School's out, but not the tide of learning

It's June, and for the last several weeks at my elementary school we have been in what I call "the season of lasts."

At our all-school morning meeting Tuesday, we counted seven school days remaining. These last days are full of rehearsals, concerts, overnights, special activities, and field trips - and through these we become intensely aware of closing down, doing things on the wane, performing the "lasts" for another school year.

It happens every year, in this delightful agrarian calendar in which schools still live. In one way, it's a season ripe with fulfillment of many anticipatory plans and achievements - however, it's also not without a certain melancholy. Just when our young students fully inhabit the grade they have been labeled with all year, they find themselves stepping up to the next one. Some promotion - just when they get the hang of the job, a new assignment looms.

Kids can use a little help with such closure. I've always liked the notion of thinking ahead to looking back - anticipatory memory. In other words, imagine the following: What kind of memories do I want to create for myself as I think back on this year? It puts us in control of the final days and hours of the year, rather than allowing events to control us. In fact, it makes them feel less final, more a part of a large tapestry of lasting impressions. And remember: We're all at work being promoted to the level of our competence.

My thoughts also turn to the rhythms of learning moments in my own elementary years. Here's how I learned to ride a two-wheeler: I got fed up with the training wheels. It was not going well, riding down the sidewalk on my green and white Schwinn cruiser (for some reason, I named it "Greensleeves"), wobbling back and forth, trying to learn the concept of peddling and balance. So I decided that my fledgling days were over - I would simply ride. "Take 'em off," I instructed my dad. And despite no evidence that I could ride without them, he did. Off I went. My explorations now included the rest of our block on McDaniel Avenue. And soon I would be allowed to cross Simpson Street to my friend's house! I was getting big.

Here's how I learned the multiplication tables: much more tediously. Miss McCormack pointed out to my mother that I was falling behind in fourth grade math. "He's just got to learn his math facts," she said. I still remember, gratefully now, the evenings my mom spent with the flashcards going through those tables, and even now, when faced with a mental math problem, I can summon the vision of the "8 X 9" card for the answer. But it was time to learn them. And it took time. It was extremely necessary drudgery.

But some things can't be taught on time, or in a timely manner - they can only be experienced to be learned. We have to wait until the "tide" is right to set forth - that deeper rhythm and momentum that swirls and floats all boats. Other things can be learned on a schedule. Knowing the difference itself takes experience, for us parents and teachers, and even a bit of nail- biting anxiety and guesswork based on equal parts intuition and calculation. I'm afraid that my multiplication skills are still suspect, in my family.

Preparing to close the books on the school year invites comparison of the two routes to performance and learning. Time's up, and the tide is going out. But the tides of learning keep working regardless of the artificial and external divisions of year, grade, academic subject or curriculum unit. Some of us will take the training wheels off next year; some did it this year. Some will do so over the summer. Whether it came early or late isn't always the issue - it's that we eventually learn to ride. It's an approach that has stood the test of time ... and tide.

The eighth-graders and kindergartners at my school ushered in this school year with a new ceremony. The oldest brought flowers for the youngest, and then walked them to their new classroom to begin school. The bell was rung once for each year the eighth graders had been at the school. And when they graduate next week, we'll add five more rings for this year, one for each of the students in the eighth grade. Time's up, and out goes the tide. On Sept. 6 it will return to us, with six fresh eighth-graders who will bring flowers to eight fresh kindergartners, and walk them to class.

Between now and then there will be lots of time and numerous tides of wonderful experiences and learning.

Todd R. Nelson is principal of the Adams School, the K-8 public school in Castine, Maine.

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