Friday, June 03, 2011

Fiction becomes Nonfiction

M received a school assignment that disturbed him. "Write about what it would be like to visit cousins living in another country. You don't speak their language, so how do you talk to them? How do you tell them you want to play outside? When you're ready to leave, how do you tell them you had a good time?"

M is in first grade. Aside from the difficulty of the assignment for a child of this grade, M is in the unusual situation of having such a story be NONfiction. When he came here, he met cousins with whom he did not share a language. He had to communicate daily with preschool peers who didn't speak Russian. So how did he react when given this assignment? He refused to do it. He curled up in a little ball and rocked. He wouldn't say a word.

My last entry described how M's teacher doesn't seem to understand how trauma affects kids. The assignment I described above was given for a sensible reason--they'd been imagining visiting schoolchildren in Japan--but, geez, did she have to give the assignment worded that way?

Now, Peter and I don't want the world to adapt to our kids; we want our kids to learn to adapt to their world, which is not always friendly. So I really wasn't sure how to handle this assignment. But M's reaction and my disgust with the teacher's callousness made me decide to offer M an alternative assignment. After all, the teacher had once said that the real purpose of these at-home stories was simply to get the kids to love writing. M clearly didn't love writing about this topic, so I felt it was within my rights to allow him to choose another. When I told him this, he uncurled and started a draft of a story about a tiger meeting a mouse.

The following morning, I casually asked M and K at breakfast what it had been like to attend preschool without being able to speak much English. K said, "Fine. I just played with everybody." But M said, "Embarrassing. Some kids made fun of me."

I hadn't known that. I told him I was sorry that had happened and I gave him a hug.

That afternoon, I read the scary assignment to him again. I left out the part about visiting "cousins." He responded, "Mom, that's so easy! I can do that!"

"Great!" I said. He took out his favorite pencil and started to write. I asked, "Do you know why you couldn't do it yesterday?"

"Because it was too hard yesterday," he replied.

Must be nice to be 7, I thought. A hug from Mom can solve your problems.

By the way, the teacher's response to all this? "Overcoming difficulty is part of learning."

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