning happen.
4. Seeing other kids in serious roles makes kids take themselves more seriously
This one’s a no-brainer. Kids are taught to view adults, and only adults, as mentors. When we shift this view- and show them that kids are smart, powerful people- that they are allowed role models who look like them, act like them, have the same interests, and were born in the same decade- then they’ll not only take themselves more seriously, but will believe in each other. Who was the idiot who decided that only adults can teach children? An idiot adult, that’s who. Ask any kid and they’ll tell you that learning from other kids is pretty great. Why do we adults so often make the mistake of thinking of kids teaching kids only as play, and relegate kid-to-kid learning to play dates?
OK, I just said that kids should be allowed to take each other seriously, and wondered why we only let them listen to each other when they’re playing… But what if we took seriously the value of play? What if- instead of play OR learn, we could all play AND learn?
I remember once, in college, on a hot, beautiful spring day, asking the professor if our small seminar class could leave the stifling classroom and sit beneath a tree. “No,” he said. “We’re not a play group. It’s too distracting outside.”
For the next 55 minutes, I sat with my fellow students, each of us mopping our brows while the professor kept interrupting his own lecture to take long swigs from his water bottle. I remember thinking, “that guy’s a a stubborn idiot.”
During one of the hot, late summer days Anevay was teaching violin, she took a music stand outside, set up the sheet music, and taught a couple of kids under the cool shade of one of the trees. While cars occasionally drove by and pedestrians stopped to listen to the kids, it was obvious by looking at them that besides the music, the rest of the world had melted away. Their hearts and souls were into it…. They were laughing, playing, and yes, they were learning. It was lovely.
Thanks, Concetta and Still Waters in a Storm, for helping our young people become responsible, healthy, powerful young adults by letting them assume leadership roles as they play and enjoy learning!