Accidents can lead to greater understanding.
On an overcast day in 1896, Henri Becquerel accidentally discovered spontaneous radioactivity. Madam Marie Curie’s discovery of radium also came about by accident. So did Fleming’s discovery of penicillin – by accident. Likewise, I became interested in the study of learning – by accident.
This accident occurred when I was working as a counselor at the North Lindenhurst Youth Center. I can now say the kids at the center represented a heterogeneous spectrum. At the time, these kids were just simply referred to as motley.
This motley crew was from the other side of the highway. I was from the other side of the tracks. The other side of the highway was much worse.
What amazed me most about this crew was their ability to learn almost anything they wanted. Unfortunately, it wasn’t Algebra or Biology. It was foosball and billiards; and I marveled at what these kids could do at those activities.
The angles they controlled on the felt. The spins they put on the ivories.
One day, I watched as a 14-year-old named Johnny controlled the foosball table. What was to follow came to be the greatest foosball move I ever witnessed – before or since!
Johnny controlled the ball with his far defenseman. Slowly, he positioned this defenseman to the right of his own goal. Next, he positioned his goalie directly behind his defenseman – in straight alignment. The scene looked as if he was going to shoot the ball at his own goalie – which he did, in lightning speed.
As the foosball ricocheted off the back wall, Johnny pinned it with his goalie. Slowly, Johnny crepted the ball up the wall until the goalie rested parallel to the playing field and the ball rested on the plastic goalie’s back legs.
With care and precision, Johnny advanced the goalie and ball to the left – over his own goal. Then, with the flick of the wrist, the ball sailed in the air, above the foosball table, with perfect projection and velocity, and landed in his opponents net.
The practice to perfect such a feat must have taken Johnny hours. If he only put that much effort into his schoolwork, I thought, Johnny could be an engineer! A CEO!! A College Professor!!!
For what was true for Johnny was true for all these kids.
Be it foosball, pool angels, joint rolling – whatever, these kids developed the patience, docility and relative quiescence for success in each task.
So why weren’t they successful? I remained baffled. Then, the accident occurred.
One day before work, I had to pick-up my mom’s dog at the vet. Things took longer than expected and I had to make a choice: Bring the dog home and be late, or bring the dog to work.
The dog was a Golden retriever named Buttercup. Buttercup loved kids, so I chose the latter.
The dog received a royal reception.
Buttercup was accepted and cared for by most every kid – except for those fearing that she a drug-sniffing K-9. Simple questions were soon asked: Is it a boy or a girl? What’s its name? How old is she? What kind of dog is it? Is she really a narc-dog?
Day 1 ended a success. The dog wasn’t set on fire and even better, the topic of conversation finally moved from sex, drugs, and Metallica to questions and answers relevant to a present topic – even though the topic was a dog named Buttercup.
The next day, I went to work without Buttercup.
However, she was still the topic of conversation. So, I started bringing her in for weekly show-and-tell.
Soon, I felt myself gaining the trust of these kids. As I did, I began to ask them questions about their school careers. Few had any positive stories to share. Most hated school. All felt stereotyped or left out.
Overtime, Buttercup retired.
Later, I would bring in different pets: my red-eared sliders, my Garter snake, and my friend’s parrot. The kids would touch and hold and interact with these animals. Slowly, our conversation moved from MTV to PBS as the activities moved from indoors to the out-of-doors.
Skateboarders started noticing the environment that surrounded them as they sailed through intersections. Head bangers – at times – removed their headphones to listen to a bird sing. Diesel heads started finds science bitchin’!
Later on, I was no longer the focus of information. More important, the conversation at the center expanded. I was amazing, a miracle discovery, an accidental espial that has led me to the investigation of learning through STEM in the classroom.
No miracle cures were found by any of these kids. In fact, most still hated school. However, for a moment in time, I struck gold in the minds of some forgotten youths.
Today, I cannot say I have all the answers, but I am closer to understanding hands-on learning that I was back then.
What I have learned from this experience and research that followed is neither innovative nor original. In fact, the technique I used in the rundown Youth Center is as old as the ancient Greek ruins from where it was first used.
However, did learn two things: (1) children are stymied by stereotypes – those given and those perceived; and (2) nature can be a powerful catalyst for learning science.
I believed by educating all grades in science about the environment that surrounds them with hands-on experiences (in and out of the classroom), we can break the chains that bind, and produce positive-learners who will retain more and practice more of what they learn – if you only let them.
Taken from James’s upcoming book: WHY CAN’T JOHNNY?
James Henry is the author of Corporation YOU: A Business Plan for the Soul, ‘Twas, and the new book series Hail Mary. For six years, James taught At-Risk kids in Los Angeles. Today, he lives in New York where he continues to write — and teach. To contact James or book an interview, please contact Mark of Goldman/McCormick PR at (516) 639-0988 or Mark@goldmanmccormick.com.