Dr. Judith M. Newman




[ Journal Entry ]

I want to think about two kite-making workshops I’ve done this week. The one last evening was with kids who had already agreed to be volunteers at the Kite Festival and this morning with a high school art class consisting of several kids who have no commitment to being volunteers.

Last evening the session ran itself. The ten young people (14-16 year olds, mostly girls) and five adults took a look at the kit and pretty much figured out how to make the kite themselves. The information on the kite itself is very clear. My role, John and Jim’s was to answer questions and offer suggestions when it seemed appropriate. In no time the kites were made and decorated and a couple even tried flying them.

This morning’s session was very different! I arrived as the kids (also 14-15 year olds) were coming to class and I could see straight away that we were in trouble—no engagement here. The group was also too large—we had about 30 kids; I imagine had we had them in groups of ten the whole experience would have been quite different. I began by explaining why I was there and that I was asking for their help—I needed volunteers to assist young children with kite making on Father’s Day at the Kite Festival at Assiniboine Park. I had brought along enough kite kits for the whole group but I wasn’t giving them away—I needed volunteers who would be willing to work in exchange. I could tell there wasn’t a lot of interest here. Mr. Maser, the teacher, is interested, and will arrange transportation so I’ve asked him to see if he can recruit 15 of the kids for the occasion. He may be more successful. In any case, I had no option but to engage in kite-making with this group, having come to the class.

Now the big decision. Do I attempt to make this a structured activity—leading them through the process a step at a time? I didn’t think that would work—most of the group (all but four of whom were boys) would disengage immediately. Besides we didn’t have enough scissors and tape for each individual student (I hadn’t brought any supplies because Mr. Maser had assured me he had enough—not true). So I decided to hand out the kits and ask the kids to help each other out. The instructions are written on the side of the printed kite and the markings on the paper are really self-explanatory.

It was instructive watching who was able to take some initiative and who had no idea what to do or how to watch others to discover what to do. It was obvious to me right off that it would help the process along if Mr. Maser, Wendy (a friend I’d brought with me), and I went around putting small pieces of tape along the edge of the table so that everyone had tape to append the sticks to the kite with. That actually helped a lot. We went around a second time with more tape for the kids to use as reinforcements and again a third time so they could attack the tails. I’d stop and take time to show one person what to do, making sure they were watching and were able to show someone else. That actually worked. As some kids progressed others asked for help—I did quite a bit of prompting in that regard. The hour went quickly and to my astonishment everyone actually got a kite made and assembled correctly (well, nearly—two had the tails on the leading edge rather than on the trailing edge. Having succeeded I am hoping that some of the kids will now be willing to be volunteers.

It’s tempting to think that the difference between the two groups of kids was gender—the girls are more used to doing this kind of hands-on craft and able to help others. But I suspect it’s more complicated than that. Some of the boys worked carefully and had good strategies for figuring out what to do and could show others. I suspect a good deal of the disengagement had to do with the activity going on in school and the kids expectations about how to behave with this teacher.

The experience took me back to my year teaching at Warrendale and learning how to structure very simple projects for the kids to do. This one was actually do-able; but I imagine most of these kids tune out at the first sign of difficulty—I imagine these boys are tuned out for much of their schooling. Their resistance was tangible—even though they all wanted to make a kite. I’m guessing most of these boys would be useless as volunteers because they don’t have the maturity to help responsibly. How do we help them develop a sense of responsibility?

Something I’ve come to understand about learning, very evident in young children, is that people react to aversive situations in one of two ways—by withdrawing or by acting out. Student resistance is an instance of the second—acting out against a threatening situation.

The overall demeanor of the kids, particularly the boys, was just that—an initial keeping of an uncertain situation at bay—not quite acting out, but not engaging either. I decided to handle it by not teaching kite building in a formal fashion but to let the kids figure out for themselves as much as they could, to help one another, and for me and the other two adults to provide input when it was needed. By the end of the hour the boys were behaving more sociably than at the beginning. However, I still had a hard time dealing with their behaviour. I found myself reacting to the surface stuff and forgetting what it really meant—their insecurity at dealing with something new, their avoidance/anxiety strategies. I wonder why I have such a hard time getting beneath the surface of these older kids when I’m much more able to accept and accommodate for younger ones? Gotta explore that one further!