Sunday, November 7, 2010

Links in A Wonderful Chain of Circumstance

If you have read either of my blogs very much at all over the past several years, you know that I love and make much of those seemingly unrelated circumstances in which one thing leads to another, and ends up making a beautiful pattern upon one's life. So it is in this entry.

This American Life:  “Going Big”.  For several years, after being introduced to it by Terry when we first started teaming in the spring of 2007, I have listened to the weekly public radio program This American Life on XM Radio. It is by far my favorite program of any kind on radio or TV. For the past couple of years, I have downloaded the weekly podcast of the show. I usually put several shows on a memory card, and Terry and I listen to the show when we are both up and awake on the road.

Several weeks ago, during one of our TAL marathons, we heard an episode that originally aired in 2008, “ Going Big”. The first segment in that program is about the work of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone.

I was riveted to my seat as I listened about the pioneering work being done with children and families in Harlem, and I immediately began to assimilate ideas from what they were doing with what I eventually want to do with Our House, as well as in my current work with Jon through Big Brothers.

The segment on TAL was based on a book written by Paul Tough . . .

Whatever It Takes.The book of that title tells the story of the work of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone. I found it and checked it out from the library the next time we were home.

One of the most life-altering parts of this story was a section in the book in which Paul Tough does a survey of various views and studies from the past 40 or 50 years looking at the causes and possible solutions to endemic poverty, especially in urban settings. Some of the more recent work focused on children and how and why some children perform better in school than others, including in standardized testing used to gauge progress of children across the country.

What these studies reveal, and one of the core focuses of the work of Harlem Children's Zone, is that the primary determining factor for how well children will eventually do in school, and, typically, in later life, is the verbal stimulation or lack of it and the type of verbal and personal interaction children are exposed to in the first three years of their lives.

Let that sink in: the words a child hears, the kinds of words they hear, and the level and type of direct interaction a child has with his parents before that child turns three in large measure determines the chances that child has for the rest of his life.

There are many reasons for this, perhaps, but one of the most interesting elements of how all this works is the fact that during those formative years, a young child's brain is still literally growing and developing, creating the neural pathways in the brain that will be the foundation for the rest of that person's life. And a primary driver of how many and what kind of connections the brain forms are literally words – the amount and the kind of words.

As a Christian who believes that the Bible speaks a great deal about the importance of words and their power to create and destroy, this information took on even greater significance for me, especially as I think about the work I have done and want to do with children and families – the work I'm doing with Jon right now.

It makes the importance and responsibility of being a parent or other influence in a young child's life take on even more significance than I had imagined. And a primary driver of what direction that influence and parenting will take is based on something we rarely even think about: words, verbal interactions, reading, and all else associated with those things.

Waiting for Superman.  So, while I'm reading, thinking about, meditating on, and praying about what I've digested in Whatever It Takes, last weekend after my time with Jon, I decided I might like to go to a movie. I got online and was thinking about going to see The Social Network, so I was checking showtimes for that.

I glanced down and saw a movie I'd never heard of:  Waiting for Superman. The description said it was a documentary focusing on educational reform. It was produced by the same folks who made the documentary (which I haven't seen) An Inconvenient Truth.  Since all this stuff from the book was still on my mind so strongly, I decided to see what they had to say in this movie.

I couldn't believe it when the documentary first started: the first voice and face I saw was Geoffrey Canada, who was one of the major focuses of the movie's discussion of pioneers and reformers who are leading the way in transforming the education of young children. Talk about getting my attention!

The documentary was excellent and it continued the process I had begun with that episode of TAL in focusing my thinking and ideas around this issue, and what I eventually would like to do with Our House.

A Chance for Application.  I've heard many times, mostly in the context of biblical truth for Christians, but it's equally applicable to other contexts as well, that “it's not the truth you know but the truth you apply that changes your life.” In other words, it's not enough to get information and knowledge, but what you do with it, how you incorporate it into how you live your life, that makes the difference.

Another way I've heard it expressed is the difference between simply having information in your head and a living understanding in your heart. Until something gets into your heart, where the rest of your life is centered and from which all else proceeds, good or bad, it makes no real difference.

