Nancy’s art classes were famous for helping students of all ages discover their creativity, and in the process, become proficient at using a variety of media to express their artistic visions. But, Harry, age 10, was a challenge for her. He plunged into each project energetically and worked quickly with great focus, but after fifteen minutes would lose interest. Encouraging him to stick with it did not work.
When Harry’s mother told Nancy he had ADHD, her first reaction was why didn’t you tell me sooner? Her second was to decide that since Harry was incapable of staying with a project longer than 15 minutes, she would allow him to quit in the middle and move on to something else.
This strategy, however, proved frustrating; Nancy could see it was not helping Harry develop his considerable artistic ability. She began to search for an alternative approach.
She discovered it in her own practice of journaling, a way to give the mind a chance to process artistic ideas freed from the need for a PRODUCT.
That day she introduced her new approach to the class. “The mind is a much more powerful tool than we know, and we often fail to use all the power we have because we allow ourselves to get into ruts. Today, I want to give you a new discipline—a technique for getting out of mental ruts. I want you to work on your project for 15 minutes and then stop, open your journals and write or draw in them for at least 10 minutes and then go back to your project.”
All the students, including Harry, got down to work. After fifteen minutes Nancy said, “O.K. go to your journals.” Of course, this time Harry was not ready to stop. Nancy gave it five more minutes and then said, “O.K. Everyone should be in their journals now.” She had to go over to three students (including Harry) to get them to take their journal break (which is what she was already calling it.)
After ten minutes of journaling she invited the students to go back to their art projects; some, including Harry stayed in their journals. Five minutes more, and Nancy told them to again go back to their art projects. At the end of the 90- minute period, Harry held up his finished painting, beaming with delight.
Epilogue: The next day in math class, when Harry got stuck on a math problem, he asked his teacher if he could write in his journal, and she agreed.
Of course, the game is not over. Harry is still learning better ways to create works of art and Nancy is still designing disciplines to help Harry learn. But Nancy is playing the right game, and Harry is learning.
What are the ingredients of success?
a) Nancy’s puzzlement at Harry’s brain b) Nancy’s trial-and-error process
c) Noticing and respecting how Harry naturally worked
d) Thinking that what might work for Harry might also work for the class
f) Hearing that Harry has ADHD
All of the above, of course, but the least of these is “f.”
Mel Levine, founder of All Kinds of Minds, used to say “Go directly from description to prescription. Skip diagnosis.” Maybe skipping diagnosis is too radical an idea given the way school systems work, but what is more valuable, finding a name for what’s wrong, or helping a student discover what works? A teacher’s job is to help students get their brains to work for them; the curriculum is the vehicle for making this happen.