So I've got all this information and it's challenging my thinking and has huge implications for the way I will approach the work of Our House one day. But what am I going to do about it now, what difference is it really going to make in my life right now?

Enter Jon. Ironically, at just the time I'm encountering all this, Jon's grandmother tells me that the one area he needs help in especially in school this year is reading, vocabulary, verbal skills. Anyone who is around me even a little while knows that reading is one of the passions of my life, as is writing; well, anything to do with words.

So the stage is set to put some of these things into practice in the small scale work I'm doing with Jon here in Topeka. It will be a classroom for both of us. I will keep you posted.

The Power of Influence.  I include this in a separate section because, even though it involves Jon, it doesn't have anything to do directly with what I've been talking about in that very cool chain of circumstance, and took place a while before I heard the program on TAL that started that process.

A few weeks ago, Jon was having some problems in school, both behavioral and academic. One day when I went by Jon's house for our regular time together, his grandmother told me about what was going on, and she told me she was at a loss about what to do, and she asked me for my help. She gave me copies of all the daily progress reports from this school year so far in order that I could see exactly what, according to his teachers, he was having difficulties with.

Jon and I hung out at the house for part of the day, and while we were working on other things, I had a chance to read through all those reports. And I was left wondering just how I thought I could make a difference in this situation. I mean, I'm not around during the week when Jon's in school, so tutoring him in a traditional sense was not an option. And we're only around each other a few hours a week on the weekend, and a few minutes on the phone during the week.

Then, that brought to my mind the even larger questions about how much influence on Jon's life I could really expect to have. I mean, he loves me, respects me, and he enjoys the time we spend together each week as much as he enjoys anything else in his young life. But, against the backdrop of all the other influences in his life, how could I imagine I could make even a ripple on the surface of his life for the long-term, and especially in something so central as his education?

My thoughts had taken a rather negative turn, as you can tell, and I was frankly discouraged, and felt really helpless and powerless. That in spite of the fact that over the past twenty-five years working with kids and their families, I know first-hand the power of influence one can have for good or ill on other lives.

So, as I was sitting there reading all this stuff, every once in a while glancing up at Jon who was working on some kind of art project with glitter glue, I prayed, asked God for ideas and wisdom for this situation, and trusted that he would somehow influence me so that I could influence Jon.

I finished reading all these reports, sighed, closed the folder, and looked over at Jon. I called him over and had him sit down across from me, and we were knee-to-knee, eye-to-eye, face-to-face. I told him I'd just read over all the things from his teacher (he was there when his grandmother was talking to me about all this, so he was aware of this).

We talked about the difficulties he was having, and about different ways of handling frustration, anger and disappointment. I encouraged him to ask for help before it got to the point that all his emotions fought their way out in acting out or other behaviors.

I told Jon that I would be keeping up with how things were going at school. I told him that I knew he could do his best – and that all he needed to do was the best he could do. (One of the problems he was having was caused by frustration in feeling like he was falling behind the other kids, and he would just get to the point of giving up and quitting altogether.) I encouraged him to not compare himself with the other kids and how he thought they were doing, but to do the best he could do, ask for help, and that would be good enough.

I told him that if he could do his best, and could try the different ways to deal with anger and frustration that we had talked about (we even role-played a little bit), over the next few weeks, at the end of that time, if he had shown some progress, we would do something special that we wouldn't ordinarily do. I didn't have a clue what that would be, but I thought I would have time to figure it out.

All that was just sort of a shot in the dark. I didn't know how much, if anything, would even be in Jon's awareness come Monday morning when school started.

The next Sunday, when I went by his house, I pulled up and Jon came running out the door yelling, “ Allan! Allan! I had a good week in school!”

So it began. I hugged him and told him how proud I was of him. That was over a month ago. Since that time, he has not had one negative report from school, he's been doing his work, making progress, and asking for help. Every time we talk on the phone or see one another, the first thing he tells me is that he's had a good week that week at school. All confirmed by his grandparents and teachers.

So today, we did our special thing: we went to Kansas City to Dave and Buster's and spent the whole afternoon playing video games, having fun, laughing and celebrating.

Never underestimate the power of influence and how much of a difference you can make in another person's life.

That's it for now. Until next time . . .